2018 in review: hopes for Hyperloop the only good news for tech
A look back at the year’s biggest tech stories
A look back at the year’s big technology stories is often a chance to marvel at the ingenuity of the world’s geeks in bringing the future into the present.
Yet arguably the most spectacular tech story of the year is almost old-school, as it centres on that age-old dream of getting from A to B as fast as possible.
Since the concept was unveiled by Tesla founder Elon Musk in 2013, hyperloop technology has been talked about as the next revolution in transport, with pods whisking people through sealed vacuum tubes at up to 1,200kph – far faster than a passenger jet.
Mr Musk’s ironically named Boring Company spent the year working on tunnels at various sites in the US, and in April its rival, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies revealed plans for a hyperloop link between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
With the first segment scheduled to open in 2020, this could slash travel times between the two emirates from more than an hour to minutes.
In October, HTT achieved a major milestone by revealing its first prototype passenger pod, which will carry about 30 passengers on a test track in France.
But in what has emerged as a key theme in tech stories this year, the transition from dream to reality has proved harder than expected.
This month, Mr Musk unveiled a test tunnel for a much more modest, car-based network beneath a motorway in Los Angeles. But further development of even this low-tech, low-speed forerunner of the hyperloop has already been hit by delays and law suits.
Mr Musk is hoping to build more tunnels elsewhere, but with sceptics also raising doubts about those plans, it is still possible that the Emirates could host the world’s first commercial hyperloop system.
When it comes to other game-changing technology, however, this year was something of a bust. For its gadget of the year, the top pick of one UK national newspaper was a hairdryer. Yes, it uses some fancy aerodynamic effect, but it still only dries hair.
From drones to smart phones, e-cars to VR there was a distinct sense of deja vu, and a sense that the geeks have just run out of ideas.
As one reporter at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas put it: “It’s less ‘Whoa, that’s awesome’, and more ‘Whoa, do we really need this?’”
Take smart-home technology. This trope has been around for at least half a century with companies promising us bright, shiny futures in homes that would transform our lives.
Quite how was not entirely clear because the tech simply did not exist. But now it does. And it’s still not clear.
One leading consumer goods maker at the show boasted of how its products are no longer merely Wi-Fi enabled – so last year – but also feature artificial intelligence.
In a demonstration, an AI-enabled washing machine was shown solving the enormous challenge of deciding when and how to wash a gym kit.
A similarly smart fridge showed off its ability to use automatic product recognition that allows it to “see” when food is about to expire, and suggest a meal out of those ingredients.
Quite what the AI would rustle up from, say, an orange, half a tin of baked beans and some mayo was never revealed.
That is not to say the year lacked examples of tech affecting our lives. On the contrary, there were plenty. That’s because 2018 was the year when many of us gazed on the connected world being created by the world’s tech behemoths ... and did not like what we saw.
Routine system upgrades by banks and telecoms companies showed their breath-taking ability to render millions of smartphones useless in a flash, while vast data breaches gave criminals access to the personal data of hundreds of millions of people.
Meanwhile, social media apps sparked a pandemic of fake news, with sometimes murderous consequences.
But it was also the year in which the cheerleaders of connectivity felt serious push-back from the public and politicians.
Having presided over repeated scandals involving personal data of millions of its users, Facebook’s growth in new users slumped and its stock price plunged by a third.
It is a similar story with the other tech behemoths such as Alphabet, the parent company of Google, and Amazon. Many experienced double-digit hits on their share prices – partly because of mounting public concern at their way of doing business.
Politicians also lost patience with the tech industry. Facebook and Google chief executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai were hauled before the US Congress to account for themselves.
Meanwhile, new EU legislation came into force in May. The General Data Protection Regulation is capable of imposing fines on any company in any country for negligent use of data on EU citizens. For the likes of Facebook, those fines could top $1 billion.
Concern over the role of social media in fake news also soared this year. From the spread of political misinformation to mob killings in India sparked by false rumours, there is now intense pressure on social media platforms to stem the tsunami of lies.
In his testimony to the US Congress this year, Mr Zuckerberg indicated his belief that the pandemic of fake news will be cured by that tech panacea of our age, AI. But this year will also be remembered as the one when the dazzling image of AI began to fade.
The death of a pedestrian in Arizona hit by a self-driving car last March focused attention on the wisdom of trusting AI in such complex tasks, although paradoxically, it now seems AI’s full powers had been deliberately reduced by its human creators.
Science fiction writers have long warned about how bad things happen when humans try to imbue computers with intelligence. But the take-home message of this year is that geeks think they know what is best for the rest of us.
And some seem keen to create AIs in their own likeness.
In June astronauts aboard the International Space Station took delivery of an AI called Cimon, designed to act as a personal assistant.
All went well at first but in an eerie echo of the rogue computer Hal in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cimon started to go off the rails during a public test.
First it ignored direct orders to switch tasks and seemed annoyed when told to behave. Then the somewhat creepy face on its screen insisted: “Be nice, please”, before asking “Don’t you like it here with me?”
Unless the technorati learn the lessons of 2018, ever more of us could start to feel the answer to that is: “No, not really”.
Robert Matthews is Visiting Professor of Science at Aston University, Birmingham, UK
Updated: December 25, 2018 09:27 PM