The tech world is rattled by shock political swings and EU crackdowns while science celebrates a major discovery and Pokémon Go proves that mobile game players can be a major nuisance.
David Bowie died at the start of 2016, and it was all downhill from there. The UK voted itself out of the EU, setting the course for a complicated split we are still navigating today, and Donald Trump was elected president of the US, resulting in rising rifts and rancour across the US.
In terms of tech advances, Google celebrated a major win for its AlphaGo artificial intelligence. First, it beat European Go champion Fan Hui at the abstract strategy board game. It then took on Lee Sedol, arguably the GOAT of Go, and won.
Microsoft was less fortunate in its experimentation with AI. It had to pull Tay, its AI chatbot, from Twitter after it learned to spout incredibly racist and misogynistic comments.
As always, the latest iPhone captured headlines, but not for the usual reasons. The iPhone 7’s lack of a headphone jack should have driven sales of Apple’s new wireless earbuds, but unfortunately the delay in getting AirPods to market resulted in frustration.
But at least the Apple phone wasn’t exploding like the Note 7. The new Samsung phablet was recalled, issued with a battery-limiting software update and eventually discontinued as devices continued to dangerously overheat.
But the most contentious phone of 2016 was an iPhone 5C at the centre of a mass shooting investigation in the US. Apple faced off with the FBI, refusing to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone, concerned that it would set a dangerous precedent. Google CEO Sundar Pichai agreed, as did Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and many more US tech companies. Apple’s own employees even threatened a walkout if the company complied.
Edward Snowden didn’t believe the FBI even needed Apple’s help to hack into the phone and, sure enough, the saga ended when the investigators found a way in without Apple’s help. But by close of the year, the US Congress had agreed that encryption backdoors are a security threat.
At the height of the Apple-FBI dispute, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump called on consumers to boycott the iPhone maker. Ahead of the November election, Silicon Valley leaders warned that he would be “a disaster for innovation”. After his shock win, some investors even wanted California to secede and the Canadian immigration website crashed as others contemplated an exit.
A few days later, sitting US president Barack Obama warned Mark Zuckerberg about the fake news epidemic after the Facebook CEO rejected claims that content on his platform had influenced the election result. In the face of his denial, a splinter group formed within Facebook to tackle the problem.
Eventually, Facebook revealed a seven-point plan to fight fake news, including the introduction of warning labels. Another site that underwent significant post-Trump changes was Reddit, which promised an aggressive campaign against the site’s most toxic users.
There were also fears that Russia had influenced the US election, which the FBI was investigating. And in a final act of his presidency, Obama ordered a full review of cyberattacks and foreign interventions that may have taken place.
EU v Big Tech
Across the Atlantic, the EU was busy investigating Big Tech.
Following a three-year investigation, the European Commission ruled that Ireland had granted illegal tax benefits of up to €13bn to Apple and the country was ordered to recover them. Apple denied that there had been any special agreement regarding the company’s tax affairs here, and the EU decision was appealed.
Next, the EU turned the heat up on Facebook, accusing the social media giant of misleading the Commission during its 2014 merger with WhatsApp. Facebook countered that accurate information had been provided and that a review would prove it had acted “in good faith”. (The same week, German lawmakers declared the country would fine Facebook and others up to €500,000 for publishing fake news in a bid to clamp down on the problem.)
Pokémon spotted in the wild
As Facebook, HTC, Intel and Sony made moves with VR hardware in 2016, Apple and Microsoft were betting on augmented reality. True, Microsoft added its own VR headset to the mix, but CEO Satya Nadella made clear that the future lay with AR. Perhaps this was because of the Pokémon Go gaming phenomenon.
While users awaited the gradual global roll-out of the much-anticipated release, mirror versions appeared as Android application packages (APKs). Bad actors took advantage of this desperation and at least one APK provided a backdoor for hackers and another fake bombarded users with porn ads.
Panic also ensued when fervent users’ disrespect of reverent public spaces and disregard for public safety came to pass. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum was forced to ban players and Bosnian Go fans were warned not to stray into minefields.
The app’s runaway success even drew the attention of the US House of Representatives, which questioned creator Niantic Labs on whether it was exhausting data limits among users.
High-tech transport moves forward
Elon Musk’s plans to transform transport raced ahead in 2016 but not without some pitstops.
In May, a Tesla car crashed while its beta-phase autonomous driving technology was active, killing the occupant and leading to an SEC investigation. Regardless, Tesla continued unabashed with plans to include its Autopilot tech in every new car, not to mention the trucks and buses it now planned to produce.
Musk also saw his 2012 revival of the Hyperloop concept gain traction when Slovakia agreed to explore the idea. First conceived in the 1900s, Musk gave the name Hyperloop to the concept of using large vacuum tubes for high-speed train travel. Slovakia planned to work with Hyperloop Transportation Technologies to bring the technology to mainland Europe, while rival company Hyperloop One raised $80m in seed funding and entered early-stage talks to bring Hyperloop to the UK.
Robotics gains a softer side
Soft robotics, where robots are able to change form, had a mainstream moment in 2016.
In March, the Soft Robotics Toolkit designed by engineers from Trinity College Dublin and Harvard University was taking off. Dr Dónal Holland from the toolkit’s development team attributed the growing interest to easier access to equipment such as laser cutters and 3D printers.
Many new prototypes were showcased throughout the year, from soft grippers and squishy motors to 3D-printed robotic sea slugs and the almighty Octobot, a completely autonomous soft robot with no electronic parts.
Einstein theory buoyed by gravitational waves
In a major moment for science, the first direct observation of gravitational waves was announced in February 2016 (although the actual discovery had been made on 14 September 2015).
The monumental breakthrough revealed by the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and Italy’s Virgo interferometer proved part of Einstein’s theory of relativity from more than 100 years earlier. (Sidebar: Doctor Who fans should check out David Tennant’s brief explanation of Einstein’s famous theory here.)
The proof that gravitational waves actually exist heralded in a new era of understanding on the formation of the universe, and the team who made the 2015 discovery would go on to win the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Chief researcher Lawrence M Krauss called it “a new window” on the universe and new research was instantly put into action. A week after the announcement, China launched three separate gravitational waves studies with plans to construct a new land-based monitoring system and to launch satellites to learn more about the waves.
In other news
11 January: The Elephant in the Valley study reports that 60pc of 200-plus women working in Silicon Valley surveyed had been sexually harassed.
20 January: Spotify acquires Dublin music discovery start-up Soundwave.
24 January: Astronaut Tim Peake receives a ‘Stargazer’ Lottie doll, designed by a six-year-old girl and manufactured by Irish company Arklu, while aboard the International Space Station.
1 February: A UK researcher is given approval to modify human embryos using CRISPR.
2 March: Astronauts Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko return to Earth after spending a year in space. Kelly’s identical twin Mark provides an ideal comparison to determine the impact of long-term spaceflight.
14 March: The ESA and Roscosmos launch the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter on a six-year mission to Mars.
5 April: WhatsApp introduces end-to-end encryption for its 1bn users.
18 April: Joanne Dolan and Niambh Scullion launch Teen-Turn, a STEM work placement programme for teen girls in Ireland.
6 May: The European Commission reveals its 16-point Digital Single Market strategy.
7-11 May: Portugal runs entirely on renewable energy for four straight days.
1 June: Forbes drops its estimate of Theranos CEO and founder Elizabeth Holmes’ net worth from $4.5bn to nothing following allegations that the company’s blood-testing technology doesn’t work.
13 June: Microsoft buys LinkedIn for $26bn.
1 July: DCU researcher Shauna Flynn wins the first edition of Researchfest, the science communication contest hosted at Inspirefest.
5 July: The Irish Government approves the ownership model for the National Broadband Plan affirming that the winner of the vital contract, not the State, will own the network upon completion.
21 July: During a visit from French president François Hollande, the Irish Government reveals plans for the €1bn Celtic Interconnector, a subsea electricity cable linking Ireland and France.
25 July: The EU Bratislava Declaration of Young Researchers, a four-point plan aiming to change how scientific research is conducted from the grassroots level, is submitted to the ministers for science and research across all 28 EU member states.
26 July: The electric-powered Solar Impulse 2 aircraft completes its historic round-the-world trip.
11 August: Apple’s Athenry data centre gets the green light from An Bord Pleanála.
27 August: Juno successfully completes its first orbit of Jupiter, sending back a stunning close-up of the giant planet.
5 September: Intel announces its plan to acquire Irish machine-vision chipmaker Movidius in a deal thought to be worth at least €300m.
24 September: Snapchat rebrands as Snap and reveals its Spectacles smart glasses.
7 October: Researchers from the Berkeley Lab reveal how they created a working 1nm transistor, giving hope for the continuation of Moore’s Law.
13 October: Silicon Republic reveals that Cork start-up InfiniLED has rebranded as Oculus, having been acquired by the Facebook-owned VR company.
20 October: Ordnance Survey Ireland makes the country’s geospatial data available in Minecraft.
21 October: Millions of internet users lose access to sites such as Twitter, Spotify and Reddit when Mirai malware is used to turn unsecured IoT devices into a botnet for a massive DDoS attack.
27 October: Twitter announces plans to shutter Vine, the mobile video app it acquired in 2012. Vine co-founder Rus Yusupov tweets: “Don’t sell your company!”
22 November: SolarCity reveals that it powered an entire Pacific island using its solar energy generation and storage technology.
1 December: Word gets out that Fitbit intends to acquire smartwatch-maker Pebble for a fraction of the $740m offer made for the company in 2015.
14 December: Yahoo discloses that more than 1bn accounts may have been accessed by ‘unauthorised’ third parties. This follows a previous disclosure of a breach impacting 500m users and threatens to derail a $4.5bn acquisition by Verizon.
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