Predictions are always a tricky thing — especially for a fast-moving world like technology.
Alina Selyukh and Aarti Shahani spoke with Robert Siegel on All Things Considered about some of the biggest themes in tech and tech policy. You can hear their quick recap on net neutrality, drone regulations, self-driving cars and data breaches in the audio above.
Aarti, Laura Sydell and Elise Hu had a similar conversation as 2014 came to a close, forecasting a few themes they expected to spill into 2015. Now, as 2015 is wrapping up — how did they do?
Elise's 2014-2015 Idea: Voice Activation & Anticipatory Computing
This year we saw Amazon Echo — a digital personal assistant powered by artificial intelligence — become a hot buy during the holiday season. It's vaulted into the Top 10 of Amazon's best-selling electronics, sure. But the behavior of using your voice to boss around inanimate objects (in Echo's case, a cylindrical speaker, but in Siri's or Cortana's case, a smartphone), and then relying on that object to use the wealth of data you've shared with it to anticipate your needs, still isn't as common as I expected it'd be.
I'm surprised. It's been nearly two years now since we reported that anticipatory computing (what Google Now or Echo does) was "the next wave" of computing. We're still going to go that way. What Om Malik and I talked about in 2014 is still true:
"The more we add apps and digital functions we need to perform on our devices, the more individually tapping or typing for each function becomes a hassle.
" 'As we become more digital, as we use more things in the digital realm, we just need time to manage all that. And it is not feasible with the current manual processes. So the machines will learn our behavior, how we do certain things and start anticipating our needs,' Malik says."
Anticipatory computing became more of a thing in 2015. But it still hasn't become mainstream.
Aarti's 2014-2015 Idea: Data Breaches
After all the news of hacks in prior years, you'd think that 2015 would provide respite, but that's not what happened.
This year's mega-breaches were even more dramatic than past ones:
- We had numerous health care data breaches. Anthem, the health insurer, was breached, with roughly one-third of Americans' personal data stolen. Excellus BlueCross BlueShield and UCLA Health, in California, were also health industry targets.
- In the government, there was the IRS breach and of course the Office of Personnel Management. In the case of OPM, files on 22 million individuals were taken — everything from home addresses to very personal disclosures (stuff that can be used to blackmail).
- Consumer hacks included the toymaker VTech, in which data on millions of kids was taken. Also the Ashley Madison hack, which exposed the information of millions of users of the adultery site (remember, not every user listing was correct!).
The best expert we could find — one recommended by federal authorities — estimates hackers have taken 60 to 80 percent of American Social Security numbers. In many of these breaches, the data was not encrypted, which is bonkers. We're in 2015 and it seems like encryption should be a norm. But it's not — and arguably the penalties for companies just aren't high enough to force them to clean up their acts.
Laura's 2014-2015 Idea: Apple Inc.
Last year at this time I commented on how well Apple's stock had done after its record sales of the iPhone 6. The stock has now declined from April's high of more than $134 per share to below $110.
Apple continues to have record sales of its iPhone under CEO Tim Cook. So why is Wall Street so gloomy?
Apple has not released any official sales numbers of its watch, prompting some speculation that it hasn't done that well. Research firms like IDC say next year, the smartwatch market will grow significantly and Apple will lead the way. If that proves true, it wouldn't be the first time that Apple defied naysayers, who also pooh-poohed the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. But this time, Steve Jobs isn't around — will Cook have the mojo to pull off the watch? The jury is still out, but I do predict that in 2016 we will finally see if the Apple Watch has been a success.
The story isn't much different with Apple Pay. So far, the mobile payment system doesn't seem to be widely adopted, though, again, Apple isn't sharing a lot of information about it. According to a report by Infoscout, use of Apple Pay declined this shopping season. But Apple also just made a deal to get Apple Pay into China, where people don't have a long-entrenched habit of using credit cards. That and the fact that more retailers are accepting Apple Pay may lead to a turnaround this year.
So where are we in regards to what I said a year ago? Sadly, still waiting.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We're going to take a moment now to revisit some of the big themes in tech this year. Joining me are two members of NPR's tech team, Alina Selyukh here in Washington. Hiya.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello.
SIEGEL: And Aarti Shahani in San Francisco. Hi, Aarti.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Hi.
SIEGEL: Alina, let's start with the theme of an open internet, one that you've been tracking this year.
SELYUKH: Right. These are the rules that tell Internet service providers they can't play favorites with any websites. And it was a big debate this year. It was so huge President Obama got involved. Millions of people wrote to the Federal Communications Commission and, at one point, actually crashed their servers. In the end, the final rules really expanded the FCC's authority over Internet providers, and now they're being challenged in courts for the third time in less than a decade. And the issue may actually go on to the Supreme Court.
SIEGEL: Another big policy issue for you this year - drones.
SELYUKH: The Federal Aviation Administration is tackling that one, and they really rushed this year to come up with a way to keep track of these devices. And actually, starting today, you're not supposed to fly a drone without registering yourself as a the owner of the drone in a government database. We don't know how well this will work, but it will be huge deal after the holidays when people buy hundreds of thousands of these things.
SIEGEL: Those are a couple of big tech policy stories. Aarti Shahani, what's been the big story of 2015 for you?
SHAHANI: Well, (laughter) the two big stories on my mind, in terms of technology that I've tried out that really made me feel like, oh, this is making history - I have to say, this year, it was Tesla's self-driving car. I actually went into a car - a Model S - and, with my hands off the wheel, the foot off the accelerator, I was on the highway, and the car was driving me. Now, the real kicker is how the car gets smarter as a driver. Each Model S is gathering information about road conditions, human driver behavior and pinging it over to a central bank. From there, commuters mash it up and look for lessons. Basically, given what the entire fleet of cars is seeing, what software updates should we - in this case, Tesla - roll out to make the cars drive better? That is artificial intelligence - machine learning. So that blew me away.
SIEGEL: You've also covered stories which are a little less encouraging about tech. And that is, it was another big year of security breaches.
SHAHANI: Oh, yeah. I mean, this was a terrible year for cyber security. Most notably, Anthem, the health insurer was breached - roughly a third of Americans' personal data stolen. There was the Office of Personnel Management. There was the adultery website, Ashley Madison. In many breaches, this data was not encrypted, which is bonkers, where, in 2015, encryption should be a norm. But it's not, and, arguably, the penalties for companies just aren't high enough to force them to clean up their acts.
SIEGEL: Aarti Shahani in San Francisco, Alina Selyukh in Washington on the year 2015 in tech. Thanks to both of you.
SELYUKH: Thank you.
SHAHANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.