Within the tech trade, 2021 was a 12 months of earnings and pivots.
Thanks partially to the pandemic and the digitization of our lives, all the large tech firms obtained greater. Fb changed its name to Meta, Jeff Bezos went to space, Jack Dorsey left Twitter and Silicon Valley fell harder for crypto.
Each December, partly to cheer myself up after a 12 months of masking tech’s scandals and shortfalls, I exploit this column to elevate up a handful of tech tasks that improved the world in the course of the 12 months. My standards are considerably free and arbitrary, however I search for the sorts of worthy, altruistic tasks that apply know-how to large, societal issues, and that don’t get a lot consideration from the tech press, like start-ups which can be using artificial intelligence to fight wildfires, or food-delivery programs for the needy.
Particularly at a time when lots of tech’s leaders seem more interested in building new, virtual worlds than enhancing the world we dwell in, it’s price praising the technologists who’re stepping as much as clear up a few of our greatest issues.
So right here, with out additional ado, are this 12 months’s Good Tech Awards.
To DeepMind, for cracking the protein drawback (and publishing its work)
One of many 12 months’s most enjoyable A.I. breakthroughs got here in July, when DeepMind — a Google-owned synthetic intelligence firm — published data and open-source code from its groundbreaking AlphaFold venture.
The venture, which used A.I. to foretell the constructions of proteins, solved an issue that had vexed scientists for many years, and was hailed by experts as one of many best scientific discoveries of all time. And by publishing its knowledge freely, AlphaFold set off a frenzy amongst researchers, a few of whom are already using it to develop new medication and higher perceive the proteins concerned in viruses like SARS-CoV-2.
Google’s total A.I. efforts have been fraught with controversy and missteps, however AlphaFold looks like an unequivocally good use of the corporate’s huge experience and sources.
To Upside Meals, Mosa Meat and Wildtype, for pushing lab-grown meat towards the mainstream
Folks love consuming meat. However the industrial-farm system that produces the overwhelming majority of the world’s meat provide is an moral and environmental catastrophe, and plant-based substitutes haven’t caught on extensively with carnivores. Therefore the significance of cultured meat — which is grown from cells in a lab, moderately than taken from slaughtered animals — and which may be tech’s reply to our international meat habit.
Regardless of greater than a decade of analysis and improvement, cultured meat remains to be far too costly and arduous to supply. However which may be altering quickly, due to the efforts of dozens of start-ups together with Upside Meals, Mosa Meat and Wildtype.
Upside Foods, previously often called Memphis Meats, opened a 53,000-square-foot plant in California this 12 months, and announced it had discovered a method to develop cells into meat with out utilizing animal elements.
And Wildtype, a San Francisco start-up that’s producing lab-grown seafood, launched a brand new, cell-based salmon product this 12 months that’s getting good reviews in early checks, regardless that it hasn’t but been accepted by the F.D.A.
To Recidiviz and Ameelio, for bringing higher tech to the prison justice system
Prisons aren’t often called hotbeds of innovation. However two tech tasks this 12 months tried to make our prison justice system extra humane.
Recidiviz is a nonprofit tech start-up that builds open-source knowledge instruments for prison justice reform. It was began by Clementine Jacoby, a former Google worker who noticed a possibility to corral knowledge in regards to the jail system and make it obtainable to jail officers, lawmakers, activists and researchers to tell their choices. Its instruments are in use in seven states, together with North Dakota, the place the info instruments helped jail officers assess the chance of Covid-19 outbreaks and establish incarcerated individuals who had been eligible for early launch.
Ameelio, a nonprofit start-up based by two Yale college students and backed by tech honchos like Jack Dorsey and Eric Schmidt, is attempting to disrupt jail communications, a notoriously exploitative trade that fees inmates and their family members exorbitant charges for cellphone and video calls. This 12 months, it launched a free video calling service, which is being examined in prisons in Iowa and Colorado, with plans so as to add extra states subsequent 12 months.
To ICON and Mighty Buildings, for utilizing 3-D printing to handle the housing disaster
Once I first heard about experimental efforts to 3-D print homes a number of years in the past, I dismissed them as a novelty. However 3-D printing know-how has improved steadily since then, and is now getting used to construct precise homes in the US and overseas.
3-D printing homes has a number of benefits: It’s considerably cheaper and quicker than conventional development (homes may be 3-D printed in as little as 24 hours) and may be made utilizing native supplies in components of the world the place concrete is difficult to come back by.
ICON, a development know-how firm based mostly in Texas, has 3-D printed greater than two dozen constructions to this point. Its know-how was used to print houses in a village in Mexico this 12 months, and the corporate plans to break ground subsequent 12 months on a improvement in Austin, Tex., that can consist totally of 3-D printed homes.
Mighty Buildings, based mostly in Oakland, Calif., is taking a barely completely different strategy. It sells prefab house kits consisting of 3-D printed panels which can be made in a manufacturing unit and assembled on-site. Its houses are powered by photo voltaic panels and loaded with energy-efficient options, and it lately struck a deal to 3-D print 15 homes in a subdivision in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Our nationwide housing disaster, it must be mentioned, is just not primarily a tech drawback. Unhealthy zoning and tax legal guidelines, NIMBY protectionism and different components have played a part in making housing unaffordable for a lot of. Nevertheless it’s comforting to know that if and when native and state governments get their acts collectively and begin constructing extra housing, 3-D printing may assist velocity up the method.
To Frances Haugen and the Integrity Institute, for serving to to wash up social media
Few tech tales made as large an impression this 12 months because the revelations from Frances Haugen, the previous Fb product supervisor turned whistle-blower who was the principle supply for The Wall Road Journal’s blockbuster “Facebook Files” collection. By making public 1000’s of paperwork detailing inside Fb analysis and discussions in regards to the platform’s harms, Ms. Haugen superior our collective data about Fb’s internal workings, and her congressional testimony was a landmark second for tech accountability.
Shortly after Ms. Haugen went public, two former members of Fb’s integrity crew, Jeff Allen and Sahar Massachi, started the Integrity Institute, a nonprofit that’s meant to assist social media firms navigate thorny points round belief, security and platform governance. Their announcement obtained much less consideration than Ms. Haugen’s doc dump, however it’s all a part of the identical worthy effort to coach lawmakers, technologists and the general public about making our social media ecosystem more healthy.
And an honorary point out to MacKenzie Scott, for turning into the world’s quickest philanthropist
Ms. Scott, who obtained divorced from Jeff Bezos in 2019, is just not a tech founder or a start-up maven. However she is gifting away her Amazon fortune — estimated to be price greater than $50 billion — at a tempo that makes different tech philanthropists appear like penny-pinchers.
She donated more than $6 billion in 2021 alone to a number of charities, faculties and social packages, an astonishing feat for a person working with a small crew of advisers. (For scale, the whole Gates Basis gave out $5.8 billion in direct grants in 2020.)
And in contrast to different donors, who splash their names on buildings and museum wings, Ms. Scott introduced her presents quietly in a collection of understated blog posts. Let’s hope that in 2022, extra tech moguls comply with her lead.