5 fearless tech predictions for 2013

Here's what to look for in emerging technology for government during the next year.

This year has seen a lot of advances in technology in general, and in government IT in particular, despite strong economic headwinds. Much of what was done in 2012 will act as a baseline or jumping off point for technology and trends in the New Year. Here are some predictions for what 2013 will look like in technology:

1. Mr. Roboto

I was surprised as anyone to find so many robots entering government service in 2012. But more impressively, the robots actually began to show signs of intelligence and autonomy, a trend that will likely break wide open in the coming year.

Some of the first signs of intelligence were displayed by the 501 Packbot, a workhorse military robot designed to defuse bombs and perform other thankless tasks without putting a human at risk. The latest upgrade for the 501s permits them to find their way back to their operators on their own if the radio guidance signal is disrupted. This may be a small step, but for a robot that’s never thought for itself, it’s a pretty big deal.

In the civilian arena, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration used Wave Glider swimming robots from the Liquid Robotics company to explore the Arctic Ocean for months at a time without human intervention, gathering invaluable data on climate change.

But the king of the robots proved to be the X-47B stealth drone, a robotic airplane that is being trained to launch from an aircraft carrier, fly a mission and land again on the carrier without human guidance.

With successful trials of those three impressive robots showing various degrees of autonomy, expect many more to be deployed in the coming year, and for the intelligence backbone of all robots to experience significant upgrades.

2. What’s old is new again

Desktop computers will make a comeback in 2013, and no, I don’t think it’s 1994 again. GCN's mobile reporter Greg Crowe got a lot of flack when he said that the desktop market would experience a resurgence, but this is the guy who gets to play with every single tablet on the market. If he sees the limitations of tablets compared to desktops, then you can bet they exist.

In fact, I think many others also discovered this in 2012 as government moved increasingly to add tablets and mobile gear to the field. Tablets just don’t have the horsepower to manage many of the applications that work fine on desktops, and even more so when you consider multitasking.

On the other side of the house, there are amazingly powerful desktops like the Tiki from Falcon Northwest coming on the market that are only four inches wide and 13 inches long. It’s not much bigger than some tablets actually, yet it offers the power of Intel’s i7 chipset, solid state drives and the same GPUs used in today’s supercomputers. Moreover, it’s now all available for a reasonable price. 

Slightly more mainstream is the ThinkCentre M92p Tiny from Lenovo, which offers desktop performance in a 5-pound package.

As more people get their hands on tablets, more people will begin to see their limitations, even as some elements amaze them. In 2013, I think the disappointments will lead to desktops coming back into vogue.

3. Touch me if you can

The release of Windows 8, and Microsoft’s decision to make the tablet and the desktop interface of the new OS identical, made a lot of news in 2012. While I like the new interface, it’s pretty obvious that it skews toward the tablet. On a desktop computer, users can manipulate the various windows and screens using a mouse and keyboard, but it would be so much easier and more efficient for most users if they had access to a touch screen.

Thankfully, adding a touch screen to a desktop setup is easy, whether you are talking about a monstrous 65-inch panel or a more typical display. It’s simply a matter of one extra cable going from the touch screen-capable LCD to the desktop. Couple that with the fact that adding touch-screen capabilities to a monitor no longer breaks the bank, plus the lowest LCD prices in years, (see our prediction about LCDs and LEDs below), and the time is right for one of the most underused pieces of technology, the desktop touch screen, to explode in popularity next year.

4. Trust no one

Although I’m pretty confident about a lot of the predictions on this list, this is the one I’m most confident about: Cyber attacks on government employees will increase in 2013. And I am not talking about the normal run-of-the-mill attack that tries to ensnare anyone and everyone in its net, or even those conducted with high-end hacker tools like the High Orbit Ion Cannon that gives anyone the ability to launch DDOS attacks at will. I'm talking about targeted efforts to get access to, or bring down, government information at all levels.

South Carolina officials found this out in 2012. One would think a state-run tax processing system would be a backwater target for hackers, but it became the front line in a hurry. A well-crafted phishing attack designed to look like a local money transfer caught an employee off-guard, who gave up login information to the hacker. Because the tax system, incredibly, had no secondary protection or encryption, the hackers had unrestricted access to thousands of Social Security numbers, credit card information and business tax forms, making almost everyone in the state a possible target for identity theft and fraud.

The state scrambled to implement tighter controls on the information, but the message was clear to hackers too, that phishing attacks, even at smaller state level systems, can reap huge rewards.

GCN security writer Bill Jackson rightly reports that browsers and defensive programs used by feds are increasingly getting smarter about thwarting malware and viruses, but defending against phishing attacks, especially targeted ones, requires user cooperation. Some money has to be spent educating users how to avoid the type of scam that entangled South Carolina. Otherwise, 2013 could very well be the year of the hack.

5. CRTs die, finally. I really mean it this time.

Surprisingly, when I wrote about the CRT market finally dying off this summer, many people rallied to the defense of these old workhorses. They claimed that CRTs had better refresh rates, higher resolution, better response times and could even be used to make toast in the morning. Only that last claim about the toast was actually true.

The one reason LCDs have not yet totally killed off CRTs is price. But in 2012,  the bottom started dropping out of the LCD price market. This would have happened years ago had it not been for an “accidental” fire at a plant in Asia that was making most of the glass panels for them, which mysteriously caused prices to rise once again. But now they are being made and assembled all over the world, and many companies are selling them. So now it will take more than a single fire to pull LCDs back out of the commodities level segment of the market.

Even LEDs, which are just high-end LCDs with higher-performing backlight technology, are cheap now. When GCN reviewed the ViewSonic VA2451 LED monitor over the summer, we said it offered stellar performance and a 24-inch panel for just $215. That price would be considered a bit expensive just six months later.

Did you notice any of the crazy deals on LED TVs over the holidays? Sixty-inch displays were going for $899. More modest 32-inch TV displays were selling for under $100. And although high-end LCDs for use with computers are slightly more expensive, the technology is fundamentally the same, and units like the VA2451 prove that they are dropping their prices rapidly too.

Anyone, or any agency, that refuses to get rid of its radiation-spewing, heat spilling, eye-strain-inducing CRTs for more efficient, high-performing LCDs in this environment is just being stubborn or ill-informed.

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