As the last year of the last decade, 2019 had a lot to live up to. Within the span of 10 short years, service apps like Uber, Lyft, AirBnB and others on mobile phones became big business. Mobile phone companies introduced amazing personal features like voice assistance (e.g., Siri and Alexa), iCloud connections for fast video streaming, and very high-resolution HD cameras. Not to be outdone, the automobile was transformed with automation tech and electrification. A Tesla electric vehicle even made it into space.
Space technology flourished in the last decade with the commercialization of space rockets, the launch of hundreds upon hundreds of communication satellites and the increasing popularity of Cubesats. Back on earth, homes and buildings became smarter while alternative forms of energy continued to improve in efficiency. And the list goes on.
But there were several notable failures in the last decade, many seeming to culminate in 2019. Here is the short list of the 10 tech failures most worthy of mention, in no particular order.
#1 Glitchy Spacecraft Launch
Boeing suffered several major setbacks this year. The first one was an incomplete demonstration flight of its new astronaut capsule. The mission of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft began successfully but suffered technical problems that prevented it from reaching the International Space Station (ISS). Many observers believe that the Starliner capsule on top of an Atlas rocket simply burned too much fuel as it climbed into space, leaving an insufficient amount to reach the ISS. Some have suggested the failure was from a glitchy timer system that turned off the rocket thrusters too soon.
The demonstration test wasn’t a complete failure as the Starliner did land successfully in the deserts of New Mexico.
#2 Andromeda Strain revisited?
Remember the Andromeda Strain? It was a techno-thriller novel from 1969 written by Michael Crichton that centered around the efforts of a team of scientists investigating the outbreak of a deadly extraterrestrial microorganism in Arizona.
Fast forward to 2019. A company in Israel launched its first lunar lander that unfortunately crashed-landed on the moon. The small robotic spacecraft called Beresheet was created by the SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). It failed just moments before landing on the moon.
This was an unmanned operation, but not one devoid of life. A US-based nonprofit had added tardigrades, or water bears, to the capsule. These microscopic, eight-legged creatures could survive in a dormant state through harsh conditions, and maybe even on the moon.
In other words, earth-based lifeforms have now been introduced to the moon’s ecosystem. Without some water, the tardigrades aren’t likely to revive and spread. But this failure highlights the need for planetary protections – both on the moon and earth.
It should be noted that the goal of the Arch Mission Foundation was not to contaminate the moon but rather to, “create multiple redundant repositories of human knowledge around the Solar System.” The foundation tests out technologies for long-lasting archives, like securing information in DNA strands or encapsulating insects in artificial amber. In addition to water bears, the Arch’s payload included nickel sheets nanopatterned with thousands of pages of Wikipedia and other texts.
One of Arch’s first missions was launched by SpaceX on the Falcon Heavy rocket and is now entering an orbit around the Sun for millions of years. The first books in the Solar Library were Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. Can you guess where they are located? The books containing Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy were placed in the glovebox of the Cherry Red Tesla Roadster that will soon be orbiting the Sun.
#3 Communication Failures (again)
Both Boeing and the FAA have been cited for oversight breakdowns that contributed to 737 Max failure. But the actual cause of the tragedy that resulted in the crash of two Boeing 737 Max aircrafts seems to be broad failures in the automated system that controls the new planes. The report by the Joint Authorities Technical Review panel said that assumptions about critical aspects of the plane’s design were “not adequately reviewed, updated, or validated.”
This lack of communication and incorporation of warnings from the engineering teams is a common problem with very complex, modern systems, e.g., the Challenger Space Shuttle and others.
#4 Disappearing Bitcoin Miners
While 2019 was overall a profitable year for the semiconductor chip development market, there were a few noticeable declines. One was the system-on-chip (SoC) devices made specifically for bitcoin mining. The cost of mining for bitcoins dramatically increased in 2019, leading to a drop in the need for hardware SoC-based equipment.
In essence, it took much more effort for bitcoin miners to solve the equations required to validate transactions on the Bitcoin network. This increase in mining difficulty reflects the increased competition.
Another slowdown was in the market for automotive chips and electronics, as companies and drivers realized that autonomous car technology won’t really be ready for several more years. This corresponds well to Gartner’s famous “trough of disappointment” portion in its hype cycle for emerging technologies.
#5 Cloud Buckets
A new type of cybersecurity issue has emerged in which millions of people have had their personal information exposed through file storage systems known as cloud buckets. Such storage areas typically consist of public resources that are easily accessed by a variety of web service applications. Cloud buckets are like public file folders which contain user information.
Placing sensitive user data information in the cloud offers companies the capability to offload their security to big firms like Google, Apple, Amazon or Microsoft. The problem is that the buckets are not configured by these firms but rather by the companies who use their cloud networks.
Not all of these companies are storing their customer information properly. This lack of security is easy pickings for identity thieves. It is an example of readily available information that doesn’t require any hacking.
#6 Hacks of the Year
Speaking of hacks, this year experienced even more cybersecurity breaches. In 2018, there were 500 million personal records stolen, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center. But that number was miniscule compared to the 7.9 billion records exposed in 2019 by over 5,000 breaches, as reported by Risk-Based Security. Compared to the 2018 Q3 report, the total number of 2019 breaches was up 33.3 percent and the total number of records exposed more than doubled, up 112 percent. Here’s just a small sampling of the more infamous breaches (more details here):
> ElasticSearch Server Breach
> Canva Data Breach
> Facebook App Data Exposure
> Orvibo Leaked Database
> Social Media Profiles Data Leak
Sadly, the common theme in many of these data exposures is that data aggregators obtained and used personal information in a way the owners never imaged or gave their consented. This is a legal problem as much as a technical one.
#7 Google Glass
In 2019, Google announced a new $999 Glass augmented reality headset that looked suspicious like the failed Google Glass from the past.
Early in 2012, Google co-founder Sergey Brin debuted Google Glass. A year later, the founder and head of the Google Glass Project, Babak Parviz, delivered a keynote about the technology at the IEEE Hot Chips event at Stanford.
One of the ongoing leading smart phone trends is the ever-improving screen resolution and larger screen size. During his keynote, Parviz argued that there was a physical limit to this trend, but glass offered the next display form factor evolution, i.e., immersion with one’s surroundings. This will be especially important in augmented reality applications.
Originally, Google Glass was a standalone unit (not yet cloud-based) that included internet access, voice controls, and a camera for pictures and videos. It accomplished all of this with dual core processors running at more than 1 GHz. Five MEMS sensors capture all the environmental data. It had a two-dimensional touch panel on side of glass.
Why was this technology a failure? It wasn’t because of the technology, but rather because it wasn’t clear to the customer what problem it solved or why they needed it. Additionally, many felt it was intrusive as a user of the device could take pictures and short film snippets of people without their knowledge.
In January 2015, Google announced that they would no longer be developing Google Glass. But that wasn’t the end of the project. Instead, Google pivoted to the business sector by launching Glass Enterprise Edition for workplaces like factories in 2017. This year, Google announced the Glass augmented reality headset.
#8 Folding Phone
Samsung’s Galaxy folding phone was billed as a new dawn in display technology. The phone levered open into a 7.3-inch dynamic AMOLED display.
Unfortunately, the company had to postpone the launched of the folding phone after early review models broke, delaminated, and got filled with gunk. The problem seemed to be potential defects with a weak hinge as well as substances found inside the device.
As with many new technologies, the price tag also presented a barrier to anyone but early adopters. A reengineered and improved version is now on sale for near $2,000.
#9 Machine-Bias or Garbage-in, Garbage-out
The challenge of machine-bias came clearly into focus in 2019. Similar to human-bias, machine-bias occurs when the learning process for a Silicon-based machine makes erroneous assumptions due to the limitations of a data set and pre-programming criteria. One example of machine-bias was recently revealed in Apple’s new credit card, which contained an algorithm to decide how much trustworthy (or risky) a user might be. This evaluation used to be done by trained humans but now is often performed by AI based algorithms.
Apple’s credit card was shown to have a gender bias. Males are more likely to get a higher credit line limit than females. This bias was highlighted when a male entrepreneur was assigned a spending limit 10 times higher than that of his wife, even though they have a common account.
How does a machine get a bias? A report from IBM Research outlines two main ways AI systems could inherit biases. First, the AI software might contain errors and dependencies. Second, the data set from which AI learns its task may have flaws and bias. These data points come from the real world which contains many biases, e.g., favoring white men to the exclusion of women and minorities. Algorithms are only as smart as the data you feed them. This is a modern update of the old computer data expression, “garbage-in, garbage-out.”
#10 Software App Failures
No list of tech failures would be complete without mention of the apps that didn’t make it. The range of the applications that failed is wide.
Consider first British Airways (BA) glitch, whose computer system completely wend down during a peak travel season. Over a hundred flights of BA were cancelled and near to 300 delayed. Thousands of passengers were affected. Sadly, this wasn’t the first time the system had failed, which suggests a systemic problem that has not been properly addressed by management.
Or how about the Facebook 2019 failure that prevented users from viewing or loading images form the newsfeed? Several other social media apps had a similar problem, including Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. In each case, users were prevented from sending messages, media files and the like. Facebook claimed their problem was the result of an accident during routine maintenance.
Several app failures or hacks from 2019 include Apple’s Facetime bug and the Ring security camera intrusions. The later may have been more of a customer problem as Ring notes that the system invasion was likely the result of the hacker gaining access to the family’s account through weak or stolen login credentials.
Top 10 Tech Failures From 2019 That Hint At 2020 Trends
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