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2013 Review in Tech #

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I’ve been a bit under the weather the past couple days (the dangers of hanging out near other peoples’ little germ factories (aka kids)), but I wanted to post some of my thoughts about the year in tech. The last time I did that was probably a few years ago (related).

Over the weekend a friend was going on about how this year was a crappy one for “tech” (echoing the sentiments of those crappy articles floating around, but more along the lines of lack of ambition/innovation) which I strongly disagreed with. I think the kernel of truth there is that the SF/SV tech scene is definitely caught up in a weird spiral of chasing/making less and less interesting mobile/social apps, so of course from that vantage point, it’s going to seem terrible, but from the outside, things are… pretty interesting.

  • NSA Leaks – In some articles, this was cited as some negative development, but Edward Snowden’s leaks revealed (and continues to reveal) how much the world has been changed by technology and hints at some of the implications that both as technologists and end-users, we’ve been oblivious to. It’s certainly the biggest tech story of the year, and has profound/deeply unsettling implications. It’s also kicked off a number of new projects, and made a lot of techies think harder about the things they’re working on. I think that in coming years, the world and the tech industry in particular will be better for it.
  • Bitcoin – Bitcoins, alt-coins, cryptocurrency. While it’s been building up steam, this is the year that it boiled over and it’s another development that’s more than a little world-changing. I mentioned it briefly in a rebuttal comment I made on Charlie Stross’s blog post Why I want Bitcoin to die in a fire (I don’t know about his conclusions, but on just about every point of fact supporting his reasoning, he cited inaccurate/just plain wrong sources), but regardless of what the eventual value of BTC ends up as (which this year was driven mostly by the Chinese, not media hype), whether it’s $10K/BTC or $0/BTC, Bitcoin has not only served as a solid proof of existence for the viability of truly P2P digital currency, but has also laid down a protocol/framework that makes it trivial to create your own. The classes of problems that can be solved by a distributed public ledger are numerous… There’s some more thinking I need to put on that.
  • Tesla – Finally, something out of the Valley. Between Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity, this was a huge year for Elon Musk, and they seem to all be converging into some techno-utopian vision that’s quite honestly, a rather refreshing respite from the totalitarian surveillance state, increasing economic disparity and general grim meathookiness going on elsewhere. If you aren’t excited about what Tesla has been up to this year, maybe you just aren’t that into tech.
  • Robots – Google’s buying spree was pretty well reported, but less well covered was Schaft’s (one of the Google acquisitions) performance at the DARPA Challenge. It scored 27 out of a possible 32 points on the challenges. That’s 84%. This year has shown some tremendous accomplishments in robotics on just about every level, most interestingly/disturbingly in drone-tech. If you haven’t read this recent brief, but intense editorial in the Guardian this past week, btw, please do: I worked on the US drone program. The public should know what really goes on
  • Kickstarter – I’ve been active (maybe a bit too active, seeing as I started getting KS spam this year) on Kickstarter this year. It’s not new, but it’s certainly gained even more steam in 2013, and I don’t see it decelerating. Kickstarter seems to be increasingly, one of the more important tools helping the Maker/DIY movement grow.
  • 3D Printing – speaking of which, another not quite new, but thought I’d mention it, we finally got our Replicator 2 in the office this year, and it’s been incredibly useful. It’s also very close to being consumer friendly/ready. Like, say if the platform would self calibrate and if the prints were a little easier to peel off… But still, getting a 3D printer is now cheaper than an office laser printer was a decade ago.
  • Quantified Self – In some ways, still nascent, but I got my Basis Watch, and I’ve been trying more than a few autologgers/aggregators released this year (Saga, Memoir, Heyday among others), but I think we’re seeing some really interesting first steps into pulling together both the data exhaust we’re already generating and combining that usefully with other things we’d like to track (beyond fitness trackers, things like the Automatic car tracker). One thing’s for sure though, things are just getting started
  • VR – I admit, my Oculus Rift Devkit sat unloved and completely unopened for months. It’s been a hectic year. I did finally get around to break it out and try out about a dozen demos, and it was great, and also left me motion sick the rest of the night (I’ve played FPS/TPS’s for decades w/o problems). Carmack’s full time commitment and the news coming out of the community has me hopeful that they’ll have that problem licked, but it’s been pretty exciting following along. For those interested in what’s going on, I recommend Road To VR
  • Open Hardware – this is an ongoing thing that isn’t new in 2013, and has also been greatly helped by Kickstarter, but there’s just a ton of interesting stuff happening in the cheap microcontroller world akin to the early web days. I’ve been poking around with a lot of this stuff, but this year, got pretty serious about it, doing a fair amount of soldering, exploring/evaluating pretty much every single ARM dev board around, and getting my first PCBs printed. Again, we’re going to see a continued proliferation of interesting hacks/automation/sensors as it gets increasingly cheaper and easier to program the world

I think most of these things point to how wrongheaded talking about these things in context of a year are though – tech is incremental, and it’s hard work. You can bet anything that’s being announced, let alone making a big splash probably took quite a bit longer than a year to get there.

I’ll also link to Some Notes on Labor, Technology and Economics that I wrote about earlier this year. 2013 started out on sour note and what’s been going on in the world this year has definitely given me some pause.

We’re none of us getting any younger, and the pace of innovation continues to increase though, so here’s to the next year. Let’s hope we can make it a better world.

ADDENDUM: Putting this here since it’s related. Not really an innovation per se, but a tech problem that may be reaching a breaking point – we continued to see bigger and bigger data breaches (Adobe, Target, SnapChat) by cyber-criminals. Will 2FA finally replace Passwords? Is there a different security model that can more effectively handle APTs/inevitably compromised networks? Is there a way to expire/invalidate leaked data or will fraud models improve enough that it’s OK that black-hats and script kiddies around the world trade your personal info? In traditional security, the deck is always stacked against the defense, but it makes me wonder if there’s not a way of changing that – after all, the physics of software (if not software engineering) are malleable…

2013 Geek Reading:

  • Tim Kramer

    I think it also has something to do with peoples’ comfort zone. They need to go outside* and play. While none of the following is new, it’s a list of what I was able to play/work with in the past year: OpenCV, Hadoop, R, Raspberry Pi’s, FPGA’s, Sphinx (search), and RTLSDR. I’m looking forward to what the new year brings.

    * outside of the box, that is

  • http://randomfoo.net/ lhl

    Ooh, the RTL-SDR stuff looks pretty neat. Will have to poke around w/ that this year if I have some free time.

  • slevinz

    Oh man, u got the oculus rift? do u see it’ll be a game changer for games?

  • http://randomfoo.net/ lhl

    Yeah, when CV1 comes out it is 100% going to completely change gaming (at least on the level of when Wolf3D/Doom/Quake). IMO it’ll probably actually end up being even more impactful on the world at large in the next few years – think like smartphones, or maybe even the web.nnThis is a good summary post of what Oculus has been up to lately: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1523379957/oculus-rift-step-into-the-game/posts/728398nnAnd this is the VR stuff that was presented at the Steam Dev Days and explains why it’s going to be such a huge deal: http://blogs.valvesoftware.com/abrash/my-steam-developers-day-talk/nnAlso, some interesting followup (Palmer Luckey, the Oculus Rift founder, is pretty active on Reddit:nn”CV1 will meet or exceed the quality of Valve’s demo.”nn”I want to note that the Rift will not be designed for experiences that allow you to walk around a room like the SDD tech demo, but the specifications and quality will be above the baseline level Michael Abrash outlined in his talk. Valve’s prototype hardware and software are very well integrated and calibrated, more so than the Crystal Cove demos we got together for CES, but the actual components are not all that different. All the pieces are there.”

  • slevinz

    Glad to hear your opinion. I think it will also be cool for replacing multi monitor set up (for work i mean). I know some guy’s developing an app for that and hope it turns out great. nnnYeah I am subbed to that subreddit too. I might or might not get the first gen, depending on funding ;) Also is there a way to contact you easily, skype maybe? can’t find you on origin.