In the tech business, 2021 was a yr of income and pivots.
Thanks partly to the pandemic and the digitization of our lives, the entire large tech corporations acquired greater. Facebook changed its name to Meta, Jeff Bezos went to space, Jack Dorsey left Twitter and Silicon Valley fell harder for crypto.
Every December, partly to cheer myself up after a yr of overlaying tech’s scandals and shortfalls, I take advantage of this column to carry up a handful of tech initiatives that improved the world in the course of the yr. My standards are considerably free and arbitrary, however I search for the sorts of worthy, altruistic initiatives that apply know-how to large, societal issues, and that don’t get a lot consideration from the tech press, like start-ups which are using artificial intelligence to fight wildfires, or food-delivery programs for the needy.
Especially 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 largest issues.
So right here, with out additional ado, are this yr’s Good Tech Awards.
To DeepMind, for cracking the protein downside (and publishing its work)
One of the yr’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 information freely, AlphaFold set off a frenzy amongst researchers, a few of whom are already using it to develop new medicine and higher perceive the proteins concerned in viruses like SARS-CoV-2.
Google’s general A.I. efforts have been fraught with controversy and missteps, however AlphaFold looks as if an unequivocally good use of the corporate’s huge experience and sources.
To Upside Foods, Mosa Meat and Wildtype, for pushing lab-grown meat towards the mainstream
People love consuming meat. But 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. Hence the significance of cultured meat — which is grown from cells in a lab, relatively than taken from slaughtered animals, and which could be tech’s reply to our world meat habit.
Despite greater than a decade of analysis and improvement, cultured meat continues to be far too costly and onerous to provide. But that could be altering quickly, because of the efforts of dozens of start-ups together with Upside Foods, Mosa Meat and Wildtype.
Upside Foods, previously often called Memphis Meats, opened a 53,000-square-foot plant in California this yr, and announced it had discovered a option 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 yr that’s getting good reviews in early exams, despite the fact that the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t but authorised it.
To Recidiviz and Ameelio, for bringing higher tech to the legal justice system
Prisons aren’t often called hotbeds of innovation. But two tech initiatives this yr tried to make our legal justice system extra humane.
Recidiviz is a nonprofit tech start-up that builds open-source information instruments for legal justice reform. It was began by Clementine Jacoby, a former Google worker who noticed a possibility to corral information in regards to the jail system and make it accessible to jail officers, lawmakers, activists and researchers to tell their selections. Its instruments are in use in seven states, together with North Dakota, the place the information instruments helped jail officers assess the chance of Covid-19 outbreaks and determine 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 business that costs inmates and their family members exorbitant charges for cellphone and video calls. This yr, 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 yr.
To ICON and Mighty Buildings, for utilizing 3-D printing to deal with the housing disaster
When I first heard about experimental efforts to 3-D print homes a couple of years in the past, I dismissed them as a novelty. But 3-D printing know-how has improved steadily since then, and is now getting used to construct precise homes within the United States and overseas.
3-D printing homes has a number of benefits: It’s considerably cheaper and quicker than conventional building (homes might be 3-D printed in as little as 24 hours), and they are often made utilizing native supplies in components of the world the place concrete is difficult to come back by.
ICON, a building know-how firm based mostly in Texas, has 3-D printed greater than two dozen constructions to date. Its know-how was used to print properties in a village in Mexico this yr, and the corporate plans to break ground subsequent yr on a improvement in Austin, Texas, that can consist totally of 3-D printed homes.
Mighty Buildings, based mostly in Oakland, Calif., is taking a barely completely different method. It sells prefab dwelling kits consisting of 3-D printed panels which are made in a manufacturing unit and assembled on website. Its properties are powered by photo voltaic panels and loaded with energy-efficient options, and it not too long ago struck a deal to 3-D print 15 homes in a subdivision in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Our nationwide housing disaster, it needs to be stated, will not be primarily a tech downside. Bad zoning and tax legal guidelines, NIMBY protectionism and different elements have played a part in making housing unaffordable for a lot of. But 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 might assist pace up the method.
To Frances Haugen and the Integrity Institute, for serving to to scrub up social media
Few tech tales made as large an affect this yr because the revelations from Frances Haugen, the Facebook product supervisor turned whistle-blower who was the principle supply for The Wall Street Journal’s blockbuster “Facebook Files” sequence. By making public hundreds of paperwork detailing inner Facebook analysis and discussions in regards to the platform’s harms, Ms. Haugen superior our collective data about Facebook’s internal workings, and her congressional testimony was a landmark second for tech accountability.
Shortly after Ms. Haugen went public, two former members of Facebook’s integrity group, Jeff Allen and Sahar Massachi, started the Integrity Institute, a nonprofit that’s meant to assist social media corporations navigate thorny points round belief, security and platform governance. Their announcement acquired much less consideration than Ms. Haugen’s doc dump, however it’s all a part of the identical worthy effort to teach 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 acquired divorced from Jeff Bezos in 2019, will not be a tech founder or a start-up maven. But she is making a gift of her Amazon fortune — estimated to be price greater than $50 billion — at a tempo that makes different tech philanthropists seem like penny pinchers.
She donated more than $6 billion in 2021 alone to a bunch of charities, colleges and social packages, an astonishing feat for a person working with a small group of advisers. (For scale, all the Gates Foundation gave out $5.eight 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 sequence of understated blog posts. Let’s hope that in 2022, extra tech moguls observe her lead.