Just fifteen years ago, there were no iPhones, Facebook didn’t exist, and Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat were fantasies. Internet users couldn’t use Google Maps to figure out how to reach an address, relied on cable to watch TV, and still bought CDs. Streaming was near-impossible with slow internet connections, and torrenting from sites like Napster took days. Everyday services like Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, WhatsApp, and Dropbox simply did not exist.
Technology is advancing at breakneck speed and continues to transform how we perform the most basic tasks—but with so much innovation, many developments tend to get lost in the noise. Worried you missed out on the most important tech moments of 2018? We’ve got you covered.
You thought fake news was bad? 2018 saw the rise of deepfakes: a technology that generates an imperceptibly accurate, computer-generated video of another person saying and doing whatever you want. Using a machine learning technique, computers are able to look at thousands of photos of an individual, and then produce a new photo or video that approximates those it has seen, but without being an exact copy of any of them.
Deepfakes first came to prominence in late 2017, when a Reddit user started using the tech to superimpose celebrities’ faces onto the bodies of women in porn films. At the start of 2018, they released FakeApp, an easy-to-use platform for making fake media, which put the power to create deepfakes into the hands of everyone with an internet connection. While the first videos were easy to spot as computer generated, deepfakes have now become so lifelike that they can only be identified with finely-tuned algorithms that look at blinking patterns. While some individuals use the FakeApp service to turn themselves into better dancers or create comedy for friends, a number of people are understandably worried that the tech will be used to create propaganda and spread disinformation.
Remember that Black Mirror episode where that creepy AF robot dog tried its damnedest to kill a person who stole a teddy from a warehouse? Yeah—that’s real. Boston Dynamics is an American robotics company which has produced worryingly able robots. Its most prominent creations—an eerie dog-like creation named Spot, and the faceless humanoid Atlas—have shot to YouTube fame for performing actions that machines just shouldn’t be able to do. While other robotics companies struggle to get their creations to stand up (let alone walk), the 1.5 meter, 165 pound Atlas can run, jump, and even do backflips. It uses stereo vision and lasers to see what is in front of it and make its own decisions about how to tackle an obstacle—plus it keeps its balanced when jostled or pushed, and can get up on its own if pushed over. Spot, meanwhile, has a retractable arm that is able to open doors, and will stay on-task even when swatted out of the way with a hockey stick. Expect to eventually see robots like these on the battlefield and as security guards—and we wouldn’t recommend tangling with them.
Uber halted its autonomous vehicle tests in March after one of its cars struck and killed a woman in Arizona. Fingers were rightly pointed at the much-criticised company for removing existing safety technology, reducing the number of human drivers in each car from two to one, and allowing the woman in the driving seat to be steaming a video at the time of the accident.
Uber’s lax safety, however, hasn’t stopped Alphabet’s Waymo from working on its driverless taxi service. Considered to have the most advanced autonomous vehicle technology, Waymo announced in July that it had clocked up eight million miles on public roads with its self-driving technology, and one million of those had been driven in a single month. In early December, the company launched Waymo One, its first self-driving taxi service, around the Phoenix, Arizona area. While the vehicles require a safety driver to sit in the front seat and take over in the event of an emergency, the taxis are, ostensibly, driving themselves.
But despite Waymo’s breakthroughs this year, some remain skeptical of the technology. As well as requiring that drivers hand control entirely over to the car—a psychological hurdle for many—the criticism remains that Waymo cars have been involved in accidents at the same rate as human drivers. Many, too, are worried that the cars can be used as surveillance tools (they require 360 cameras to operate constantly around the vehicle), and gather sensitive information about a person’s journeys.
This year, researchers created an embryo-like structure without using an egg or sperm cell, and initiated a pregnancy. Scientists from the Netherlands’ Maastricht University mixed two types of stem cells taken from mice, and were able to manipulate it into a blastocyst: a hollow structure that contains a cluster of cells that go on to create the embryo. When implanted into mouse wombs, the mice became pregnant.
Very little is known about the development of embryos, and the researchers hope that their work can help untangle questions about human fertility. Don’t get too freaked out about the prospect of a lab-grown baby just yet, however—scientists stress that creating a human child from stem cells is a long way off.
Speaking of slightly-ethically-questionable-but-also-super-cool scientific leaps—2018 was the year of genetic testing. Everyone from your best friend to your grandma signed up for swabs to send to companies like 23andMe, Helix, Myriad Genetics, and UK Biobank in the hopes of learning something profound about their health and ancestry. So many people volunteered their DNA, in fact, that police were able to arrest the notorious Golden State Killer using samples from his distant family members, and scientists concluded that if only two percent of the world’s population have their DNA profiled, it’s possible to find almost anyone. While that’s great for cold police cases, it opens up ethical quandaries about the openness of databases and the ability to reidentify scientific study participants from their samples. Add to that the fact that DNA samples make it possible to predict a person’s chance of getting diseases like cancer, or even judge their IQ, and there’s a huge possibility for genetic discrimination.
Kate Wilson is the technology editor at the Georgia Straight. Follow her on Twitter @KateWilsonSaysMore