Questions for 2024

By Mike Loukides
October 31, 2023
A 1925 artist's conception of what Nikola Tesla's wireless power transmission system might look like in the future A 1925 artist's conception of what Nikola Tesla's wireless power transmission system might look like in the future (source: Wikimedia Commons)

This time of year, everyone publishes predictions. They’re fun, but I don’t find them a good source of insight into what’s happening in technology.

Instead of predictions, I’d prefer to look at questions: What are the questions to which I’d like answers as 2023 draws to a close? What are the unknowns that will shape 2024? That’s what I’d really like to know. Yes, I could flip a coin or two and turn these into predictions, but I’d rather leave them open-ended. Questions don’t give us the security of an answer. They force us to think, and to continue thinking. And they let us pose problems that we really can’t think about if we limit ourselves to predictions like “While individual users are getting bored with ChatGPT, enterprise use of Generative AI will continue to grow.” (Which, as predictions go, is pretty good.)

Learn faster. Dig deeper. See farther.

Join the O'Reilly online learning platform. Get a free trial today and find answers on the fly, or master something new and useful.

Learn more

The Lawyers Are Coming

The year of tech regulation: Outside of the EU, we may be underwhelmed by the amount of proposed regulation that becomes law. However, discussion of regulation will be a major pastime of the chattering classes, and major technology companies (and venture capital firms) will be maneuvering to ensure that regulation benefits them. Regulation is a double-edged sword: while it may limit what you can do, if compliance is difficult, it gives established companies an advantage over smaller competition.

Three specific areas need watching:

  • What regulations will be proposed for AI? Many ideas are in the air; watch for changes in copyright law, privacy, and harmful use.
  • What regulations will be proposed for “online safety”? Many of the proposals we’ve seen are little more than hidden attacks against cryptographically secure communications.
  • Will we see more countries and states develop privacy regulations? The EU has led with GDPR. However, effective privacy regulation comes into direct conflict with online safety, as those ideas are often formulated. Which will win out?

Organized labor: Unions are back. How will this affect technology? I doubt that we’ll see strikes at major technology companies like Google and Amazon—but we’ve already seen a union at Bandcamp. Could this become a trend? X (Twitter) employees have plenty to be unhappy about, though many of them have immigration complications that would make unionization difficult.

The backlash against the backlash against open source: Over the past decade, a number of corporate software projects have changed from an open source license, such as Apache, to one of a number of “business source” licenses. These licenses vary, but typically restrict users from competing with the project’s vendor. When HashiCorp relicensed their widely used Terraform product as business source, their community’s reaction was strong and immediate. They formed an OpenTF consortion and forked the last open source version of Terraform, renaming it OpenTofu; OpenTofu was quickly adopted under the Linux Foundation’s mantle and appears to have significant traction among developers. In response, HashiCorp’s CEO has predicted that the rejection of business source licenses will be the end of open source.

  • As more corporate sponsors adopt business sources licenses, will we see more forks?
  • Will OpenTofu survive in competition with Terraform?

A decade ago, we said that open source has won. More recently, developers questioned open source’s relevance in an era of web giants. In 2023, the struggle resumed. By the end of 2024, we’ll know a lot more about the answers to these questions.

Simpler, Please

Kubernetes: Everyone (well, almost everyone) is using Kubernetes to orchestrate large applications that are running in the cloud. And everyone (well, almost everyone) thinks Kubernetes is too complex. That’s no doubt true; prior to its release as an open source project, Kubernetes was Google’s Borg, the almost legendary software that ran their core applications. Kubernetes was designed for Google-scale deployments, but very few organizations need that.

We’ve long thought that a simpler alternative to Kubernetes would arrive. We haven’t seen it. We have seen some simplifications built on top of Kubernetes: K3s is one; Harpoon is a no-code drag-and-drop tool for managing Kubernetes. And all the major cloud providers offer “managed Kubernetes” services that take care of Kubernetes for you.

So our questions about container orchestration are:

  • Will we see a simpler alternative that succeeds in the marketplace? There are some alternatives out there now, but they haven’t gained traction.
  • Are simplification layers on top of Kubernetes enough? Simplification usually comes with limitations: users find most of what they want but frequently miss one feature they need.

From microservices to monolith: While microservices have dominated the discussion of software architecture, there have always been other voices arguing that microservices are too complex, and that monolithic applications are the way to go. Those voices are becoming more vocal. We’ve heard lots about organizations decomposing their monoliths to build collections of microservices—but in the past year we’ve heard more about organizations going the other way. So we need to ask:

  • Is this the year of the monolith?
  • Will the “modular monolith” gain traction?
  • When do companies need microservices?

Securing Your AI

AI systems are not secure: Large language models are vulnerable to new attacks like prompt injection, in which adversarial input directs the model to ignore its instructions and produce hostile output. Multimodal models share this vulnerability: it’s possible to submit an image with an invisible prompt to ChatGPT and corrupt its behavior. There is no known solution to this problem; there may never be one.

With that in mind, we have to ask:

  • When will we see a major, successful hostile attack against generative AI? (I’d bet it will happen before the end of 2024. That’s a prediction. The clock is ticking.)
  • Will we see a solution to prompt injection, data poisoning, model leakage, and other attacks?

Not Dead Yet

The metaverse: It isn’t dead, but it’s not what Zuckerberg or Tim Cook thought. We’ll discover that the metaverse isn’t about wearing goggles, and it certainly isn’t about walled-off gardens. It’s about better tools for collaboration and presence. While this isn’t a big trend, we’ve seen an upswing in developers working with CRDTs and other tools for decentralized frictionless collaboration.

NFTs: NFTs are a solution looking for a problem. Enabling people with money to prove they can spend their money on bad art wasn’t a problem many people wanted to solve. But there are problems out there that they could solve, such as maintaining public records in an open immutable database. Will NFTs actually be used to solve any of these problems?

Post topics: AI & ML, Open Source, Programming, Radar Column
Post tags: Signals

Get the O’Reilly Radar Trends to Watch newsletter