The four most important lessons about technology for 2016

Automation, whether for chatbots or cars, is moving quickly but still has a long journey to the mainstream. Meanwhile, other ideas blew up—literally

 

Shortcuts literally blow up on you

Gadget-makers are under tremendous pressure to release upgraded models at breakneck speeds, lest they be defeated by the competition. But it’s not without risk—something Samsung learned the hard way this year after rushing to market the faulty Galaxy Note 7 smartphone, which combusted enough times to warrant a mass recall (and some serious brand damage). Let this be a mantra: no land grab is worth releasing a product so flawed it actually catches fire.

The first power users of autonomous vehicles probably won’t be people

Pundits love to talk about driverless cars as the future of commuting, but the first autonomous vehicles to go mainstream may carry less sentient cargo. In October, a self-driving delivery truck built by Uber subsidiary Otto made a beer delivery in Colorado, travelling 200 kilometres and snaking through Denver to its destination. (A human was on board as a fallback.) Unsettling? Maybe. But as the median age of truck drivers climbs, a replacement that subsists on data instead of jerky looks mighty appealing.

People are finally OK with bots

In March, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella declared that “bots are the new apps.” The Economist went further, calling 2016 “The Year of the Bot.” Facebook launched its Bot Engine, full of chatbots willing to help users shop, book tickets, and much more. The beauty of bots in 2016 is that, thanks to the ubiquity of smartphone screens, consumers aren’t fazed by chatting with a robot when picking out their Christmas shopping or asking about a product return the way they would have been even a few years ago. It’s a timely lesson in the crucial importance of timing: no new technology—not even the coolest development—will go big if users aren’t out of the “this kind of creeps me out” zone.

Geniuses make crazy ideas seem normal

Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars within 40 years, and that’s not the zaniest idea he’s had this year. At a coding conference in June, he suggested that we’re “probably” all simulated players in some future or far-off society’s video game. It’s a concept the Tesla and SpaceX CEO thinks about so much, in fact, that he’s had to impose rules around when he can talk about it (never in hot tubs, curiously). While it’s impossible to know whether we are in fact, living in a simulation, the source makes it hard to dismiss entirely. After all, there was a time when we thought Musk’s idea to operate cars without gas, then without drivers, was too out there.

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