Top 5 Tech Surprises of 2016 (Updated)

…plus predictions for 2017

1.Autonomous vehicles start getting real

The conventional wisdom was that autonomous cars would take a long time to deploy and would be a luxury feature for private car owners. Instead, we saw rapid technology innovation and capitulation to the idea that fleets will first deploy autonomous vehicles. Think ridesharing and freight service.

Tesla, Google, Uber, and auto makers hit major milestones getting to full autonomous vehicles. GM was the most aggressive in realizing it was behind on tech and business model. They overcame their NIH (not invented here) and bought Cruise (autonomous), Sidecar (ridesharing), and invested in Lyft. Otto, an autonomy startup bought by Uber, did the first commercial autonomous freight delivery on a large semi-truck.

In 2017 I see continued advancements in technology and the first commercial passenger trips on fully autonomous vehicles with no driver.

2. Internet media is YUGE!

We knew this would be a big year for internet media because of the election, but wow, what a year. Internet media didn’t just affect the election, it resulted in shots fired in a DC Pizzeria, a Pakistani minister escalated nuclear threats. Facebook admitted it had responsibility to slow the spread of fake news and took first steps to help. The line between manipulation and transparency was tested by Russian hackers and Wilileaks.

In 2017 we will come to terms with the fact that we have to fix internet media. We fixed email spam. We can fix this. If you want to help, let me know.

3. Virtual Reality bites

2016 was supposed to be the big breakout year for VR with the release of many headsets and content. Augmented reality (AR), meanwhile, was supposed to take longer to get to fruition.

Then Pokemon Go happened. Easy to build content (apps) on a cheap widespread hardware platform (smartphones) beat out sophisticated and high resolution content on purpose built expensive hardware (content on VR headsets). We re-learned an old lesson: PC v. mainframe and Mac; Internet v. ISO; VHS v. Betamax; and Android v. iPhone.

In 2017 we will see dedicated VR and AR headsets continue to struggle while apps and AR/VR hardware for smartphones get better and better.

4. Space available

Some ideas have been dreams for decades and two of them became reality in 2016. SpaceX did a successful vertical landing of a rocket, creating a pathway to make space more accessible by reducing the cost of launch. And a small private company, Lunar Express, got the rights to land on the moon, paving the way to a whole new way to explore other things in our solar system.

In 2017 we’ll see Virgin Galactic launch its first space tourists, starting with founder Sir Richard Branson.

5. She is always listening

We entered the year still thinking “privacy is dead.” But some things happened in 2016 that are freaking people out. There was the Russian hacking the Democrats and disclosure of billions of accounts hacked at Yahoo and elsewhere. We also saw that governments have a long reach into our lives. The US government insisted that Apple change its software to allow access to someone’s private phone and Facebook cooperated with the Chinese government to change its software to suit Chinese control. Finally, the Snowden movies (see both the Hollywood version and the documentary if you can), drove home to everyone how vulnerable we are.

During the Apple v. DOJ debate, I kept wondering about my new Alexa device from Amazon. It (she?) is always listening for the command prompt, “Alexa.” If a government could demand that Apple and Facebook change their software for higher levels of surveillance and control, why not ask Amazon or Google to modify their in-home assistants? Well, it is kind of happening in 2016. The first subpoena was issued to Amazon asking for information from an Alexa device. It’s not a request to actively record, but watch for that in the future.

In 2017, with a Nixionian president in office with the powers of the NSA, we’ll see cybersecurity adopted by liberals in the same way gun sales spiked after Obama’s election. Overblown? Maybe. Like the Snowden revelations, though, by the time you know about it, it will be too late to protect yourself. So now is the time to get on encrypted messaging like Signal or Whatsapp, get a VPN (virtual private network), and change your friggin passwords to something better.

Have a beautiful, peaceful, prosperous 2017.

And change your passwords, really. There are some surprises you really don’t want.

Update (Jan 3, 2017): I just went through many of the security improvement steps on this excellent Medium post and suggest you do too.