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Fact Check: 2016 Government and Tech Predictions

South Korean professional Go player Lee Sedo appears on the screen during the second match of the Google DeepMind Challenge Match against AlphaGo in March 2016.

South Korean professional Go player Lee Sedo appears on the screen during the second match of the Google DeepMind Challenge Match against AlphaGo in March 2016. // Lee Jin-man/AP

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 end of the year is fast approaching, and that means it’s almost time for my annual government and technology predictions for next year. But this week, I want to go back and do something most weathermen and politicians never do: fact check my work. I was honored to be invited to speak at two universities about my 2016 predictions, so at the time, someone must have had faith in them. But with the year almost complete, we can look back and definitively see if I was worth my salt.

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Prediction 1: The Internet of Things Finally Brings It

My exact wording on this one was “that the so-called internet of things would explode.” Wow, that was oddly prophetic for an entirely different reason. I had meant to imply 2015 was a jumping-off point for IoT technology, with 2016 being the year those tiny little sensors would be embedded into everything from thermostats to televisions to sneakers.

And that did happen, as IoT began to invade nearly every aspect of our lives in its climb to a predicted 21 billion devices deployed worldwide by 2020.

However, as we all know, that trend was upended when the IoT botnet known as Mirai struck on Oct. 21st in a massive denial-of-service attack that took down some of the biggest Internet sites in the world. We massively deployed an unsecured technology that could be used in nefarious way to destroy all our other technology. Did we not learn anything from the plot of all those sci-fi movies over the years?

IoT and the aftermath of the Mirai attacks are going to be featured in my 2017 predictions because government can no longer ignore those tiny devices. But in terms of this fact check, I would have to say I got this one right. There were more IoT devices deployed in 2016 than ever before and in many new ways. There might be a bit of a backslide now, and some of them were corrupted for evil purposes, but it was still the year of IoT.

Verdict: Correct! (perhaps with some caveats)

Prediction 2: OT Under the Crosshairs

I admit I may have went out too far on a limb for this one, but it’s only because I am so passionate about the need to secure operational technology alongside traditional IT. Unlike IT, the devices in an OT network mostly have limited functionality, other than the supervisory control and data acquisition computers that regulate them. They are almost exclusively used in industrial applications like power plants, assembly lines and heavy industry. And many of them are aging, and don’t have adequate protection even as companies begin to attach them to IT networks in an effort to simply their management.

Back in 2015, an Associated Press investigation found the nation’s power grid had been attacked using OT networked into IT at least 12 times over the past 10 years. That may not sound like a lot compared to the daily attacks against IT networks, but it might only take one successful attack to put a large portion of the country into the dark. I thought 2016 would be the year that finally happened.

Obviously, it didn’t. Companies have been stepping up their protection of OT assets as well as replacing some of the older, noncompatible equipment with gear easier to manage and protect. We still have a long way to go, but seem to be moving in the right direction, so perhaps we can keep the lights on after all.

Verdict: Not true! (Thankfully)

Prediction 3: Artificial Intelligence Gets Smarter

My first prediction was shaky and my second was wrong. But I nailed this one. Before 2016, all we had was IBM’s Watson winning on "Jeopardy!" to point toward computer intelligence. And I am not a big fan of Watson, which is more of an expert system—especially the way it was programmed to win on the game show—than anything close to a machine with true intelligence.

Then this year we got to meet Google’s AlphaGo, a program able to think like a human to beat one of the top masters in the world at the ancient Chinese board game Go. The game of Go has so many options for play, even compared to chess, that the number of possible games is about the same as the number of molecules in the known universe. AlphaGo could not rely on brute force computing or having every possible answer pre-programmed because that is well beyond our technical capacity.

Instead, the program used superior pattern recognition and learned strategy, just like a human, to beat Lee Se-dol, widely regarded as the best player in the world. AlphaGo was able to tap into qualitative rather than quantitative information, allowing it to contemplate infinite possibilities, at least within the structured confines of the game.

It will be interesting to see where that type of artificial intelligence can be applied next. Can you imagine a program like that inside a security operations center thwarting every attack made against it, and growing smarter and more efficient each time? That is just one of nearly endless applications for a true thinking machine.

Verdict: Correct!

It looks like I was two for three in 2016, and I’m happy I got the one wrong about the OT attack, though I hope we continue to remain vigilant. I’m pleased with that win-loss ratio, though I’ll try to do even better next year.

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