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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Tech year in review: Shout-out to suspicion and system errors

All around us, computers made strides forward in either guessing what we wanted, or doing things on our behalf

Apple's new iPhone X offers a face-recognition feature. Getty
Apple's new iPhone X offers a face-recognition feature. Getty

Traditionally, an end-of-year recap of 12 months in the world of technology tends to celebrate human ingenuity and all its positive effects. This, however, was not a feel-good year; new gizmos, apps and services tended to be greeted by doubts as to whether they were really for our benefit, or merely for the benefit of the companies who produced them. That kind of cynicism has always existed among industry critics, but this year saw suspicion and concern among people who would normally feel enthused by technological innovation.

That isn’t to say we stopped spending money. Wearable technology – particularly smartwatches – may have fallen short of mass market appeal once again, but public enthusiasm for voice-powered assistants such as Amazon Echo and Google Home continued to grow. Part of that was down to savvy marketing, but there were technological improvements, too, Microsoft claimed this year that its voice-recognition system now has an error rate of just 5.1 per cent – comparable to human transcription – while assistants have simply became better at assisting. Fondness for Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana grew as deep learning techniques resulted in fewer errors and reduced frustration.

But the genre was by no means flawless. Samsung’s voice assistant, Bixby, was poorly received, while Amazon’s Echo Look, a “hands-free camera and style assistant” offering fashion advice, prompted puzzlement best summed up by Ars Technica’s Jeff Dunn. “The idea of paying $200 [Dh734.5] to be judged on your appearance by a semi-intelligent assistant with a massive stake in getting you to buy new outfits is just nonsensical,” he wrote.

All around us, computers made strides forward in either guessing what we wanted, or doing things on our behalf. The most striking manifestation of this was in Phoenix, Arizona, where Google’s self-driving car project, Waymo, began testing driverless cars without any human supervision. As these kinds of technological leaps were made, voices of caution would regularly sound; not just in terms of human safety, but also the wider issue of decisions being taken by computers and the rationale behind the algorithms that power them.

Waymo's fully self-driving reference vehicle, Firefly 1. Courtesy Waymo
Waymo's fully self-driving reference vehicle, Firefly 1. Courtesy Waymo

We must not, critics said, accept algorithms as inherently wise. “[They] are not neutral,” wrote Engadget’s Chris Ip, “and the reason they’re biased is that society is biased.” The debate over whether artificial intelligence (AI) will have our best interests at heart, became heated in late July as the outspoken CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, publicly voiced his worries over “the risk … to human civilisation” – but Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg dismissed this, assuring the public that for his part, at least, AI was about “making people’s lives better”.

Facebook, however, would struggle to prove itself as a wholesome benefit to society in 2017, and Google and Twitter didn’t fare much better. All three firms were summoned by the United States Congress to testify over Russian influence in the US presidential election last year, and all three admitted that ­Russian-bought ads had attempted to affect the vote.

Politics was just one strand of concern, alongside the promotion of fake news stories, inappropriate children’s entertainment, the proliferation of online harassment and many others. Blame for this was levelled at the culture of Silicon Valley, from its hell-bent commitment to growth at any cost, to its notable lack of diversity. An illustration of the strength of feeling surrounding this issue came in the form of an essay by Google engineer, James Damore, who questioned the value of diversity in the ­workplace at great length. He was dismissed by Google, ­transforming him into both a figure of derision and a cause célèbre overnight.

Away from the controversy, some notable products were making their way into stores. The Samsung Galaxy S8 and the iPhone X were lauded for their design and their capabilities; multiple sensors and powerful cameras transformed these high-end smartphones into potent “augmented reality” devices.

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The much-discussed “notch” at the top of the iPhone X was home to an array of sensors that could, according to Apple, enable the delivery of new services and new entertainment; examples included seeing what particular items of furniture might look like in your living room, or placing friends and fictional characters in the same virtual space. That notch also facilitated Apple’s new facial- recognition system, Face ID, prompting debate over the safety and security of facial recognition in a consumer product.

In this particular case, Apple was able to reassure the public that it collected no facial image data, but concern over personal data collection now hovers over every new, cloud-connected product. The question of how much data companies possess and how they store it, is raised every time a security breach hits the news; well-publicised cases in 2017 included Equifax, Yahoo and Uber (which had a stinking year for many reasons, from the potential loss of its London licence to the resignation of its co-founder, Travis Kalanick).

These concerns over the vulnerability of data prompted interest in the amorphous concept of the blockchain, a digitally verified ledger that has found its most famous use in the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. The inability of most of us to understand how the Bitcoin works didn’t stop its value from rocketing towards the end of the year, as investments were simultaneously encouraged and cautioned against.

Bitcoin has engendered a feeling among many of its users, of them not knowing exactly what they’re playing with, but that sensation extends across many technological developments this year. As complex questions are raised about the effect of technology on our future, the subsequent debates tend either to be improperly conducted or savagely curtailed; this certainly happened earlier this month, when the US Federal ­Communications Commission decided to dismantle its rules over net neutrality, paving the way for US internet service providers to prioritise or block particular apps or websites. This, campaigners say, will have a chilling effect on the freedom of the individual. Whether 2018 will see the concerns of individuals prioritised over technological corporations will entirely depend on whether human beings choose to take it lying down, or to stand up and fight.