Grading the 2018 Technology and Government Predictions

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Here's what came true for government agencies—and what didn't.

Like most columnists and pundits, I try and predict trends and influences that will be big in the near future. Normally this is done near the end of the year, which is a perfect time for both reflection and forecasting. In fact, I am currently researching the top technology trends that will be affecting the federal government in 2019, and have a few predictions that might surprise you. Expect that column around the final week of December, just as 2018 is drawing to a close.

I really like most of the prediction columns that I read, but a few years ago I noticed a bit of a trend. After the columnists wrote their predictions, they simply moved on, never to revisit them. But because I try to be all about accountability, I started going back and grading myself, to see if any of my predictions were coming true, or at least moving in the right direction. For 2017, I got 66 percent of them correct. That’s not quite as good as I would have liked, but predicting the future, even along very narrow pathways, is not an easy thing.

Which brings us to this year, and the predictions I made for government and technology. Let’s take a look and see how I did in what turned out to be a very fast-moving and somewhat chaotic year.

2018 Prediction One: Blockchain Beefs Up Government Cybersecurity

Blockchain is quickly becoming ubiquitous in cybersecurity, both as a misunderstood buzzword and a valid, nearly unhackable technology that is being deployed to do everything from securing supply chains to combating human trafficking. It’s even been suggested as a way to protect elections.

Originally created in 2009 to secure the emerging Bitcoin cryptocurrency, the underlying technology is comprised of a series of records, also called blocks, that are all encrypted. Once recorded, no block can be changed without also altering every previous block in the chain, which normally requires permission from that record’s owner. The interesting thing about blockchain is that it does not require a centralized server. It’s a distributed computing platform, which makes it even more secure because there is no central server to attack or compromise.

This distributed architecture has made it a bit of quandary for the federal government, which has traditionally leaned toward more centralized computing platforms that it can tightly control. It took some research, and even an order from President Trump to conduct a comprehensive study of blockchain, for many in government to realize that as long as they control even a single block, they have complete say over everything downstream in a blockchain. You don’t have to hold all the cards. With blockchain, a single card is just as powerful as the entire deck.

My specific prediction was that certain government agencies would actually start using blockchain in 2018, and this turned out to be true. The Health and Human Services Department is using blockchain to safely share medical images, track records, and improve acquisition. The State Department is working with Coca-Cola to create a blockchain worker registry to combat forced labor around the globe. The Treasury Department has started a proof-of-concept pilot for managing its information technology assets. And the Homeland Security Department is testing blockchain as a way to keep counterfeit goods out of the supply chain. Especially if these early programs are successful, government will see even more blockchain in their future.

Verdict: True!

2018 Prediction Two: Artificial Intelligence Goes Mainstream

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is one of those greatly misunderstood terms that evoke a sense of both wonder and fear in most people. The subject of numerous movies, books, graphic novels, video games and television shows, it calls to mind a super-intelligent computer that inevitably tries to take over the world. In the real world, AI is a less of a maniacal genius and much more a series of tools that are able to perform the grunt work that humans are not very good—or very quick—at doing. In fact, under the AI umbrella are technologies like cognitive computing, deep learning and machine learning, all of which do something slightly different than a pure artificial intelligence. It is here that we saw huge growth in AI deployments.

Literally hundreds of government programs use AI now. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is teaming up with IBM to identify and classify millions of potential bugs and vulnerabilities running in government software. Police are using AI to identify lies in written reports. The FBI is training AI to identify people whose fingerprints have become too damaged for traditional identification methods. The Government Services Administration is starting to use AI to help improve agency contact centers. And of course, the military wants AI to help it fight the next war, and is investing billions to develop that technology ahead of potential adversaries like China and Russia.

Artificial intelligence is a technology whose time has come, and 2018 has proven to be a tipping point into the mainstream.

Verdict: True!

2018 Prediction Three: Drones Become a Part of Everyday Life

Every year, I try to have at least one prediction that I think is a longshot. For 2018, drones moving into everyday life was it. Surprisingly, this one came pretty close to being true, and depending on where you live, might have already started.

Drones are pretty amazing tools. The miniature flying robots can go almost anywhere and beam pictures or video back to their operators. In 2017, there were a lot of successes in public safety, including several high-profile rescues that would probably not have been possible, at least not with enough speed to save a life, without them. NASA even added a drone to the latest rover that will be landing on Mars in 2020.

In fact, within government, there are so many drones out there collecting information, especially video, that it’s becoming a problem to have humans shift through it all. (This is where prediction two comes into play, with AI coming to the rescue.)

As cool as all those drones are, it was probably too much of a stretch to think that drones would make their way into everyday life. But perhaps I didn’t jump the gun by too much. The Federal Aviation Administration selected 10 cities across the country to become drone technology testbeds. Feds envision drones doing everything from delivering life-saving equipment to those in need, like a portable defibrillator if someone is having a heart attack, to getting people pizza while it’s still fresh and hot.

Some testing has already started in cities like San Diego, where residents were recently surveyed  regarding their thoughts on having drones crisscrossing their neighborhoods. Other entities that will soon be testing drones in their area include the city of Reno, Nevada; the University of Alaska-Fairbanks; the Kansas Department of Transportation; the North Dakota Department of Transportation; the North Carolina Department of Transportation; Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma; the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Investment Authority in Herndon, Virginia; the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority; and the Lee County Mosquito Control District in southwest Florida.

So I might have jumped the gun a little bit on the drone prediction, but make no mistake, the drones are flying, and will be in a neighborhood near you soon. So long as they bring me my pizza, I welcome our new flying friends with open arms.

Verdict: Not true … yet!

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