Commentary on technology
In the first part of the series “Time travel through 2010s technology” we looked at how operating systems, phones, tablets, smartwatches and smartglasses changed through the last decade. The 2010s changed how we interact with technology, but more importantly, how we think about the impact it has in our lives.
So what happened in the last ten years? How did we get here?
Directions while driving in 2010 usually meant having a dashboard-mounted GPS unit like a TomTom or a Garmin. Updating their maps was cumbersome, and using smartphones for car navigation was a new trend still in its infant days, in part due to the tiny screens (3.5 inches was a regular screen size back then). Embedded GPS used to be an expensive car add-on, but nowadays, most people simply have a phone holder on their air vent and use Google Maps or some other app on their smartphone to get up-to-date directions.
Moreover, with the advent of systems like Apple CarPlay (2014) or Android Auto (2015), proprietary car systems have started getting obsolete real fast.
The car industry started moving closer to the tech industry as the decade advanced, and today, most cars’ selling points involve some sort of tech that makes driving a safer or more comfortable experience. Comparing a car dashboard from 2010 with a Tesla Model 3 dashboard demonstrates the direction we are headed towards. Electric cars are making a comeback and they are slowly getting closer to the affordable price points that hybrids had 10 years ago. In 2019, most of the car manufacturers in the U.S. finally have plans to produce electric cars in mass quantities.
Perhaps the biggest change in transportation comes from the push on automated driving systems. Since 2015, Audi, Waymo, Uber, Tesla and others have been racing to produce a self-driving car that can be thrown onto our roads and provide a safer trip than those cars driven by humans. Policy-makers are struggling to regulate around a technology that is evolving faster than our laws or infrastructure.
We are quickly reaching the point where we have to wonder if the best solution is to separate autonomous vehicles from human-driven ones. In any case, semi-automated vehicles —where the car can keep us centered in our lane, or switch lanes without much human intervention— have become a stop-gap until we get our act together with fully autonomous cars.
Social media companies started the decade with a strong position: 2010 was still a time when many of us were sharing a lot of personal details on social media sites like Facebook, and we were communicating with a mental freedom that today would be considered unnecessary by many. The 2010s were a decade where many learned to trust the cloud as a safer place than our own computers, but as companies tried to speed up development of new features, mistakes were made and missed.
Vulnerabilities went unnoticed and it became a matter of time until bad actors would exploit them for profit. There have been more cases of data breaches than I can enumerate in this post, but what’s clear is that the past decade has helped many people interiorize that no system is totally secure. If a vulnerability exists, it will be found and eventually exploited unless fixed. Simply put, society was not self-aware of their own privacy risks in 2010.
Notably, in 2013 this began to change at a faster pace, as Facebook started suffering multiple data breaches and platform vulnerability exploits that pushed customers to realize how their personal information was at risk. These exploits allowed third-party companies, like Cambridge Analytica during the U.S. presidential elections in 2016, to have access to personal data that was supposed to be private.
There were several consequences after all of these issues. First, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was made in 2016 and implemented in 2018 to protect the privacy of EU citizens, starting a wave of data policy changes in many international tech companies. Second, companies started selling privacy as a feature, and those whose business model didn’t depend on customers data —like Apple— benefited from using a marketing narrative that distanced themselves from the privacy storm.
Third and last, users were forced to take a step back and reevaluate how their privacy was impacted by social media, and how much data they wanted to share in the first place. Ironically, this had as a side effect the birth of a new business opportunity: ephemeral social media services, where a user’s post is automatically deleted after a certain period of time. Companies like Snapchat were born in 2011 out of this premise, and Facebook was quick to adapt products like Instagram (acquired by the Palo Alto giant in 2012) to cater for this new trend.
Another challenge that social media companies like Facebook or Twitter had during the last decade is still very present today: hate speech and misinformation are easy to spread within social circles of like-minded people, and personalization tools make it seamless to see only the content we already love. This led to polarized bubbles that divided our society, especially during election cycles.
Many social media services like Google Buzz, Google+, Vine and iTunes Ping didn’t live to see the end of the decade, and were followed by a new generation of social apps centered around visual content, like Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok. Will they survive the next ten years?
AI and automation
Artificial intelligence (AI) is a discipline practically as old as computers themselves. Every single big tech company recognize the potential and value that “intelligent machines” can have in many areas of our lives and started developing machine learning solutions that can be successfully specialized in scoped environments. Through the 2010s, we have seen a proliferation of these specialized AIs, starting with IBM’s Watson, which in 2011 defeated without effort the greatest Jeopardy! champions in the show’s history. Google’s AlphaGo is another valuable example of how good domain-specific AI has gotten in the last decade.
However, the biggest impact in our daily routines doesn’t come from powerful computers trained to do one thing very well. It comes from the integration of AI on products that we can use anytime, every day. Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft, all have invested copious amounts of money in developing the best natural language processing systems to be embedded in their respective virtual assistant.
With total certainty, anyone reading this article has an AI within hand’s reach. Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri and Cortana, all have been developed with their own personality. These conversational AIs are now accessible through thousands of different devices and form factors. One of the most significant changes in human interaction with technology this decade is precisely that we can now talk to machines in a somewhat natural manner. We can turn on and off lights, appliances and TVs, switch channels, ask basic knowledge questions, get directions, set reminders, start video-chats, order food, buy stuff… and there are new use cases being added every day.
Siri was first introduced as an app for iOS in 2010, and got acquired by Apple just two months later. Alexa was developed by Amazon and released in 2014, almost at the same time as Microsoft’s Cortana. Google Assistant was released in 2016. In the second half of the 2010s, these virtual assistants have been improved with features out of a science fiction movie, like the ability to whisper, matching our own voice tone, or the ability to emulate a human and make a dinner reservation without letting the interlocutor know that they are speaking with a machine.
Commercial AI has become smart enough to understand follow up questions, or recognize who’s speaking. By integrating with home automation sensors, a virtual assistant can now guard the house when we are not home and alert us of noises, or simulate that we are home by randomly turning lights on at night.
In 2010, automating a home was costly, and limited to routines often out of reach to the average consumer due to the lack of user-friendly programming interfaces. A decade later, home automation has become an inexpensive option available not only to the rich, and anyone can retrofit their house to be “smart” without much effort or deep technical expertise.
Unfortunately, AI also evolved during the 2010s enough to get weaponized. AI helps corporations process vast amounts of data that can be used to manipulate people. It enhances robotics and drones, creating lethal autonomous weapons. It’s used to power automatic face recognition systems that limit people’s freedom of movement and privacy. Nonprofit organizations like OpenAI are championing responsible AI development, but as we continue developing this powerful technology, having proper government regulation becomes more necessary.
As we enter 2020, a new and important decade is ahead of us. A critical decade for our planet’s worsening health, critical for healing a polarized society and for reducing the inequalities that still exist across the world. The challenges that we are facing will be difficult to solve in an environment full of sociopolitical complexities, but I’m confident that technology can and will be a progress enabler. Technology helped make the world a better place during the 2010s, but also created imbalances that need to be corrected if we want a sustainable future. Let’s work together on making sure the next decade is even better than the last one, for everyone, everywhere.
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