2019: State of emergency


20 Jan 2022

Image: © Lemonsoup14/Stock.adobe.com

In 2019, the sci-tech world was in strife as scientists pleaded to be heard on the severity of the climate crisis and tech companies became embroiled in human rights issues and trade wars.

2019 saw the continuation of disturbing reports that China was using technology to power in-depth surveillance and human rights abuses of Uyghur muslims. Apple was admonished for complying with China’s ban on VPN apps, which made it harder for Uyghur advocates to operate safely within the country. The US tech company was also accused of “caving to political pressure” from China when it removed a mapping app that was linked to protesters in Hong Kong.

Future Human

In an attempt to stem the Chinese government’s influence on Twitter during this unrest, more than 200,000 accounts were suspended. Facebook followed suit and YouTube disabled more than 200 videos that appeared to be part of a disinformation campaign.

During all of this, the trade relationship between the US and China was deteriorating, with one Chinese company in particular bearing the brunt of sanctions.

In January, the US issued 23 charges against Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of company founder Ren Zhengfei, who had been arrested in Canada the previous month. Huawei was then blacklisted, meaning US companies couldn’t buy its technology without government approval.

Google cut Huawei off from its services, then Intel, Qualcomm, Xilinx and Broadcom followed. The ban was later eased through a temporary trade licence, but the situation was far from resolved by year end.

Meanwhile, regulators were taking US tech to task. In March, the EU slapped Google with a €1.49bn antitrust fine for its ad practices. In July, the US Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook $5bn for the mishandling of user data, which made its $170m fine for YouTube’s child privacy violations look like a slap on the wrist.

Tech platforms themselves were cracking down on political ads. Twitter followed TikTok’s example and banned them, while Google said it would limit targeting ahead of the UK and US elections.

Though not democratically elected, Silicon Republic saw its own change of leadership in 2019. John Kennedy departed the company after 17 years and managing editor Elaine Burke stepped in as the site’s new editor. The change came at a pivotal time for the company as we waved goodbye to Inspirefest after five years. The final edition of the event went out with a bang, with noted speakers including Intercom co-founder Des Traynor and Theranos whistleblower Erika Cheung.

It was time for a new chapter in international sci-tech events, however, and in October Silicon Republic co-founder Ann O’Dea introduced Future Human. The stage was set for an all-new event experience in 2020 – though we didn’t realise then just how different that experience would be.

As 2019 wound to a close, reports of a viral pneumonia emerged from Wuhan, China. The rest is very recent history.

Climate emergency

Ireland became the second country in the world to declare a climate emergency in May 2019, though there was scepticism as to whether this amounted to anything more than a PR exercise with empty promises.

But the emergency itself was very real, and more than 11,000 scientists agreed. Their analysis of 40 years’ worth of data warned of “untold suffering” without preventative action. And 2019 alone was a year filled with catastrophic warning signs.

In May, scientists warned that more than 1m species were threatened with extinction. In July, a heatwave across Europe impacted flora, fauna and iPhones as record temperatures caused devices to overheat. By August, the Amazon was burning at a record rate. Before the year was out, we had reached nine climate tipping points – more than half of the red flags identified by scientists.

While a lot of energy focused on single-use plastics, more radical change was being demanded by Greta Thunberg and her army of teenage school strikers. President Michael D Higgins told the UN he was aware that the price of “inaction” was “catastrophic”, and Minister Richard Bruton, TD, told COP25 that Ireland was “determined to play its part”, but the country faced a struggle as one of Europe’s biggest greenhouse gas polluters.

To make matters worse, the US began the process of pulling out of the Paris Agreement, though the leaders of Google, Apple, Tesla, Microsoft and more said they would stick with it.

But COP25 only succeeded in kicking the crisis down the road once more. “Never have I seen such a disconnect between what the science requires and what the climate negotiations are delivering in terms of meaningful action,” lamented Alden Meyer from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Indigenous rights activist Kera Sherwood O’Regan issued one last stark warning: “You forget that we cannot negotiate with nature.”

Facebook boards the blockchain train

Apparently oblivious to its implications for the climate crisis, Facebook announced plans to launch its very own cryptocurrency, Libra, within a year.

A month later, US treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin warned that Libra could be used for money laundering or financing terrorism. At a US Senate committee hearing, project lead David Marcus was told that Facebook “doesn’t deserve our trust”. UK legislators then planned a probe to investigate Libra’s potential as a slippery slope into unchecked fraudulence.

Later, plans to legitimise the project fell like a house of cards after all major payments services, including PayPal, Visa, Mastercard and Stripe, pulled out.

At a Congress hearing in October, Mark Zuckerberg himself admitted: “I actually don’t know if Libra is going to work.” Since then, it has been renamed Diem but the currency and network is yet to launch.

Quantum supremacy

In January, IBM revealed the Q System One, its first integrated quantum computing system for commercial use. Very soon after that, an Irish quantum computing prodigy emerged.

17-year-old Adam Kelly was the winner of 2019’s BT Young Scientist and came first in his category at two more international science competitions, all for his work developing a tool to optimise the simulation of quantum circuits.

Meanwhile, Intel’s qHiPSTER quantum simulator was deployed on Irish national supercomputer Kay as part of a landmark collaboration to conduct research in natural language processing.

Other 2019 developments included a breakthrough in atomic qubits, ‘noise cancellation’ to make quantum computers more precise, and a more complex 3D version of a qubit known as a qutrit. But the real milestone moment came in October when Google claimed it had achieved “quantum supremacy”.

Quantum supremacy is when a quantum computer performs a calculation that a traditional computer could not complete within its lifetime. IBM was sceptical of Google’s announcement, but there was no denying that the tech had taken a quantum leap forward.

A glimpse inside a black hole

An event horizon is the centre point of a black hole, where unquantifiable amounts of mass are shrunk down to a zero-dimensional point in space. And in 2019, we got to see one.

On 10 April, scientists from the European Southern Observatory and the Event Horizon Telescope project unveiled the first-ever image of a black hole’s event horizon taken at the centre of the M87 galaxy, around 55m light years away. The image showed a black hole surrounded by a doughnut-shaped ring of bright light.

It wasn’t the only ‘big picture’ event of the year, though. In July, physicists also captured the first image of quantum entanglement.

This phenomenon was once referred to as “spooky action at a distance” by none other than Einstein. It refers to the connection, or entanglement, that can occur when two apparently remote particles interact and share states.

Irelands broadband ‘will they, won’t they

At the start of 2019, 60pc of Irish people were unhappy with their broadband and more than 542,000 premises in rural Ireland were still waiting for an update on the National Broadband Plan (NBP).

At an Oireachtas Committee hearing, Eir CEO Carolan Lennon claimed her company could reach these premises for less than €1bn – one-third the reported cost of the NBP. But Eir had long left the bidding process and a group representing 10 telecoms providers threatened legal action if the deal was re-opened based on this claim.

Eir’s proposal was dismissed, then came the much-anticipated Oireachtas Committee report. It tore the NBP apart, warning that the State would bear the brunt of the cost.

In November, the European Commission offered a lifeline: €2.6bn in state aid for the plan to go ahead. The NBP contract was finally signed a week later, priced at €3bn. Speaking at the signing, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, TD, said that deploying rural broadband was all about enabling people to work from anywhere. Little did he know how critical that was about to become.

In other news

1 January: The New Horizons space probe, now far beyond Pluto, completes a flyby of the object nicknamed Ultima Thule.

15 January: Not satisfied with simply being the first to reach the unexplored far side of the moon, China’s Chang’e 4 lander becomes the first lunar farmer.

13 February: Opportunity is a Mars rover no more as NASA declares an end to its 15-year mission, eight months since its last contact.

15 March: Ghana’s currency is thrown into chaos when a “minor glitch” from Google sets an incorrect rate for its conversion.

19 March: Google reveals Stadia, a new game streaming service.

11 April: Israel’s Beresheet probe crashes into the lunar surface, thus ending the first privately funded mission to the moon.

1 May: Despite protests, Vladimir Putin signs a ‘sovereign internet’ bill into law, allowing Russian authorities to effectively cut Russia’s internet off from the rest of the world.

28 June: US start-up Catalog crams all 16GB of Wikipedia’s English-language version onto strands of synthetic DNA to demonstrate how this technology could be used for storage archives.

2-3 July: A “bad software deploy” at content delivery network Cloudflare causes a global internet outage.

18 July: Privacy advocates warn that the viral FaceApp photo-filtering app could be a targeted effort to harvest personal data.

7 August: New Zealand becomes the first country in the world allow companies to pay employees in bitcoin.

13 August: Vodafone’s 5G network goes live in five Irish cities.

16 August: The Data Protection Commission orders the Government to delete the data of 3.2m citizens gathered from applications for the Public Services Card, having ruled the processing unlawful.

3 September: AMBER researchers publish a method of producing high-quality graphene using Irish whiskey.

13 September: After scientists at MIT describe their accidental discovery of the blackest material on Earth, it is exhibited as “an artwork on the intersection of art and science” in New York.

24 September: Google releases a dataset of more than 3,000 deepfakes to help train systems in spotting them.

16 October: Evervault, the infosec start-up founded by Shane Curran on the back of his winning BT Young Scientist project, bags $3.2m in funding led by Sequoia Capital.

18 October: The first all-woman spacewalk is completed after it was cancelled earlier in the year because of a shortage of medium-size suits.

29 October: Facebook announces legal action against Israel’s NSO Group for allegedly targeting WhatsApp users with highly sophisticated spyware, including 100 human-rights defenders, journalists and other members of civil society.

2 November: A long-anticipated exploit of the Windows BlueKeep vulnerability is spotted in the wild by a security researcher who set up a number of honeypots to detect it.

21 November: At a public unveiling, Elon Musk invites Tesla’s head of design to throw a metal ball at the ‘bulletproof’ Cybertruck, resulting in two smashed windows.

26 November: Mike Berners-Lee, the brother of world wide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, warns of the environmental impact of pointless emails.

1 December: Ursula von der Leyen is sworn in as the first woman president of the European Commission. One of her first actions will be to launch the European Green Deal.

3 December: Sundar Pichai is named CEO of Alphabet as co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page announce their departure.

17 December: Two dogs from Irish mythology enter space as Cork teacher John Murphy sees his suggested names for an exoplanet and its parent star – Bran and Tuiren – accepted by the International Astronomical Union.

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