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The top tech stories of 2018

From Google’s scary Duplex AI to Fortnite mania, this year showed the good, bad and uncomfortable ways that tech is changing our lives.

What a year it's been.

In 2018, 5G and Fortnite became among the top trending terms as people latched on to the potential of next-generation wireless tech and became enamored with the latest and greatest Battle Royale. But it was also a year in which the future collided with reality -- in the case of Magic Leap, one of the most secretive and overhyped startups, that meant actually delivering its mixed-reality headset after years of promises.

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And in the case of electric scooters, it meant cities and citizens finding out what happens when unregulated wheels hit the streets. TL:DR: Ouch.

We also got an early taste of how Google might use the power of its search engine, digital assistant and artificial intelligence to navigate the world on our behalf -- and why there needs to be a lot more discussion around the ethics of AI.

In the year past, we also checked in with Taylor Swift to see how she's upending what it means to use the power of social media to fuel her celebrity, took a tour of the world of online shopping on the biggest e-commerce days of the year with Amazon, and tried out the ZozoSuit, which aims to take your measurements while you wear it so you can order custom-made clothes.

Oh, what a year it's been.  

Fortnite fortunes rise. Fortnite went from strength to strength in 2018. Made by North Carolina-based Epic Games, the 100-player death match won breakthrough game of the year at the Esports Awards, while Fortnite star Tyler "Ninja" Blevins nabbed both streamer and personality of the year titles. (Ninja himself had a helluva year, shattering streaming records the way he shafted opponents and landing himself on the cover of ESPN The Magazine.) If you're uninitiated, Fortnite's action takes place on an island where players gather weapons, build shelters and ultimately hunt each other down. The game, which gets periodic overhauls known as "seasons," has attracted criticism for hooking kids with its combination of cartoon art and violence. (Players "bleed" numbers representing an amount of damage when they're hit.) Those complaints aren't likely to fade with the latest iteration of the game, which includes a new Creative mode that lets players build their own islands. But don't expect them to slow the game's popularity.

fortnite-epic-games

In Fortnite, every game is a trial by fire

Screenshot by Jován Pulgarín/CNET

5G gets ready for primetime: In 2018, no tech buzzword soared as high as 5G -- especially when you consider it didn't even exist yet. But the anticipation for ultra-fast next-generation cellular networks, which are expected to roll out in earnest starting next year, is at a fever pitch. CNET's series 5G: Your Next Big Upgrade cut through the hype by offering a look at what it'll actually be like, why some people are against it and what might be some of the scarier applications of the technology. We examined the practical realities of the upgrade, including the 5G smartphones you may end up buying, as well as how it could benefit rural broadband coverage.  

Now playing: Watch this: Biggest tech stories of 2018
4:45

Magic Leap proves it's real? Called "the world's most secretive startup," Magic Leap has attracted billions of dollars in funding from the likes of Google, the NBA, Lucasfilm, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Steven Spielberg, motion-capture actor Andy Serkis and famed TV puppeteer Sid Krofft. They're all interested in what Magic Leap is working on: a mixed-reality system that promises to immerse you in "experiences" that meld computer-generated imagery with the physical world in a way that's designed to convince you those 3D objects and characters are there. In the room with you. But after seven years, the only thing Magic Leap had to show for its efforts was amazing teasers that turned out to be canned demos -- earning scrutiny, and scorn, from tech watchers. In July, the company finally unveiled its Magic Leap One, a $2,295 system aimed at developers, for now. We went to Magic Leap's headquarters in Plantation, Florida, to try out the system and get an inside look at the company's weird origin story, its grand ambitions and what it's working on to prove it's real.

Facebook loses face: Few tech companies have had years as bad as the world's largest social network did in 2018. In March, news broke that data on nearly 100 million of its users had been mishandled by Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy with the links to Donald Trump's presidential campaign. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, already under fire for dismissing complaints that Russia had co-opted his platform to interfere in the election, was hauled in front of Congress. If that wasn't enough, COO Sheryl Sandberg, his trusted lieutenant, faced blowback for hiring a political public relations firm to investigate Facebook critics including George Soros. All in all, 2018 couldn't have been much worse for the world's biggest social network. It's unlikely to get much easier in the New Year.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg likely will be glad to put 2018 behind him.

James Martin

Electric scooters bring mayhem: Without warning to lawmakers or residents, thousands of electric scooters were dropped onto city streets across the US this year. Some people took to the dockless, rentable, motorized vehicles immediately, loving the convenient and cheap way to get around town. Others hated them, calling the scooter phenomenon Scootergeddon, Scooterpocalypse and Scooter Wars, among many less flattering names. And some expressed rage by tossing the scooters into trash cans, hanging them from trees, sabotaging them and even smearing them with feces. Cities from Austin to San Francisco to Beverly Hills temporarily banned the vehicles, while regulators grapple with how to create laws around the new form of transportation. Now, as more people hop on board, doctors are seeing an influx of injured patients flooding emergency rooms. "This is disruptive technology," Dr. Christopher Ziebell, emergency room medical director at Austin's Dell Seton Medical Center, told us. "But this time the disruption is disrupting forearms, elbows and heads."

Taylor Swift flips the celebrity playbook: Taylor Swift's music tops the charts, her tours sell out in minutes and her fans are so devoted they have their own name, "Swifties." Here's the twist: Swift has cemented her relationship with fans by flipping the celebrity playbook, going to her fans rather than waiting for them to come to her. She pops into comments during livestreams on Instagram, reblogs their posts on Tumblr or sends them gifts after quietly following them on social media. CNET's Katie Collins found out for herself when Swift invited her to meet up before a concert in London and to thank her for her story on the world of Swifties. Talk about winning over your fans.

Taylor Swift on stage during her reputation stadium tour in Tokyo

Taylor Swift put on quite a show this year.

Getty Images

Bespoke clothing gets really personal: In 2023, Yusaku Maezawa will most likely become the first commercial passenger to do a flyby around the moon, cruising aboard a SpaceX starship and he'll make history. But back on Earth, Maezawa is the creator of the ZozoSuit, a bizarre lycra outfit that uses a strange dot design and a mobile phone app to figure out your body measurements and allows you to buy tailor-made clothing online. Jackson Ryan tested that suit. He wore it, he did sprints past the Sydney Opera House, he drank coffee wearing it. Then he bought some clothes. The result: a hilarious video and article combo about learning to love your flaws and jeans that fit just right.

Apple focusing in on VR, AR:  We still haven't achieved the promise of virtual reality or augmented reality, technologies in which Facebook, Magic Leap, Microsoft, Samsung and others have invested millions of dollars, trying to popularize. But there's no denying the potential of VR and AR to change how we see and interact with the world. Which is why it's not a complete surprise that Apple is reportedly working on a headset that combines both AR and VR. The project, codenamed T288, is still in its early stages but is slated for release in 2020. CEO Tim Cook has said he sees bigger possibilities in AR than VR, partly because augmented reality allows you to be more present. Either way, it's vital for Apple to expand beyond its iPhones, currently its top moneymaker, amid slowing demand for smartphones.

Google Duplex ups the AI ante: When Google introduced its new Duplex artificial intelligence software in May, it immediately stoked controversy. The software is meant to book reservations and appointments on behalf of Google Assistant users. But it was unlike any other AI software out there: It sounded jaw-droppingly human, using verbal tick like "uh" and "um." People worried about the software deceiving callers. And it immediately made people confront a question that some thought was a long way off: What happens when AI gets to be so good that we can't recognize it?

Road Trip highlights adventures in tech: For the 2018 edition of our Road Trip summer series, "Taking It to Extremes," CNET News sent reporters and photographers around the world to see how people are using everyday tech to handle extreme situations. The 11 stories in this year's series explored, among other places, Coober Pedy, the mining town in the Australian outback where everyone lives underground. It took readers on a tour of the US national parks that are using tech to stop people from stealing the parks' unique natural resources. The series traveled to Brazil to learn how one tech-savvy tribe in the Amazon rainforest uses satellite images and smartphones to stop illegal mining and logging. And it explained how scientists want to send hundreds of tiny spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor, to find out if we're alone in the galaxy.

Not your father's Microsoft: When he became the third CEO of the world's largest software company, after Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, Satya Nadella made changing Microsoft's rigid, hierarchical and arrogant culture his top priority. He sort of had to. Though one of the most successful tech companies in history, Microsoft had high-profile misses in mobile, search and social networking. It had become irrelevant in a world where Apple, Google and Facebook are at the center of the tech industry. Four years in as CEO, Nadella told us that his main job -- giving his 135,000 global employees a new "sense of purpose" and convincing the world the 43-year-old company -- still matters. But that doesn't mean, he said, trying to match Google's or Apple's cachet. "You join here not to be cool, but to make others cool," he says. "You want to be cool by doing that empowerment. It's the result that matters.

Satya Nadella

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella: "You join here not to be cool, but to make others cool."

Microsoft/Screenshot by CNET

Amazon Prime Day brings holiday shopping to July: The world's largest online retailer, Amazon botched this year's kickoff to its fourth annual Prime Day sale, with a broken website and app redirecting customers to pictures of dogs on its error pages. For many shoppers, the problems persisted for hours. But the screw-up didn't change the final outcome: Customers ordered more than 100 million products in 36 hours, making it the third Prime Day in a row that broke all previous Amazon sales records. That was good news for Amazon, which is working to fend off rivals like Walmart and Target in the increasingly competitive landscape for online consumers. The shift to online shopping continued in November, with customers buying more than 180 million products during the five-day period from Thanksgiving Thursday through Cyber Monday (known as the Turkey 5). And what did we all buy? There's no denying that Amazon gets that we all want great deals. For Prime Day in July, the best-sellers this year were Amazon's own devices: the Echo Dot and the Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote. And in November, the top sellers included the third-generation Echo Dot smart speaker, the AncestryDNA: Genetic Testing Ethnicity kit, the Bose QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones for Apple devices, Michelle Obama's Becoming, Jenga and Instant Pot DUO60 -- 6 Quart.

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