After long being more hype than reality, technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and self-driving cars started becoming more mainstream and commonplace in 2017. So, too, did the digital currency bitcoin, along with other cryptocurrency- and blockchain-related innovations.
Over the past year, though, some of the biggest names in tech lost quite a bit of their luster. The "MeToo" movement outing sexual harassers and abusers revealed the misogynistic underbelly of Silicon Valley, while ongoing revelations about tech's role in spreading widespread misinformation saw Facebook, Google, and Twitter hauled out to testify before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
The last 12 months also underscored just how big the threats of hacking, ransomware, and other malware have become. Like McDonald's, the online world's malicious actors can also brag, "billions and billions served."
Meanwhile, a host of other 2017 developments -- from Apple's 10th-anniversary iPhone X to the corporate world's embrace of digital transformation -- have set the stage for more innovations to come in 2018 and beyond.
So what were some of this year's tech news highlights and lowlights? Let's take a closer look.
Social Media Meddling, Fake News
Following the surprise election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency in November 2016, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it was "crazy" to suggest his social media platform played any role in the results. As more and more evidence emerged about the intentional spread of misinformation and manipulative content via online outlets, such as Facebook, however, Zuckerberg this year acknowledged his company needs to do better.
So did other organizations, such as Google and Twitter -- kind of.
"Although Twitter has been fighting the problem of spam and malicious automation for many years, in the period preceding the 2016 election we observed new ways in which accounts were abusing automation to propagate misinformation on our platform," Sean Edgett, Twitter's acting general counsel, told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism on Oct. 31. "Among other things, we noticed accounts that Tweeted false information about voting in the 2016 election, automated accounts that Tweeted about trending hashtags, and users who abused their access to the platform we provide developers."
Google understands that any misuse of its platforms for this purpose is a serious challenge to the integrity of U.S. democracy, Richard Salgado, Google senior counsel for law enforcement and information security, told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism on Oct. 31. However, Google saw a "relatively limited amount of activity" in enabling Russian misinformation campaigns ahead of the 2016 election, he added.
Just last week, Facebook announced two changes aimed at reducing the spread of misinformation on its platform. Rather than using "Disputed Flags" to indicate content that is suspect -- a strategy since shown more likely to enhance than deter belief in false information -- Facebook will now show related articles designed to "give more context." The company said that it is also launching an initiative to better understand how people decide which online information to believe.
Silicon Valley Loses Its Luster
While tech giants were being scrutinized for their roles in spreading "fake news," many in 2017 also came under fire for enabling sexual discrimination, harassment, and even assault.
Uber in particular saw a dramatic shakeup after software engineer Susan Fowler published a blog post in February recounting her experiences with workplace misogyny at the company. Following those and other accusations, founder/CEO Travis Kalanick resigned in June.
In August, a leaked "manifesto" written by Google software engineer James Damore took the company to task for what he said was a cultish approach to diversity, and cited since-debunked research to justify treating men and women differently in the workplace. Damore was fired shortly afterward, and three women who once worked at Google have since filed a class-action suit alleging that the company systematically discriminates against female employees.
In 2017, Google was also sued by the U.S. Department of Labor, which has been seeking employment data from the company to determine its compliance with equal opportunity requirements.
Meanwhile, hacks, ransomware, and other online threats now affect millions and billions of users of technologies such as Equifax (more than 143 million accounts exposed), Yahoo (3 billion accounts breached), and others (a database of 1.4 billion user credentials in unencrypted cleartext recently discovered on the dark web).
Artificial Intelligence and AI Speakers Flourish
In 2017, voice-activated intelligent digital assistants, such as Amazon's Alexa, have reached an ever-wider audience through devices such as the Echo, Echo Dot, and Echo Plus. Other devices, such as Google Home, were also finding their way into more people's residences, while other intelligent assistants are increasingly showing up in cars, workplaces, and other spaces.
Earlier this month, for example, Microsoft said it was bringing new AI capabilities to its Bing search engine and its Excel spreadsheets. And Google recently launched new AI-enabled apps for photos and videos.
Enterprise-focused applications. such as Salesforce's software for customer relationship management (CRM), are also getting a boost from machine learning, machine vision, and other types of AI tech. In November, for instance, the company announced a number of new services and updates designed to deliver "smarter, more personalized digital experiences that place the customer at the center of their business."
Blockchain Goes Big
While it's been around since 2009, the digital currency bitcoin became something of a mainstream phenomenon -- others called it a mania or a bubble -- over the past year. Originally created to enable exchanges online without control by central banks, bitcoin this year became more of an investment strategy for people who saw its value rise from $964 in early January to nearly $20,000 in December. After crashing to below $13,000, the cryptocurrency has since rebounded, although it remains far below its brief high.
The idea behind bitcoin -- verifying transactions through a digital "blockchain" -- has also led to other cryptocurrencies, along with new strategies, such as initial coin offerings (ICOs) and distributed ledger technologies (DLTs), for industries, including financial services and supply chain management. Both ICOs and DLTs saw plenty of activity in 2017, as did new bitcoin futures trading by the Chicago Board Options Exchange and the CME Group.
"The past 12 months have seen a range of patent applications focused on cryptocurrency or blockchain applications, including some from notable firms such as banking giant Bank of America and credit scoring giant FICO," Coindesk's Nikhilesh De reported Tuesday. "In sum, the flow of patent filings witnessed in the last year demonstrates that some of these major businesses are seriously weighing how the tech could change how they operate -- or, at the very least, serve as a basis for new intellectual property."
The Future Arrives
During 2017, other innovations arrived that will likely set the stage for even more advanced technologies in the year ahead. For example, Apple said its new iPhone X -- launched in November and featuring facial-recognition biometric security, new virtual reality capabilities, and animated emojis -- represents the "future of the smartphone."
Meanwhile, advances in self-driving technology, robotics, and analytics promise new levels of intelligent automation to come. While such innovations will enable numerous new technologies and services, others worry they might also worsen some of today's social ills, such as income inequality.
"The critical challenge of automation is likely to be in distribution rather than production," according to a new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research. "If the benefits are fairly shared, automation can help build an economy where prosperity is underpinned by justice, with a more equitable distribution of wealth, income and working time. But there is no guarantee that this will occur. Managed poorly, automation could create a 'paradox of plenty': society would be far richer in aggregate, but, for many individuals and communities, technological change could reinforce inequalities of power and reward."
Image credit: iStock; Artist's concept.
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