Coverage of global affairs in 2017 focused on the big flashpoints — North Korea, the fight against ISIS and the aftershocks of Russia’s election meddling.
But along with the familiar narratives there were a few plot twists –- from deadly drones to advances in artificial intelligence to new frontiers — experts say 2018 could be a year where the stuff of speculative fiction gets real.
Civilian drones could get weaponized
The battle for Mosul generated some strange and gruesome images.
ISIS had Mad Max-style VBEIDs — heavily armored cars stuffed with explosives careening through the ruined streets on suicide missions. Iraqi anti-terror forces used bulldozers to plow insurgents into the rubble.
But some of the most unsettling images were the ISIS propaganda videos shot from far above the city. Slow aerials of ruined streets — small bombs drifting down like badminton shuttlecocks — then vanishing in a pop of dust as tiny human forms scatter.
Thanks to the improving quality and falling prices of civilian drones, ISIS had air power.
“Anyone with basic skills can equip a civilian drone with explosives, fly it into a populated area, and do great damage,” Massachusetts Institute of Techology (MIT) professor Lisa Parks wrote in an email interview with ABC News. “This definitely makes me nervous.”
Consumer drones are cheap, precise, easy to operate from concealed places, and equipped with cameras that can pan, tilt and target. So far the effect hasn’t been that dramatic, but what happens if insurgents use them to drop something deadlier?
“Given that legal regulations regarding use of civilian airspace are flagrantly violated in conflict zones and by insurgents and others there is really nothing to stop insurgents from using drones to drop more effective explosives or biological or chemical weapons,” Parks told ABC News.
Parks, co-editor of “Life in the Age of Drone Warfare,” studies new media technologies, including drones.
Aside from the nightmare of a drone dropping weapons of mass destruction on soldiers and civilians, just the thought that something deadly may be hovering above “changes peoples’ disposition to the sky and makes them nervous about what lies above and what kind of harm may be done to people on the ground during day or night,” she said.
As Go goes, so goes the world
In May, Google’s artificial intelligence program AlphaGo continued its rampage through the world of Go -– the notoriously difficult and ancient Chinese board game by beating the planet’s best human player, 19-year-old Ke Jie.
Ke had played AlphaGo before, and was astonished at how far the program had come.
“Last year, it was still quite humanlike when it played,” Ke said, according to the New York Times. “This year, it became like a god of Go.”
China made a big push into artificial intelligence in July, announcing plans to draw even with the U.S. by 2020, pull ahead by 2025, and dominate global AI five years after that. So far US tech companies are ahead of the game, but in certain areas, like facial recognition and voice software, China is already the world leader -– as demonstrated an unsettling video of Donald Trump appearing to speak Chinese thanks to an AI powered program by the Chinese company iFlytek.
In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin told a group of students that “artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world,” he said.
Experts predict the first real AI powered breakthroughs will happen in material sciences, medicine, and in military applications -– with a re-match between AlphaGo and Ke sure to draw headlines and attention this spring.
Bitcoin boom or bust
Whether it crashes or soars or simply settles into the kind of alternative currency its creators envisioned, bitcoin will likely have a big impact.
Last year North Korea is thought to have hacked, blackmailed, and outright stole a sanctions-blunting fortune: North Korea is the prime suspect in the wannacry ransomware attacks and recent bitcoin heists worth over $100 million. So far North Korea has been the only rogue nation with the criminal ambition and cyber skill to pull it off, at least as far as we know, but others are sure to follow.
Among the individuals and organizations who bought bitcoin before it shot up, far right groups in the U.S., according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Wikileaks, according to founder Julian Assange who tweeted a sarcastic “thank you” note to politicians who got credit companies to drop him, forcing him to invest early in bitcoin.
“My deepest thanks to the US government, Senator McCain and Senator Lieberman for pushing Visa, MasterCard, Payal, AmEx, Mooneybookers, et al, into erecting an illegal banking blockade against @WikiLeaks starting in 2010. It caused us to invest in Bitcoin — with > 50000% return,” he tweeted.
On Dec. 2, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, Gen. John Hyten, had a blunt warning about Russia and China’s space program: America’s rivals are developing ways to knock out U.S. space satellites, potentially blinding which is how the military would first detect a nuclear launch.
“They’ve been building weapons, testing weapons, building weapons to operate from the earth in space, jamming weapons, laser weapons, and they have not kept it secret,” said Hyten, who is in charge of the U.S. military’s space programs.
One week later, President Trump ordered NASA to send astronauts back to the Moon, and someday even to Mars. The president cast his directive as a “giant step toward that inspiring future and toward reclaiming America’s proud destiny in space,” but, like Hyten, he stressed the importance of military dominance.
“Space has so much to do with so many other applications, including a military application. So we are the leader and we’re going to stay the leader, and we’re going to increase it many-fold,” Trump said.
In November the Arctic recorded its third-lowest level of sea ice since satellites started checking, but it wasn’t uniform. The ice actually grew faster than normal around Canada, but melted away in the Chukchi Sea just north of the Bering Straits, according to the National Snow & Ice Data Center, a part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado.
The Chukchi Sea matters because it contains vast resources and because it’s one of the world’s most strategically important waterways, separating the Pacific and North Atlantic (and dividing the Russian Navy).
Russia is building nuclear powered icebreakers and refurbishing abandoned Cold War-era air land and naval bases seeking military dominance in a critical part of the world.