By Joanna Stern and Christopher Mims
(The Wall Street Journal)
It’s been a weird year. In 2017, technology spread its tentacles into our lives in ways we couldn’t have imagined – see the Equifax hack, Russia’s manipulation of Facebook, and Amazon’s purchase of everyone’s favorite overpriced supermarket. In 2018, expect the invasion to get even weirder – and more aggressive.
Artificial intelligence will touch so many of the gadgets and services we use, we won’t even realize that machines, not humans, are behind them. Hackers will continue to pursue the institutions that hold our most sensitive information. The consolidation of power by the big four – Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple – will have an even bigger impact on what we see on our screens and what we buy.
And while you won’t necessarily pay for your new electric car with Bitcoin, you’ll continue to hear more about it and other cryptocurrencies. (Yes, you’ll soon consider buying an electric car.)
Tech is more powerful than ever. To help you prepare, here’s our annual roundup of the tech that will affect us in the year ahead.
Electric cars get cheap
In 2018, consumers will get decent choices for electric models priced around the US average for new cars: $35,000 – even before factoring in state and federal tax credits and lifetime savings in both fuel and maintenance.
Not only is the eagerly awaited Tesla Model 3 ($35,000) due in significant numbers, but the recently released all-electric Chevrolet Bolt ($36,620) will soon be followed by Nissan’s 2018 Leaf ($29,990), with a new look and 150-mile range – up from 107.
There are also more affordable plug-in hybrids, with enough range to make most people’s daily commute an all-electric ride. The Chevrolet Volt ($33,220) can go 53 miles on electricity, while the Toyota Prius Prime ($27,100) can carry you 25 miles without burning gas. In 2018, Honda will finally roll out its own 47-mile-range plug-in hybrid, the Clarity ($33,400).
Facebook returns to its roots
It was a bruising year for Facebook – from scrutiny over the fake news that spread during the 2016 presidential race to the revelations that Russian operatives targeted users by race and religion. The 2018 damage control? Put the “social” back in social network.
“We want the time people spend on Facebook to encourage meaningful social interactions,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote a few weeks ago. His comments suggest Facebook will do more to push commenting, especially on video, rather than passively consuming media.
We’ll also get greater control over what we see. In mid-December, the company began demoting spam-like posts that asked for likes and shares, and released a “Snooze” feature that allows you to hide a person or page for 30 days without having to unfollow or unfriend them.
Amazon takes over (even more)
While it’s already possible to spend your entire day living in Amazon’s world, the company will continue creeping into more corners of your life. Take video: Analysts estimate Amazon spent $4.5 billion on video content this year; next year, the company will spend even more – as much as Netflix did in 2017. Why? People who come to Amazon for video tend to renew Prime memberships and spend more on other stuff, a company exec said.
So where is Amazon going next? Furniture and appliances. Office services. How about your corner pharmacy? What the company learns from Whole Foods stores can be applied to supply chains for any number of real-world businesses.
The company is on track to employ more than 500,000 people in 2018, making it America’s second largest private-sector employer, after Wal-Mart.
The Net loses neutrality
In December 2017, cable companies and telcos got what they wanted from the Federal Communications Commission: The rollback of net-neutrality regulations. In the short term, you’re not likely to notice anything different – your internet provider likely won’t block access to your favorite services.
But providers may unveil some new carrots and sticks: A wireless plan with “free” access to your favorite video service, say, or a home broadband cap you discover when your internet speed slows to a crawl after too much 4K video streaming.
You might even see a different sort of plan, a cheap one subsidized by – and centered on – the internet giants themselves. This is how Facebook operates in vast swaths of the developing world, where users see the internet and the social network as one and the same.
Cryptocurrency feels less cryptic
Currently, crypto “currencies” are more like crypto “gold” – the mania over Bitcoin and its ilk makes them better for hoarding than spending (if you can stomach the ups and downs).
No one knows which of the hundreds of existing or proposed cryptocurrencies will be around for the long haul. Meanwhile, the ease of buying and selling them means that the wild ride of 2017 – Bitcoin exploding from around $1,000 per coin to nearly $20,000 in late December before plunging 25% – could repeat in 2018.
High transaction fees mean that Bitcoin is largely failing one of its original missions – to become easily transacted digital money. The crush of systems and alternative coins designed to fix that is going to be a major theme of 2018. By the end of the year, you might actually be able to use digital currency to buy a pizza without paying an extortionate fee.
Software drives smartphone progress
Smartphone hardware leapt forward in 2017. Apple and Samsung crammed bigger screens into smaller phones, got rid of home buttons and improved cameras. What happens in 2018..
With the iPhone X, Apple has already changed how we interact with our screens with a new set of swipes and taps. The next iOS and the 2018 iPhones should push the new screen interaction further. As Apple’s face-unlocking system develops, our facial glances and movements likely will do even more. There is also talk of Apple allowing one-size-fits-all apps that can run on both Mac OS and iOS.
In the Android world, as phones get the latest Android 8 (aka Oreo) software, phones will benefit from battery-life improvements and new notification-taming tricks.
AI moves in everywhere
While our conversations with Alexa and Siri show no signs of letting up, artificial intelligence will move more quietly into other aspects of our digital lives.
Already you can see it in Gmail’s auto-replies. Google’s machines analyze your email style to suggest appropriate instant responses. And ever receive an alert from Facebook when someone posted a photo of you with no tag? Its bots are looking out for your face.
All this will get faster, too. In late 2017, Google, Facebook and Apple launched mobile machine-learning tools for app developers, and new AI-optimized chips from companies like Qualcomm and Apple are starting to pop up in smartphones.
The assault on security and privacy continues
There is a good chance you were hacked in 2017. There is a good chance it will happen again in 2018. The Equifax hack, which exposed the Social Security numbers of nearly 143 million Americans, revealed just how exposed our information is.
Security experts warn that consumers could face new threats, particularly in their internet-connected TVs, toys and other “smart” appliances. Marketers and social media platforms will get more aggressive, too, compiling everything from your location to your credit card transactions to tailor ads to you.
But you can do more to protect your digital security. And the broad data-protection regulations going into effect in Europe this May could change how US companies treat your personal info, too.