Welcome to the CFoW’s 2018 wrap up!
2018: the year the public woke up to its vulnerability to technology. Those hearings in the US and the implementation of GDPR across Europe attracted the attention of the masses as our screens clogged up with ‘please accept our cookies’ pop-ups and our feeds with endless Zuck memes…Whether you’re an ardent techie or still type with one index finger, it was impossible to ignore the furore around data ethics and privacy.
2018 will go down as the year the first steps were taken towards a more responsible, transparent governance of the technologies, IP, and companies that run our lives. So much is at stake - the trillions of dollars of economic value, the workings of our economy, our societies, and even our minds - that this is a ground breaking year.
When we look back, these days will be seen as a crucial turning point towards our future as we collectively looked up and thought, “Hang on a minute. This doesn’t feel right?” We’re beginning to get a little smarter each time one of those cookie messages avails our eyes. So, with that, as the festive season approaches, the CFoW has got together to present to you with our 2018 naughty and nice list.
Sit back, relax and read our best and worst tech takes of the year – what excited us, what unnerved us. We banned explicit mention of Facebook & Cambridge Analytica but it was inevitable that the majority of WORSTs talk to the misuse of personal data and our damaging dependence on technology. Looking at the best of the BESTs is cause for celebration though – new toys (flying cars, 3D printing), bringing people closer (virtual travel) and giving back to society (cleaning oceans, low emissions become a key KPI): tech ticks all the boxes this festive season.
So take a break from the frantic present wrapping, sit back, relax and enjoy…
BEST: Growing Signs of “Ethical Tech.”
In 2018, we saw the first steps toward developing an ethical approach to data-driven products and services. In November, the UK Government established a “Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation,” one of the first in the world. The centre will play a key role in advising the UK government on the measures needed to ensure the safe, ethical and innovative uses of data and AI across society. Expect to see more firms create like for like multidisciplinary boards that will impact technology investment and its adoption. These boards will oversee the strategic use of data and could comprise economists, philosophers, lawyers, and customer representatives.
WORST: Correlation Between Excessive Social Media Use and Mental Health
The worst and most dispiriting trend of 2018 is the recognition that social media can damage our children’s mental health. Evidence mounted in 2018 that excessive social media use, especially among children, is leading to depression, anxiety, sleep problems, eating issues, and even increased suicide risk. There’s a reason why the world’s technology titans don’t allow their kid's screen time at home and restrict the dopamine hits that our cleverly designed apps enable. Social media is changing childhoods, and the news from 2018 shows we are all finally waking up.
BEST: SpaceX’s “Starman”
In February, accompanied by the shimmering soundtrack of David Bowie, Elon Musk & Co. launched the amazing Falcon Heavy. Its crescendo of elements -- from blastoff, jettison, a Looney Tunes-esque double re-entry and landing, exploding center core, and then… What?!! The nose cone is opening! A flying Tesla is emerging! Starman! On video loop! With the whole earth unfurling beneath him! – made all hyperbole totally warranted. But at what price? Musk later said 2018 “has been the most difficult and painful year of my career”. Let him puff his blunt and relax a few minutes: after Heavy Lift, the moon, Mars, and the stars await…
WORST: Paradise Lost
Late 2018 saw California burn – again. Only 200 miles from Silicon Valley, the town of Paradise was vaporized in the Camp Fire, and nearly 100 souls are dead or missing. Hullaballoo in the Golden State about “digital this, digital that” runs rampant, but with apologies to hip-hop’s Nice & Smooth, a year went by and “Ain’t a damn thing changed”. Despite realizing digital shortcomings from 2017’s seemingly epoch-marking Wine Country fires, problems with mass-notification, integration of mobile apps, deficient emergency warnings, etc., the tragic lessons learned from it weren’t put into practice. Wake up and smell the smoke, Silicon Valley; we can do much, much better.
BEST: Tim Berners-Lee Starts Building Again
We owe many thanks to genius inventor Tim Berners-Lee for World Wide Web – arguably the largest and most complex and powerful machines ever devised by humans.
However, on 2018, after more than 20 years of watching his invention evolve, he is now saying, “The web [has] failed instead of served humanity.” He is doing more than talking. In fact, Berners-Lee is trying – via his Solid coding initiative and Inrupt, the associated services company – to re-make his invention, but this time in a way that gives users – us – more agency over our own data.
Will it work? Who knows, but a version of this will. What makes this a Best of 2018 is that one of the greatest technical minds in history recognizes our need for an Internet 2.0, and he’s gone back to work to create an upgrade built more around how all humans live, shop, bank, heal, and connect to each other.
WORST: Soul Hacking
The Old English ancestor of the word “soul” is sawol, meaning the "spiritual and emotional part of a person, animate existence; life, living being."
In 2018 it became obvious that powerful algorithms and huge amounts of data, coupled with a more deep and nuanced understanding of human cognition, make it possible for companies to “hack” our minds (and perhaps our souls?). Now, with or without our informed consent, others can nudge what we think, feel, and even how we act.
People within these companies are not wilfully nefarious or criminal, but there are literally dozens of groups monetizing our data (what we’ve called “Code Halos”), with more forming each day. We’ll look back in rage at 2018 as the year we all recognized how powerful, pervasive, and ungoverned these systems have become.
BEST: “What’s a straw, mom?” (7 year old, 2050)
Lisa Svensson, the UN’s oceans chief, declared plastic pollution to be a planetary crisis in December 2017. Since then, the world has woken up to the exacerbating reality of plastic pollution in our oceans. We’ve all felt it – fellow commuters frown at plastic water bottles, whilst those with reusable coffee cups (especially the collapsible ones) share smug smiles.
There’s been a global mindset shift on plastic waste and the tech sector is wading in (excuse the pun). Google have recently announced a new $25m fund, Impact Challenge, for businesses using AI to address environmental and social issues. I’ll raise a (reusable) glass to that.
WORST: Alexa: one step forward and two steps back
This year scepticism surrounding devices like Alexa blew up as it emerged that the device had recorded a private conversation and sent it to a random number without permission. Alexa picked up a series of non-existent instructions not once, not twice, but four times.
The question of privacy is important, but I have so many more… Is Alexa the right tool to teach our kids to communicate? How are we going to define the boundary between efficiency and laziness? Why aren’t these devices gender neutral?
All I want for Christmas is a human-to-human conversation.
BEST: To Mars and Back
The age-old science fiction dream of flying cars became a science reality in early February of this year when a Tesla car was launched into space. While many people questioned the purpose of launching a car into space, it was indeed a definitive moment in space travel and exploration that triggered the next stage of the race into space and will serve as a case study for future commercial space ventures. Space tourism will one day be a multi-trillion-dollar industry and we are now one step closer to making it a reality. To help support this emerging industry, we have developed a new job, Flying Car Developer— a role that will make the impossible possible in the next 10 years.
WORST: The Best and Worst Times of Carlos Ghosn
The news of auto industry titan, Carlos Ghosn’s arrest for defrauding Japan’s tax authorities set off alarm bells in corporate headquarters all over the world. His arrest sent a jolt not only through the auto industry, but across all industries, raising serious questions about corporate governance failures and a lack of transparency and accountability. The Ghosn shock offers a valuable lesson in corporate responsibility to companies across the globe and emphasizes the importance of decentralizing executive power for better governance oversight, as well as the need for corporate governance reforms in the times to come.
BEST: 3D printing goes mainstream in 2018
3D printing is beginning to changing our world. 3D printing has been around for a while, but 2018 saw the technology go mainstream. The market for the 3D printer industry reached $7bn this year and advancement in the technology including greater accuracy, higher resolution, and cost effective metal printing, has allowed 3D printing to become a viable option for producing end-use parts. This has radically changed the perception of the technology which was previously only used for prototyping. This year the hype has become reality and we as consumers are now able to benefit from usable, custom 3D printed objects.
WORST: The fall of Bitcoin
In 2017 we witnessed the metoric rise of cryptocurrencies, with Bitcoin growing by over 2,000% to max out just shy of $20,000. Traditional currency was set to be replaced by its digital, cryptic cousin. But oh, how the mighty have fallen, as I write this Bitcoin sits at just $3,799 and a quick search of Reddit post on cryptocurrencies reveals ominous titles including: “Reddit users share suicidal helpline on cryptocurrency page after bitcoin price crash”. So what prompted this crash? Well part of the issue was adoption not meeting the expectations of speculators. If 2017 marked the rise of bitcoin then 2018 has certainly marked its fall from grace.
BEST: Shell shines
Shell's approach to senior leader compensation is my favorite development in the world of business for 2018. The oil and gas company announced a plan to tie executive pay to leaders’ ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the company. Setting three to five-year pay-linked targets adds immediacy to the matter without making it a knee-jerk reaction. The move is a vanguard step that stands as an example for corporate responsibility across all industries. Ethical data use? Diverse hiring and promotions? Sustainable energy use? If these issues are more than just talking points, Shell has provided the standard for corporations to put their money where their mouths are.
WORST: Algorithms of Oppression
“...artificial intelligence will become a major human rights issue in the twenty-first century.” This premise is one of many topics at the intersection of tech and humanity that Safiya Umoja Noble tackles in her book Algorithms of Oppression. Whether through face recognition software failing to work on minorities or sexist hiring tools, there is evidence that the algorithms we increasingly rely upon are not nearly as unbiased as advertised. The lack of emphasis on ethics and equity in relation to AI and algorithms is the most disappointing tech trend in 2018 and shows no signs of slowing down.
BEST: Virtual Travel
The virtual reality “flight” I took with FlyView Paris in September. Whizzing across the roof tops of the most beautiful city in the word - past the Eiffel Tower, over the Siene, up to Montmarte - brought home to me just how incredible this new dimension is going to be, given due time. Cynics and sceptics (and financiers) may still sniff and yawn (and cry) as the kinks are worked out, but all of them are on the wrong side of history. I talked to Tom Stoppard in 1975, saw Elvis Costello in 1978, met Marc Benioff in 2000, and Demis Hassibis in 2018. I’d put my ten minute trip right up there, alongside those lifetime highlights; moments where I saw a brief glimpse of the future to come …
WORST: Jekyll and Hyde
I’m all in favor of experimenting on the edge of tomorrow, but He Jiankui took it a tad too far. No wonder he’s now languishing in a Chinese prison (or in hiding, fearing that). CRISPR is shaping up as man’s most powerful invention, so we should probably treat it with an abundance of caution – squared. Most folks are doing that, so when rouges or charlatans, or more charitably, the over enthusiastic, show up, we should make sure they’re (ahem) politely shown the door. A world without autism may be a wonderful thing. But a world without autism (or a host of other “abnormalities”) may be a terrible thing. We simply don’t know. We can’t leave figuring out the answer to mad scientists alone …
The Center for the Future of Work is optimistic to its core. This year, a wise man said to me that fear and excitement feel the same. When you feel fear – when your heart is racing and your hands are shaking, simply relabel that feeling ‘excitement’. If 2018 was the year we felt the fear of the power of technology, 2019 is the year we turn that fear into excitement.
From our family to yours, we wish you a very happy festive season and all the best for 2019.