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Internet of Things, OT and Artificial Intelligence: Government and Technology Predictions for 2016

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John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology and government. He is currently the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys

The year 2015 was a bit like that ancient curse that states “May you live in interesting times.” It certainly was interesting, though like the curse, interesting did not always mean good.

From a technology standpoint, government was stunned by the ramifications of the Office of Personnel Management hack, though it gave EINSTEIN the chance to rise above some interagency squabbling and program shortcomings to finally get into a position where it could watch over and protect government agencies in the future.

On the consumer side that only indirectly touches government, there were billions of dollars in hacks as well, with many payment systems becoming compromised at retailers of all sizes. But we also finally got the Europay, MasterCard, VISA system in place in the United States, which should make payment systems more secure.

But instead of looking back, I wanted to write about trends I predict will see significant growth in 2016, and how those implementations might affect government. This seems to be the season for making these predictions, and next year we can revisit my forecasts and see how close I got to reality.

Over my 20-year history with doing these IT predictions, I am running at about 80 percent correct. So, while I’m not a Greek oracle, I’m a bit better than a coin flip.

The Internet of Things Finally Brings It

Almost every year since about 2005, there have been pundits who predicted the so-called Internet of Things would explode. I’ve held off, but I think 2015 was a jumping-off point for the technology, and that 2016 is going to be the one where IoT devices flood into every corner of our lives they haven’t already invaded.

The tiny little IoT devices are already in everything from home appliances to traffic lights to temperature sensors at the office. Now, they are moving into the wearable category with things like those little FitBit sensors. Wearable IoT will help to push the category in 2016 to levels where government won’t be able to ignore them, or at least shouldn’t.

According to some sources, there will be an estimated 780 million wearable devices worldwide by 2019, with many of them finding homes in the U.S. That is only a drop in the bucket of the total number of IoT devices, with Gartner predicting 21 billion will come online by 2020.

Government should be concerned because security is sometimes a complete afterthought with IoT devices. Some of them have inherently bad code that can be exploited as a backdoor into a connected smartphone, computer or even network.

Congress is starting to take IoT seriously at least, with some congressmen thinking it should become part of the encryption debate. Better to get ahead of this issue now, before the myriad of bad guys figure out how to attack this largely unstudied and unprotected resource that will soon be, in some cases literally, touching every one of us.

OT Under the Crosshairs

I love writing about operational technology almost as much as the information technology we all know and love. In a sense, OT is kind of like IoT in many cases. OT can do things like control the flow of water through a pipe or trigger an alarm when a power conduit experiences a surge.

Many times, they are single-function, “dumb” devices either not networked or have one-way connections into another device that records their reports. And sometimes, they are rather complex systems like Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition, or SCADA, computers that control entire power plants, assembly lines or other mechanical and electrical hybrid systems.

In 2016, many OT will move or continue to move into a networked setup like IT networks. Some OT will even begin to connect directly with IT. In utilities, this is happening because companies don’t have the money or the personnel anymore to send a guy in a truck out to a substation every time some OT device needs to be fixed or examined.

Many of the people who serviced OT networks over the years are also retiring. And only those graybeards, as they are sometimes called in the utilities industry, knew exactly how the thousands of OT devices created by hundreds of manufacturers interacted with one another. From a utility company perspective, it’s far easier to simply network everything like IT and manage it all remotely.

And there is the problem, which I fear might be quite painful for us in 2016. Just recently, an Associated Press investigation discovered the nation’s power grid, the lifeblood that sustains our economy and our very lifestyle, has already been hacked at least 12 times over the past 10 years.

As OT becomes networked, it becomes vulnerable to remote attacks and hacks. Previously, a substation loaded with OT out in the middle of nowhere couldn’t be hacked unless the attacker actually went there. Now, it’s possible for attackers to access the electrical grid’s OT controls remotely, as the AP found has already been done at least a dozen times.

Thankfully, most of the hacks from the AP investigation were minor, but it may take someone remotely triggering a full-scale blackout or some type of manmade disaster before we finally take this threat seriously. I hope I’m wrong about this one, but I fear the confluence of IT and OT make 2016 ripe for such an event.

Artificial Intelligence Gets Smarter

There have been some pretty big strides in the field of artificial intelligence in recent years. IBM’s Watson already beat the best and brightest humans in "Jeopardy," and is now starring in commercials talking about how smart computers are becoming. In 2016, I predict the envelope will get pushed even farther.

On the one hand, AI is an incredible concept. If we can train computers to think like a human, only much faster and without all the needs for things like food and sleep that slow people down, then who knows what problems we could solve that otherwise might take hundreds of years?

Then, there is the downside, the whole becoming self-aware problem that’s become the staple of sci-fi movies like the “Terminator” series, "The Matrix” and countless others. It may not be that far-fetched. Very smart people like Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have all warned us about the dangers of AI. Gates recently compared AI development to that of nuclear weapons. Some people even predict that humanity will only survive for somewhere between a few minutes and a few days once a true AI first comes online.

I don’t think a true AI will emerge in 2016 -- nor do I think one would automatically be dangerous to the human race. But I do think we will see a lot of strides in AI in 2016, to the point where computer intelligence will become very difficult to identify compared to when interacting with a human.

The processing power is nearly to the point where computers can “think” within limited circumstances, and perform not just raw data processing, but also advanced cognitive functions within a limited environment. Even the personal assistants on our phones are getting a lot more helpful and intuitive. That and other points of human and computer interaction will only become more efficient in the new year as strides in AI continue to blossom.

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