The Technology of 2018
It was a year of disruption, innovation, and increasing skepticism for the technology world.
It has been a year of reckoning for the once-beloved titans of Silicon Valley. Last January as I reflected on 2017 I wrote Technology’s Broken Promises where I explored why I believed the tides of favor were turning against the tech world. I concluded that article by saying 2018 would be the year to “admit that the investors, CEOs, and entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, as a class, have failed us. But it’s also time for engineers, product managers, designers, and other highly compensated employees to take a hard look at our own impact in the world and start asking ourselves hard questions.” I believe that in 2018, that happened. Tech workers got political and there was strong pushback on the idea that the future should be built primarily by technologists.
Google, Microsoft, and Amazon all saw employees start to organize in opposition to the questionable business practices of their employers. Machine learning experts condemned the use of AI for government surveillance and military operations. Google employees organized to oppose Project Dragonfly and the complicity of Google with government censorship. Amazon and Microsoft employees organized to oppose the JEDI military contract, and the selling of Amazon’s Rekognition to the police and the military.
Tech workers also organized around social issues at their workplaces and in their cities. Google employees walked out for a day over Google’s mishandling of sexual harassment which included multi-million dollar severance deals for some high profile employees who had harassed, assaulted, and manipulated women in the workplace. In San Francisco new taxes were assessed via proposition C. The measure raised taxes on the city’s biggest businesses to improve mental health services and shelters in an effort to curtail the extreme homelessness that continues to grow more stark.
Social media and other advertising giants such as Google and especially Facebook have been embroiled in controversy over what is being called the surveillance economy. I wrote a number of privacy focused articles in 2018, arguing that paranoia is now a best practice for denizens of the internet, wondering how much proposed remedies such as VPNs actually help, and exploring the field of cybersecurity in more detail. In the wake of so many data scandals, some have called for a data bill of rights to protect citizens against government and corporate overreach in an increasingly digital world. 2019 will surely include more regulation following in the footsteps of the GDPR, as well as more privacy and security scandals.
Biotech is in the middle of its own reckoning in the wake of the first genetically engineered humans being born. The primary researcher on that project, He Jiankui, was detained by the Chinese government after he announced that twins had been born with a genetic modification to give them immunity to HIV. Ever since the CRISPR breakthrough, the genetics community has been in a state of ambivalence, oscillating between excitement and concern. As I wrote earlier this year, the future of biotechnology holds enormous promise — such as the ability to eliminate genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease — but also a flood of profound ethical questions about what we ought to do with our newfound genetic powers.
The biotech firm Nectome was featured alongside He Jiankui in MIT Technology Review’s worst technology of 2018 for their service to euthanize you in order to preserve your brain. The company’s primary offering is “perfect” brain preservation but unlike other immortality efforts such as cryogenic freezing, Nectome’s service is 100% fatal. The company promises that when the technology to reanimate you becomes available they will do so, making the huge assumption that they’ll still be in business by the time that technology arrives. I think Nectome is profiteering on euthanasia, and that their spot on MIT’s worst of 2018 list is well deserved.
Blockchain sentiment reached fever pitch in 2018 only to see it’s hype bubble burst as mainstream organizations like BlackRock evaluated then pumped the brakes on plans to release a cryptocurrency ETF. Nevertheless, the technology is clearly a disruptive one. Cryptocurrency is changing the way criminal enterprises do business as well as creating innovative opportunities for website operators and hackers to generate money through malware. But, I also argued that the technology has been domesticated by governments and mainstream businesses even though the leaders of the crypto space continue to style themselves as revolutionaries. 2019 may bring a new killer blockchain application or maybe it will fizzle as people continue to realize that trust is a pretty good way to do business.
Quantum computing saw a major breakthrough when Urmila Mahadev published her Ph.D thesis, which is a solution to the quantum verification problem. While the existing hardware for quantum computers is not yet powerful enough to run Mahadev’s proposed algorithm, theorists believe the hardware will catch up in the next 5–10 years. Quantum computing will be highly disruptive when it becomes mainstream. Researchers continue to demonstrate “quantum advantage” in more areas of computing and communication, bringing the promise of instantaneous communication but also serious privacy concerns regarding quantum computer’s abilities to break some important encryption algorithms.
No one knows for certain what the future holds, but 2019 is shaping up to be another roller coaster year in the technology world as we continue to wrestle with the implications (good and bad) of humanity’s relentless thirst for change and innovation.