2013 will be a year of more rapid advances in technology, lingering worries about the economy and a search for solutions about climate change. Here's a look at what to expect in the coming 12 months:
We’ve come to expect a constant flow of new and exciting pieces of technology: faster and more powerful smartphones, applications that help us solve our personal problems, more ways to share our lives online, the ability to watch TV just about anywhere. That will continue to happen in 2013, with another new iPhone, dirt-cheap tablets, apps that perform electrocardiograms and read fingerprints instead of passcodes, the emergence of social-media storefronts and watching television on your Xbox.
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Next year will also likely see a wave of innovations moving into the mainstream. That includes 3D printing, virtual grocery stores, and ultra high-definition TVs and an ingestible sensor that checks whether you’re taking your medication correctly.
But what happens after that? In laboratories, board rooms and test areas around the country, visionaries are preparing a new generation of devices that seem Utopian but are on the verge of becoming not only viable, but, like the many recent breakthroughs we now take for granted, could forever change the way we interact with the world.
Patrick Tucker, deputy editor of The Futurist magazine, views 2013 as the precipice of a monumental leap forward in which we use technology to cull and share so much data about our behavior, travel and thoughts that “the randomness of human life begins to evaporate in a perfect organized system of units in movement.”
Among the “off the radar” developments that Tucker finds most compelling is telepathic headgear – known as EEG helmets – that use brain waves to move objects by remote control. Researchers have already used them to move Roomba vacuum cleaners and model airplanes, but the military is also exploring ways to deploy them. The goal is for soldiers to communicate through “synthetic telepathy” on the battlefield or stealth missions, possibly by Morse code. “No one is yet sure how we’re going to use it, but if you look at how quickly the capability is ramping up, you can see it coming in 2013 in a surprising way,” Tucker said.
Tucker is also excited about a device that can detect a variety of illnesses and bacteria. The goal is to ultimately develop a real-life version of the Tricorder like the one used by Dr. McCoy on Star Trek.
The day isn’t far off, Tucker says, when epidemiologists will be able to track the spread of illnesses. More distant, but very possible, is the ability to have smartphones to predict your chances of getting sick, and steer you away from potential threats. “This will be a big part of our lives in the next 10 years,” he said.
Also poised for breakthrough is the automated car – one that doesn’t require a driver. The federal government has embraced the technology, under development by automakers and Google, and testing is underway in Nevada, California and Florida. Early versions would require someone to be inside the car, but researchers are working on prototypes that run by themselves. Once the crash rate is brought to levels below those of traditional cars, the legislative impediments will disappear and automated cars will become a part of mainstream life, allowing people to drive into the city, park it in a remote location and have it pick them up at the end of the day, Tucker said. “As long as safety records continue to improve, 2013 could be a real watershed year,” he said.
Is 2013 the year when the American economy finally begins to turn around? For now, much of the answer lies with the president and Congress, who are trying to negotiate out of the fiscal cliff, which will determine who'll bear the burden of tax increases and federal spending cuts. After that come the the thornier issues of getting a handle on the federal budget deficit, rewriting the tax code and cutting entitlements.
Washington has yet to prove that it's ready to tackle those problems.
Many analysts, including members of a CNBC panel, believe that the unemployment rate won't change much in 2013. "The unemployment rate will likely stay around 8 percent, if not get worse, particularly if we go over the fiscal cliff," Maria Bartiromo predicted.
Jim Cramer said he worried about the possibility of mortgage rates rising in 2013. But he also sees a silver lining in the year's worst natural disaster: The tens of billions of dollars in damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy could in the end help the economy by boosting the need for new construction and infrastructure fixes.
Another positive sign: Housing prices in much of the country appear to be rising, and vacant homes are filling, the Economist pointed out.
There is an encouraging development in American manufacturing, which has long been in decline. With oil prices rising and a boom in domestic energy production, along with more pliable unions and increased productivity, North America could become a destination for companies looking to innovate. An example is GE's long-dormant Appliance Park in Louisville, which the company has revamped as a place to foster new product development, such as energy-efficient water heaters and high-tech refrigerators. The practice of outsourcing work is no longer a viable business model, GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt said. Similar discoveries are being made by the Whirlpool appliance company, the Otis elevator maker and Wham-O, maker of the Frisbee.
In early December, Brad Werner, a geophysicist at the University of California at San Diego, gave a presentation at the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting entitled "Is Earth F****d?" The title caused a stir, but not the contents. Because, in the earth science world, that question underlies all serious conversations about the environment.
What does it mean when Arctic polar ice recedes to record levels, when heat waves last two weeks and rain storms pack heavier wallops? Is the climate changing? Can we stop it? Can we adapt? Those questions will likely get more attention in 2013, particularly in the context of Hurricane Sandy and the record drought that decimated farms across the nation's midsection.
"There's a sense that things are getting away from us," said science writer Andrew Freeman, who attended the AGU conference, but not Werner's lecture. "The debate in the community isn't, 'Is it happening or not?' but between people who think it will be somewhat manageable and people thinking that unless we do something in the next 10 years we're, well, we're F'd."
Freeman, an analyst at Climate Central, which tracks the effects of climate change, is of two minds: He's uneasy about these developments but excited by the prospect of learning new things about how weather works.
Freeman says it appears that the loss of sea ice in the Arctic is adding so much heat to the atmosphere that it's affecting the jet stream in a way that causes weather events, like heat waves and storms, to become stuck. "That's one of the questions we're going to be asking this year: What will be the results of having by far the lowest sea ice extent observed in our records going back a century," he said.
For the winter, that may mean more snow. For the spring and summer, it may mean longer heat waves. But no matter what happens, Freeman said, people will be asking the same question: "How can we prepare our infrastructure and society to deal with this?"
For New York and New Jersey and other places wrecked by Sandy's storm surges, that means changing land-use plans and considering building natural and man-made barriers. In Chicago, engineers have come up with a "permeable pavement" to deal with heavy rainfall. In San Francisco, where water levels in the bay are rising, officials are exploring new shoreline development regulations.
Fans of Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Pink, One Direction, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood have good reasons to look forward to 2013, when all will go on tour in support of new albums.
If you miss the HBO series Sex and the City, which ran from 1998 to 2004, you may -- or may not -- want to tune into the CW Network's attempt at reviving the brand with The Carrie Dairies, which follows a teenaged Carrie Bradshaw through the 1980s.
This may also be the year that Justin Timberlake ends a prolonged detour into television and movies and returns to music, said Brody Brown, a reporter for Us Magazine. Timberlake, whose last album came out in 2006, won't say for sure. "We're waiting on a confirmation, but he's been hush hush," Brown said.
The year's first expected blockbuster comes in March, with the release of The Great and Powerful Oz, starring James Franco. The 2013 summer season will begin relatively early, Brown said, with Ironman 3, with Robert Downey Jr. back in the title role. The blockbuster with perhaps the most risk, and arguably the most anticipation, is Man of Steel, a remake of the Superman franchise starring a relatively unknown actor named Henry Cavill. It comes out in June.
The entertainment world is as much about celebrity watching as it is about actually getting entertained, and at this point there is no bigger celebrity story to unfold in 2013 the Duchess of Cambridge's pregnancy. Forecasting abounds in all aspects of the impending birth. Boy? Girl? Twins? Names? Nanny? Expect those discussions to dominate the celebrity magazines for the next eight months.
Closer to home, speculation abounds about the marital plans for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and Pitt ex-wife Jennifer Aniston and her boyfriend, Justin Theroux. They're considered rivals, and the people who care about these sort of things are watching to see who ties the knot first.