Andrew Howard, like anyone, loves the rapidly expanding array of gadgets that connect his life to the internet.
But it also makes him nervous.
Howard, a scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, spends most of his waking hours thinking about how to keep computer networks from getting hacked — a risk that grows with each new household appliance that links to the cloud. And so while he swoons over his new Nest thermostat and smoke alarm, he worries about the day when all of his devices go online, collecting data about him and opening up more "avenues for attack."
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This struggle will become more common in 2014, as the so-called "internet of things" envelopes our lives.
Everyday equipment, from televisions and cars to coffee makers and refrigerators, are becoming wifi-compatible, making life more manageable and efficient. But for each added convenience, there is a trade-off in privacy and security. Some analysts estimate that in two years, between 15 billion and 25 billion devices will communicate across the internet, and it's not clear whether safety measures will keep pace.
To researchers like Howard, who try to anticipate risks, revelations like the National Security Administration's domestic data-collection program, and the work of quasi-governmental hackers in China and Syria, offer important lessons for the new year. He wouldn't mind if more people in 2014 will ask themselves a question before they buy a wifi-enabled pacemaker or smart watch or a biometrics-sensing t-shirt or Google Glass:
Just because you can connect to the internet, should you?
"The answer may be yes," Howard said. "But we need to ask these questions. We should all be concerned about how much data is being aggregated on all of us."
Mobile's new frontiers
While Howard concerns himself about the security risks of increased connectivity, Andrew Lippman focuses on another challenge: keeping people engaged with the world around them.
Lippman is the associate director of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his students are developing products that explore "the intersections of mobile networks with physical spaces."
Many of these pursuits could edge closer to commercial application in 2014.
Among the most encouraging, he said, is a project called "encoded reality," which inscribes objects with digital codes, which can then be read by smart phones to provide more information about their use. Its developer, Travis Rich, envisions using the technology to identify medication, prevent the spread of counterfeit consumer goods or replace care labels on clothing. Ultimately, he sees it being used to reproduce or repair objects using 3D printers.
"In the same way that in 1998, owning an MP3 meant you could copy and share the song easily, owning an encoded object will mean that you can remake that object and share — which seems to be something that would fundamentally change the commercial product industry," Travis explained in an email.
Grace Woo, a recent graduate of the Media Lab, has developed an alternative to the ubiquitous print QR codes, called VR codes, that allow users to point their smartphone at a screen and receive additional information, such as an audio track for an otherwise silent video. She is currenetly seeking opportunities to apply the technology to advertising.
Lippman compares these experiences to taking first steps of exploring a new frontier offered by mobile devices.
"We turned the corner a couple years ago, and we're now beginning to see what it's like around that corner," he said.
The coming year will also be remarkable for the exploration of an entirely different frontier, millions of miles away.
Sometime in mid-2014, about two years after landing on the surface of Mars, the SUV-sized NASA rover Curiosity will reach its main destination: a mountain, 18,000 feet high, called Mount Sharp.
The trip to Mount Sharp has already yielded a treasure of discoveries, including evidence of ancient waterways conditions that billions of years ago hosted conditions "favorable for microbial life" — meeting the rover's main scientific objective.
It will take several months for slow-moving Curiosity to navigate rugged terrain and reach the mountain, whose layered rock scientists hope to examine for evidence of how the Red Planet evolved.
Meanwhile, Lego will start selling a highly detailed model of the Curiosity, including a fully articulated robotic arm.
Drones at home
Back on Earth, American officials will continue arguing the legal and scientific implications of using unmanned drones in U.S. airspace.
Sometime in 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration will issue a draft rule regulating the use of drones under 55 pounds. At the same time, the government will continue to support testing for drones used by police agencies, universities and others.
Drones have been used for years by the American military in its overseas efforts to kill terrorists, and has been the subject of unrelenting protests about the impact on non-combatants and civilians.
The idea of using drones back home has stirred passionate debates pitting the needs of science and safety against the right to privacy.
Firefighters want to use them to monitor burning buildings and forests. Meteorologists want to use them to track storms. Police want to use them on search and rescue missions, and to find criminals. But a backlash has prompted many states to curtail the use of drones out of fear they'll be used to collect information on innocent, unsuspecting people below.
On Dec. 30, the FAA named six states — Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia — as the sites for drone development tests.
Obama's crucial year
In Washington, 2014 could very well be the year that determines whether President Obama can turn around after a rough start to his second term.
His signature piece of domestic policy, the Affordable Care Act, goes into effect Jan. 1. But the websites that serve as portals to a system designed to provide universal access to health insurance have been plagued by glitches. If the problems continue, and the number of enrollees does not significantly increase, then the program could become a lasting political liability for Obama.
The president has many other challenges on his mind. They include a February showdown with Congressional Republicans over the country's debt limit and the mid-term elections in November. The elections could feasibly result in the GOP gaining the six seats it needs to take control of the Senate.
History does not look favorably on the Democrats' chances of holding the Republicans off.
Since World War II, the president's party almost loses seats in Congress in the sixth year of a two-term president's rule, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
Whether Obama can avoid that fate in 2014 depends not only on the health-care rollout and debt-limit fight, but also on many events, foreign and domestic, that are impossible to predict, Sabato said.
Republicans, which already control the House, have good shots at gaining Senate seats in West Virginia, South Dakota, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina, Sabato said.
"You've got enough there for a wave," he said.
"But," he added, "that's a long way from saying it's a done deal."
Obama will also spent much of 2014 with his eye on his legacy: lasting policy initiatives that will define his presidency for the better.
The partisan gridlock in Washington limits his options.
"The depressing news for Obama is that it's hard to see anything in his legislative hopper that will matter," Sabato said.
But Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, said Obama has a shot as passing one of his signature campaign promises, the reform of the nation's immigration laws.
Obama may also use executive orders to bypass the virtual blockade in Congress in order to implement environmental regulations over smokestack and carbon dioxide emissions, Baker said.
At the same time, Obama will need to decide whether to accept the recommendations of a task force to change the government's surveillance programs, including limits on the NSA's collection of American's phone and email data.
The president has promised a "definitive statement" about the recommendations in January.