The Good Tech Awards 2022
The year 2022, in the world of technology, has been one of great leaps and bounds and even greater falls.
The falls included some of the most recognizable names in the industry. Sam Bankman-Fried started the year as the biggest celebrity in crypto, with a net worth of over $20 billion, and is ending it as a disgraced outcast facing felony fraud charges. Elon Musk started 2022 as the richest man in the world, with a thriving electric car business and a name synonymous with success; it ends him $100 billion poorer, as the bitter, embattled owner of a social media company that seems to be ruining his life.
The tech industry has also struggled with challenging macroeconomic conditions, including high inflation and rising interest rates. As the sector’s decade of hypergrowth drew to a close, start-ups died, tech giants cut benefits and laid off workers, and investors’ dreams of a new crypto-trusted internet known as the name “web3” fell into oblivion.
But focusing exclusively on what went wrong risks missing out on the many noble, smart, and socially valuable tech projects that have moved forward this year.
For several years, I have been highlighting these kinds of projects in my annual Good Tech Awards column. These are not necessarily technologies that I am sure will improve the world, while not causing any problems. These are tools that I believe could improve the world or help solve thorny societal challenges. Some of them could also go wrong if mishandled or co-opted in harmful ways.
There were a lot of choices this year. Here’s what made the final cut.
To OpenAI and the creators of Midjourney and Stable Diffusion, for proving that AI can create
By far the most glaring technological breakthrough of the year was the boom in “generative AI” – a term for the new type of artificial intelligence applications, trained on large amounts of data, which can create new media objects from scratch. .
This year, AI image generators like DALL-E 2, Stable Diffusion, and Midjourney dazzled users (including me) with their creations and sparked a Cambrian explosion of new, high-performance AI tools. In recent weeks, ChatGPT, a text-generating AI built by OpenAI, became a viral sensation (and every teacher’s worst nightmare) when it began churning out term papers, original poetry, and working code snippets.
Some of the credit for the generative AI boom should go to Google, which created much of the foundational technology. But this year Google (which has kept most of its AI experiments private, much to its recent chagrin) has been edged out by OpenAI, along with the makers of Midjourney and Stable Diffusion, all of which have released products for the public. that have enabled millions of people to experience generative AI for themselves.
The ultimate effects of generative AI are still unknown. Some people say these apps will destroy millions of jobs, while others say they will be a boon to human creativity. But whether you’re an AI optimist or pessimist, this year’s progress means we’re no longer debating theoretical costs and benefits – the tools have arrived, and now we have to decide how to use them.
To Ethereum developers, for successfully merging
I know I know. Putting a crypto project on a list of “good technologies” in 2022 is like putting credit default swaps on a list of “cool financial innovations” in 2008.
But while the crypto industry took a nosedive this year – wiping out trillions of dollars in value and leaving many investors empty-handed – there was at least one bright spot. In September, Ethereum, the network behind the second most valuable cryptocurrency after Bitcoin, completed what was known as “the merger” – a colossal, multi-year project to take Ethereum from a energy-intensive form of blockchain known as “proof of work” to a much greener form of blockchain known as “proof of stake”.
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The switch, which crypto developers likened to trying to swap an airplane’s engine mid-flight, was a resounding success and reduced the energy needed to power Ethereum by more than 99%. (However, this did not boost the price of the cryptocurrency, Ether, which ended the year down nearly 70%.)
To Living Carbon, Twelve and BeeHero for leveraging technology to address the climate crisis
While 2022 has been a horrible year for fundraising for startups in general, it’s been a great year for climate tech startups, which have raised billions of dollars to bring climate-friendly technologies to market.
Kevin Roose and Casey Newton are the hosts of Hard Fork, a podcast that makes sense of the rapidly changing world of technology. Subscribe and listen.
There are too many promising climate tech start-ups to name – and, to be honest, I don’t know enough about climate science to say which ones have the best chance of succeeding – but a few that caught my eye this year were Living Carbon, Twelve and BeeHero.
Living Carbon, a three-year-old Californian startup, is genetically modifying trees and other plants to capture and store more carbon from the atmosphere. These GMO supertrees, the company claims, grow bigger and faster than normal trees and can survive in soil with concentrations of metals that would be toxic to other plants.
Twelve, based in Berkeley, Calif., uses a new electrochemical process to convert carbon dioxide into industrial products as varied as sunglasses and jet fuel. The company raised $130 million in funding this year and struck deals with companies like Mercedes-Benz and Procter & Gamble.
BeeHero, which launched in Israel in 2017, uses new technology to solve the problems facing one of the most important elements of our global food supply: bees. Bees pollinate more than a third of all crops, but they are dying at an alarming rate, raising fears of food shortages. To solve this problem, BeeHero has developed a “precision pollination platform” – essentially, a system of bee tracking sensors that allows industrial beekeepers to monitor the health and productivity of their hives in real time. The company raised $42 million Series B (Series Bee?) this year from investors including General Mills.
To the National Ignition Facility, Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Helion, for keeping the dream of fusion alive
Nuclear fusion, an emission-free form of power generation that has long been considered the “holy grail of energy,” took some important steps toward reality this year.
The biggest fusion news of the year came just weeks ago when scientists at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California passed a major threshold called “ignition”, creating a fusion reaction which generated more energy than it took to produce. The breakthrough was hailed by officials, including Jennifer M. Granholm, the Secretary of Energy, who called it a “historic achievement.”
Many start-ups have also plugged into the merger. One, Helion Energy, has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from well-known investors, including Sam Altman, Dustin Moskovitz and Peter Thiel, to create affordable, mainstream fusion technology. Helion says he plans create energy with its next fusion reactor, Polaris, by 2024. Another company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, spun off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2018, uses a range of powerful magnets to power its prototype fusion machine. merger outside of Boston, and plans to have it operational by 2025.
Experts have warned that despite the latest advances, affordable fusion power may not be widely available for years. But this year, both the public and private sectors offered a glimpse of a future fueled by fusion.
To Locket, for making photo sharing fun again
If 2022 was the year social media died, it’s also the year start-ups started trying to recapture what made social media fun in the first place.
One app I’ve loved using this year is Locket. It’s a very simple premise – a widget that is installed on the home screen of your smartphone, creating a kind of digital photo frame on which your closest friends and relatives can upload photos.
Locket was created by Matt Moss, a young developer who was looking for a way to send photos to his long distance girlfriend; this year, the app quickly reached millions of users, raised a major funding round, and won an Apple Cultural Impact Award. There are no filters, smoothing influencers, data collection schemes or algorithmic feeds on Locket – it’s just a simple, no-frills way to share photos with your loved ones.
My wife and I started using Locket this year to share photos of our child, in a way that wouldn’t require us to dig through text strings or huge photo albums to find them later. It’s not the technology product I’ve used the most, or the one I think will create the most net good for society. But it’s fun, simple and respectful of its users – three qualities that more technological products should aspire to.