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Robot cars and distorted reality: The top tech stories of 2016

The hardware world turned and the seeds of robot revolution bore fruit over the past year.

mark zuckerberg, facebook, internet.org, top tech stories

Top Tech Stories 2016:

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The best thing about the world of technology is that it’s never boring, always changing. That was certainly the case in 2016, a year in which current powers waned and old ones resurfaced, new trends gathered steam and the seeds of revolution started to bear fruit.

Examining the year that was, here are the top 10 tech stories of 2016.

10. AI gets really, really good at games.

Artificial intelligence had something of a renaissance in 2016, beginning with yet another milestone in March. Google’s AlphaGo computer beat South Korean champion Lee Se-dol in Go, an ancient Chinese game that requires complex and intuitive thinking.

From there, AI – essentially the computation and analysis of various data troves – started seeping its way into everything, from phones to speakers to space heaters. AlphaGo’s win was seen as ground-breaking, since it represented an AI thinking creatively.

Renewed fears of the Terminator’s imminent arrival predictably followed.

9. Yahoo commits harakiri.

At this point, anyone still using Yahoo email is just begging for trouble.

The internet old-timer in September reported that a 2014 breach had exposed 500 million accounts to hackers. Then, just a few weeks ago, the company also reported an unprecedented breach of a further billion accounts that happened in 2013.

Verizon was set to acquire the fading company for close to $5 billion (U.S.), but that deal is increasingly looking like it’s off the table. The telecom company may finally be coming to its senses, which is something any remaining Yahoo users should have done by now.

Considering Yahoo also voluntarily let the U.S. government spy on users’ emails, it’s not going to be a company that anyone will miss.

8. Pokemon clears runway for AR.

Summer is usually a slow news time, especially in technology, but this year was different with Pokemon Go livening things up. The smartphone game, created by Niantic Labs, hit 100 million downloads in no time flat and became the first bona fide augmented reality hit.

AR, or the overlay and blending of computer graphics onto the real world via a screen, has been around for years but no one had really cracked it. Niantic finally discovered the secret sauce – an addictive game mixed with a familiar property turned into gold.

It’s a virtual certainty (see what I did there) that 2017 will see a gold rush into AR. More on that in next week’s predictions.

7. Nobody wants Twitter.

Twitter spent a good portion of 2016 trying to sell itself, attracting the likes of Verizon, Salesforce and even Disney in the process. All of the potential suitors walked away, though, reportedly because of the social network’s bad image.

It’s no secret that Twitter has become a dumping ground for hatred, vitriol and harassment. It’s been said that Twitter is the new YouTube comments section, a veritable hive of scum and villainy.

Not surprisingly, the company’s 2016 was marked by executive departures, employee layoffs and product axings (rest in peace Vine). Can Twitter right the ship in 2017? #NotLikely.

6. Amazon takes on Netflix.

Perhaps the most underreported or under-appreciated story of the year is Amazon’s expansion of Prime Video to 200 countries, which took place just weeks ago.

More than just giving lots more people access to shows such as Transparent and The Grand Tour, it’s a landmark move that will likely transform home entertainment around the world.

The expansion and Amazon’s spending of billions of dollars on original content means the global war for streaming supremacy with Netflix, itself operating in 190 countries, is officially on. It also inevitably means that cable providers’ days are numbered.

5. Net neutrality scores wins.

Open internet fans had several reasons to celebrate over the past year, starting with net neutrality’s big win in India in February. The country’s regulators rejected Facebook’s Free Basics, a program that delivered a set of the company’s hand-picked websites to smartphone users without using any monthly wireless data.

In the United States, a federal appeals court upheld the Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet Order, which puts service providers under the regulator’s jurisdiction and therefore under its net neutrality rules. Comcast, Verizon and the rest had naturally challenged the order.

Other countries also took steps to prevent telecom companies from turning the internet into a tiered service akin to broadcast television with pro-neutrality rules. Dutch regulators have banned T-Mobile from exempting certain apps from wireless data caps while Canada held hearings on the same topic, with a decision due soon.

On the downside, U.S. president-elect Donald Trump says he’s not a fan of net neutrality and his telecom advisors are staunchly opposed to it, meaning that the FCC’s newly minted rules will likely face further challenges in 2017.

samsung, galaxy note 7, exploding battery

4. Samsung’s explosive year.

It’s hard to imagine any company having a worse year than Samsung. Of course, the South Korean company’s biggest problem was the exploding battery in the Galaxy Note 7, which forced a recall, a reissue, another recall and now a remote disabling.

But that wasn’t all. Samsung also had to recall a number of washing machines that were at risk of violently shaking apart or even exploding.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, the company is also dealing with a government corruption probe in its home country.

Anyone involved with the company will surely be happy to see an end to 2016.

3. The hardware world turns.

With its chief smartphone competitor imploding, 2016 was primed to be Apple’s year – but it wasn’t to be. The company also shot itself in the figurative foot with the iPhone 7, a device that made headlines for the wrong reasons – the “courageous” removal of its headphone jack.

Apple also took heat for its new line of MacBook Pro laptop computers, which creative types criticized as under-powered. More recently, influential non-profit publication Consumer Reports opted against recommending the laptops for the first time because of battery issues found in tests.

Conversely, Microsoft won praise this year for its innovative Surface Studio desktop computer cum drafting table and its Surface Pro hybrid tablet-laptops sold well. Google also lucked out as its big push into hardware with Pixel phones, Daydream View VR headsets and Home speakers fortunately coincided with downturns at the two biggest names.

The hardware business has always been cyclical and 2016 sure proved that no one stays on top – or at the bottom – for long.

2. Robot cars pull into the fast lane.

It was only a few years ago that self-driving cars seemed like a science-fiction dream, but in 2016 they came roaring into reality. From self-driving taxis on the streets of Pittsburgh and Singapore to robot beer-delivery trucks in Colorado and autonomous buses in Australia, they were just about everywhere.

The trend is only going to speed up in 2017, with every major car maker and plenty of newcomers to the industry racing to get their technology onto the roads (so many puns, so little time).

It’s not an overstatement to say that this is a revolution unfolding right in front of us. The world changed dramatically when cars – and highways – became mainstream. Similar change is now afoot.

1. The truth is relative on Facebook.

The biggest overall news story of the year was easily Trump’s election. Propaganda, lies, fake news and potential hacking by state actors played a big role, and the internet made it all possible.

A lot of fingers are pointed at Facebook right now, and to a lesser extent Google, for their complicity in spreading disinformation. For years, Facebook’s users have coalesced into similar-thinking silos, making it easy for disinformation artists to work their magic.

Stories discrediting Hillary Clinton or backing Trump’s often bald-faced lies proliferated online and likely swayed many voters – if not to cast their support for Trump, then to abstain from voting altogether. The real world is worse for it.

Heading into 2017, Facebook faces an existential crisis. The company needs to clean up its act, crack down on fake news and accept its role as a major media outlet, as well as the responsibilities that go with that. The company’s failure to do so till this point might already have dire consequences for the world.

For his part, Mark Zuckerberg needs to put more effort into the effects his company is having on reality and less on making bad Nickelback jokes and god-awful videos about his pet AI project.

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