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The Danger of Digitizing Everything

The Danger of Digitizing Everything

In 2024, I will walk into a physical space—a restaurant, a hairdresser, an arts venue, an artisanal cheese shop—and instead of being handed a physical piece of paper with some useful information on it, or being told it in words, I will be shown a faded roundel with a QR code on it. I will hold my phone’s camera up to it wearily. Sometimes it will work, but the font on the menu or the information will be small. I’ll have to enlarge it and take my glasses off to read it, because I’ve reached that age. Sometimes it won’t work at all. Sometimes the information on it will be out of date.

In all cases, many people—some elderly, others with access needs, children, anyone who just doesn’t fancy constantly looking at their phone—will be pushed toward more useless screen time and away from the kind of brief, friendly interactions with other humans that help us all feel part of the fabric of life. We’ll have reached the point of overdigitization.

It’s not that there aren’t more gains to be made in technology. Incredible things are happening in biotech, especially since the pandemic. The world of continuous glucose monitors and lateral flow tests (LFT) will keep growing. In 2024 we will see new kinds of LFTs that test for other infections and problems. We will see more useful work in truly personalized medicine. But in the UK, at least, the benefit of those innovations will be increasingly available only for those who can pay for it themselves. The division between the technological haves and have-nots will only continue to grow.

And although technology will continue to flourish, my guess is that the truly big gains in digital communication have now been made for a generation. If there’s innovation to come in digital communication it will be in the field of overdigitization, using screens where paper and actual words from real people both work better. We could—and should—use this next decade to shore up the gains we’ve made for all members of society. But I predict that, in 2024, we won’t. The Good Things Foundation estimates that 10 million people in the UK lack the basic digital skills needed to access the modern world. And 6.9 million people will continue to be excluded if they’re not given proactive help. But the current British government doesn’t seem much interested in raising the floor for the worst off.

These things can’t be done by individual companies, which come up with good-sounding ideas like, “why don’t we let people order a coffee while they’re getting their hair done, using a QR code!” It’s exactly the kind of things that incorrigibly urban WIRED readers like me think would be fun to use—but companies don’t tend to think about how to help people who aren’t going to spend money with them, or who are too put off by over-exuberant digital-everywhere to actually go into the shop.

Companies can look after their employees. And they can work to overcome that other half of the overdigitization problem: that many jobs are becoming more boring and isolated because they involve the equivalents of more pointing-at-QR-code-roundels and less actual interaction with people. But while companies can think about employees and about good customer service, thinking about improving equality and fairness is the job of government, not businesses.

There is of course one thing I can predict with total certainty for the UK in 2024: That the British public will get to have their own say on digital inequality and a whole host of other issues. Because, in 2024, Parliament will be dissolved in advance of an election.

Regulators Are Finally Catching Up With Big Tech

Regulators Are Finally Catching Up With Big Tech

In 2024, we will see courts and regulators around the world demonstrate that tech exceptionalism, when it comes to the applicability of legal rules, is magical thinking. The tide has already started to turn on the assumption that law and regulation cannot keep up with technological innovation. But, in 2024, the sea change will come: not through new rules, but by old rules being applied aggressively to new problems.

In the United States, in the absence of federal privacy legislation, regulators have already started to repurpose laws and rules they do have at their disposal to address some of the most egregious examples of Big Tech playing fast and loose with our rights and personal data. In 2023, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) continued to expand the regulatory heft of consumer protection regulations.

It took on the problem of dark patterns—deceptive design used by apps and websites to trick users into doing something that they didn’t intend to, like buying or subscribing to something—with a half-billion-dollar fine against Fortnite maker Epic Games. The FTC also issued massive fines to Amazon for significant breaches of privacy through Alexa and Ring doorbell devices. There are no signs that, in 2024, the FTC will slow down, with rules in the pipeline to govern commercial surveillance and digital security. In 2024, we’ll see regulators in other fields and other parts of the world follow suit, bolstered by the FTC’s successes.

In 2022, the French Data Protection Authority, the CNIL, fined Clearview AI a record €20 million (around $21.9 million) for failure to comply with an earlier 2021 ruling, which had ordered the company to stop collecting and using data of persons on French territory. Further overdue penalties will be racking up in the millions of euros in 2023. In 2024, we will see regulators such as the CNIL taking more radical legal steps to show that no company is above the law.

OpenAI’s CEO, Sam Altman, started 2023 with a call for global AI regulation, but balked at the actual prospect of EU regulation in the shape of the EU AI Act. While AI doomers asked for a pause on innovation to allow regulation to catch up, regulators including the Italian DPA found ways to clip their wings by stopping ChatGPT on their territory, albeit temporarily, with existing regulations. Ongoing intellectual property lawsuits, such as the one against Microsoft which charges the company to have illegally used code created by others, may well result in a turbulent 2024 for the fundamental business model of generative AI.

It is not only the individual impacts of technology that courts and regulators have in their sights. In 2024, they will also be considering the impacts on society, markets, and businesses. For instance, antitrust actions in the US and the EU launched in 2023 call into question Google’s dominance in the ad tech market, potentially shaking the monolithic logic of the programmatic advertising model that has helped create the internet as we know it today.

In 2024, we will see the regulatory void long enjoyed by Big Tech come to an end. While new laws and regulations like the AI Act, the Digital Services Act, and the Digital Markets Act in the EU start to take shape, courts and regulators will continue to apply existing law and regulation to the new ways that technology affects our daily lives. We will see the full panoply of legal tools coming to meet the challenges. Human rights and civil liberties law, competition law, consumer rights law, intellectual property, defamation, tort, employment law, and a plethora of other fields will be engaged to tackle the real-life harms already being caused by existing technology, including AI.

The VC Funding Party Is Over

The VC Funding Party Is Over

“It might be the best time for any kind of business in any industry to raise money for all of history, like since the time of the ancient Egyptians,” an excitable Stuart Butterfield, CEO of Slack, told Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times in 2015.

This was no exaggeration. While interest rates remained close to zero, venture capital funds raised more money than ever and exited their investments at some of the highest valuations ever witnessed.

The glory days of VC are over, and if history is any guide, the tech bust should last through 2024 and beyond. In other words, the venture capital bust has only just started.

Ultralow interest rates benefited venture capital in a number of ways. Low yields on conventional investments lured investors to Silicon Valley, which promised outsized returns. Between 2016 and 2021, US venture capital investment tripled. Ultralow rates compress the dimension of time, making the future appear closer than it is. It’s not surprising, therefore, that a large number of wildly extravagant startups got financed—luxury space travel, flying taxis, autonomous vehicles, and so forth. Due diligence took a back seat. Sam Bankman-Fried’s failed crypto-exchange, FTX, attracted a roster of blue-chip investors, led by Silicon Valley luminary Sequoia Capital.

The valuations of startups, whose profits lay in the distant future, were vastly inflated by easy money. After battery developer QuantumScape merged with a SPAC in 2020, its market cap exceeded General Motors’—even though the company expected no sales for many years. Easy money also fueled market liquidity, helping venture capitalists exit their investments. Never before were so many unprofitable companies floated at such high valuations. In 2021, more than a thousand IPOs came to the US markets, more than double the previous record.

The punch bowl was removed from the VC party after the Fed started to raise interest rates in 2022. QuantumScape’s stock is down more than 90 percent—but at least, unlike many other startups, it’s still in business. Bankman-Fried is in jail, awaiting trial. The IPO market has dried up. New entrants into the VC world have run for the hills. Others face large capital calls from VC funds they committed to during good times. Starved of fresh funds, many startups face a bleak future. WeWork, which grandly describes itself as an “office solutions company” (sounds better than “rentals”) and once sported a valuation of close to $50 billion, is the latest to hit the skids.

The Nasdaq index of technology stocks rebounded strongly in the first half of 2023. There’s huge excitement around artificial intelligence—NVIDIA, whose graphic processing units are used for AI, is valued at more than a trillion dollars. Great speculative bubbles, however, take years to unwind. Bear market rebounds, otherwise known as “sucker’s rallies,” are commonplace. After the dotcom bust, it took the Nasdaq a year and a half to trough (and more than 15 years to regain its peak). The IPO market saw little action for years.

The bear market in tech stocks is likely to return in 2024, with the Nasdaq index set to hit a new multiyear low. More startups will go bust, and venture capital funds will continue to post negative returns. As for Nvidia, it’s worth recalling what happened to Cisco Systems. During the dotcom bubble, Cisco, whose servers powered the internet, was briefly the world’s most valuable company. Its stock traded at nearly 40 times sales before crashing. More than two decades later, Cisco’s share price remains well below the bubble peak. Valued at around 35 times sales, Nvidia could well suffer a similar fate.

The Ocean’s Mysteries—and Marvels—Are About to Reach New Depths

The Ocean’s Mysteries—and Marvels—Are About to Reach New Depths

The ocean is Earth’s defining feature. Two of the most famous photographs of all time stamped that indelibly on our minds: Earthrise (1968) and The Blue Marble (1972), both taken during the Apollo missions to the moon. Once you have seen our fragile blue planet hanging in space, you can’t unsee it.

The ocean is an engine driven by sunlight, one that shifts and swirls as it carries energy, nutrients, and life around the planet in intricate patterns both large and small. The way it turns affects all our lives. It’s not a coincidence that Iceland happens to have rich fishing grounds, or that Britain is randomly warmer than Canada at the same latitude, or that luck of the draw means that the North Sea is green rather than blue.

These are all direct consequences of the way the ocean engine turns. Until now, the submerged workings of this giant machine have been hard to see and appreciate. In 2024, that will change.

For instance, the EU is currently building the first dynamic and interactive digital model of the entire ocean—a digital twin—which integrates knowledge from all branches of oceanography, including data from buoys, autonomous marine craft, satellites, and high-performance computational models. In 2024, this digital twin of the ocean will become operational. This will be publicly available to policymakers, businesses, and the public to help prioritize funds, make conservation decisions, and decide on how and where to deploy new marine infrastructure. The complex interactions of the ocean will become accessible in an entirely new way.

Our attitude toward the ocean will also change. Historically, we’ve used it both as a universal rubbish dump (a place where we can supposedly discharge things without consequence) and as a universal resource (somewhere that is endlessly exploitable). Now that the damage this has done to the ocean is clear, we are starting to see ourselves as stewards of this engine and its life, both because it’s valuable and because we absolutely depend on it.

In 2024, a UN Global Plastics Treaty will be agreed upon, which will include a road map for controlling plastic use and waste, and a framework for reducing the plastic pollution that ends up in the ocean. Also in 2024, the second stage of an EU Action Plan for the oceans will kick in, forcing a change in rules for bottom fishing and fishing gear to specifically protect species such as common skate, guitarfish, great white shark, sturgeons, and turtles.

Most importantly, our perception of ourselves will once again change. In 2024, the Artemis 2 mission will be the first crewed mission to return to the moon since 1972, taking humans around it, but not landing. For the first time since the Blue Marble photograph was taken, human eyes will once again be far enough away to see our blue planet in all its glory against the emptiness of space. And this time, when the photos are shared with the world, we will be able to see who we really are: citizens of a planet whose beating heart is its ocean.

Get Ready for the Great AI Disappointment

Get Ready for the Great AI Disappointment

In the decades to come, 2023 may be remembered as the year of generative AI hype, where ChatGPT became arguably the fastest-spreading new technology in human history and expectations of AI-powered riches became commonplace. The year 2024 will be the time for recalibrating expectations.

Of course, generative AI is an impressive technology, and it provides tremendous opportunities for improving productivity in a number of tasks. But because the hype has gone so far ahead of reality, the setbacks of the technology in 2024 will be more memorable.

More and more evidence will emerge that generative AI and large language models provide false information and are prone to hallucination—where an AI simply makes stuff up, and gets it wrong. Hopes of a quick fix to the hallucination problem via supervised learning, where these models are taught to stay away from questionable sources or statements, will prove optimistic at best. Because the architecture of these models is based on predicting the next word or words in a sequence, it will prove exceedingly difficult to have the predictions be anchored to known truths.

Anticipation that there will be exponential improvements in productivity across the economy, or the much-vaunted first steps towards “artificial general intelligence”, or AGI, will fare no better. The tune on productivity improvements will shift to blaming failures on faulty implementation of generative AI by businesses. We may start moving towards the (much more meaningful) conclusion that one needs to know which human tasks can be augmented by these models, and what types of additional training workers need to make this a reality.

Some people will start recognizing that it was always a pipe dream to reach anything resembling complex human cognition on the basis of predicting words. Others will say that intelligence is just around the corner. Many more, I fear, will continue to talk of the “existential risks” of AI, missing what is going wrong, as well as the much more mundane (and consequential) risks that its uncontrolled rollout is posing for jobs, inequality, and democracy.

We will witness these costs more clearly in 2024. Generative AI will have been adopted by many companies, but it will prove to be just “so-so automation” of the type that displaces workers but fails to deliver huge productivity improvements.

The biggest use of ChatGPT and other large language models will be in social media and online search. Platforms will continue to monetize the information they collect via individualized digital ads, while competition for user attention will intensify. The amount of manipulation and misinformation online will grow. Generative AI will then increase the amount of time people spend using screens (and the inevitable mental health problems associated with it).

There will be more AI startups, and the open source model will gain some traction, but this will not be enough to halt the emergence of a duopoly in the industry, with Google and Microsoft/OpenAI dominating the field with their gargantuan models. Many more companies will be compelled to rely on these foundation models to develop their own apps. And because these models will continue to disappoint due to false information and hallucinations, many of these apps will also disappoint.

Calls for antitrust and regulation will intensify. Antitrust action will go nowhere, because neither the courts nor policymakers will have the courage to attempt to break up the largest tech companies. There will be more stirrings in the regulation space. Nevertheless, meaningful regulation will not arrive in 2024, for the simple reason that the US government has fallen so far behind the technology that it needs some time to catch up—a shortcoming that will become more apparent in 2024, intensifying discussions around new laws and regulations, and even becoming more bipartisan.