The year 2022, in the tech world, was one of big leaps and even bigger pratfalls.
The falls included some of the industry’s most recognizable names. Sam Bankman-Fried began the year as the biggest celebrity in crypto, with a net worth of more than $20 billion, and ends it as a disgraced pariah who is facing criminal fraud charges. Elon Musk began 2022 as the world’s richest man, with a thriving electric car company and a name synonymous with success; he ends it more than $100 billion poorer, as the bitter and beleaguered owner of a social media company that seems to be ruining his life.
The tech industry struggled, too, with harsh macroeconomic conditions, including high inflation and rising interest rates. As the sector’s decade of hypergrowth came to an end, start-ups died, tech giants cut perks and laid off workers, and investors’ dreams of a new, crypto-fied internet known as “web3” faded into oblivion.
But focusing exclusively on what went wrong risks missing the many noble, clever and socially valuable tech projects that made progress this year.
For several years now, I’ve highlighted these kinds of projects in my annual Good Tech Awards column. These aren’t necessarily technologies that I’m sure will improve the world, while causing no problems whatsoever. They’re tools that I believe could improve the world, or help address thorny societal challenges. Some of them could also go quite badly, if they’re mismanaged or co-opted in harmful ways.
There were many to choose from this year. Here’s what made the final cut.
To OpenAI and the makers of Midjourney and Stable Diffusion, for proving that A.I. can create
The splashiest tech breakthrough of the year, by a significant margin, was the boom in “generative A.I.” — a term for the new type of artificial intelligence apps, trained on vast amounts of data, that can create new media objects out of thin air.
This year, A.I. image generators like DALL-E 2, Stable Diffusion and Midjourney dazzled users (including me) with their creations and set off a Cambrian explosion of new, ultracapable A.I. tools. In recent weeks, ChatGPT, a text-generating A.I. built by OpenAI, became a viral sensation (and every teacher’s worst nightmare) when it started cranking out term papers, original poetry and working snippets of code.
Some credit for the generative A.I. boom should go to Google, which created much of the foundational technology. But this year, Google (which has kept most of its A.I. experiments private, to its recent chagrin) got one-upped by OpenAI, as well as the makers of Midjourney and Stable Diffusion, all of which released public-facing products that allowed millions of people to experience generative A.I. for themselves.
The ultimate effects of generative A.I. are still unknown. Some people argue that these apps will destroy millions of jobs, while others argue that they’ll be a boon to human creativity. But whether you’re an A.I. optimist or pessimist, this year’s advances mean that we are no longer debating theoretical costs and benefits — the tools have arrived, and we now get to decide how to use them.
To Ethereum developers, for pulling off the merge
I know, I know. Putting a crypto project in a “good tech” list in 2022 feels like putting credit default swaps in a “cool financial innovations” list 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 merge” — a hulking, years-in-the-making project to switch Ethereum from an energy-guzzling form of blockchain known as “proof of work” to a much greener form of blockchain known as “proof of stake.”
The switch, which crypto developers compared to trying to swap a plane’s engine in midair, was a smashing success, and cut the energy required to power Ethereum by more than 99 percent. (It didn’t, however, boost the price of the cryptocurrency, Ether, which ended the year down nearly 70 percent.)
To Living Carbon, Twelve and BeeHero, for turning tech on the climate crisis
While 2022 was a horrible year for start-up fund-raising in general, it was a great year for climate tech start-ups, which raised billions of dollars to bring climate-friendly technologies to market.
There are too many promising climate tech start-ups to name — and, to be honest, I don’t know enough about climate science to tell which ones stand 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 California start-up, is genetically engineering trees and other plants to capture and store more carbon from the atmosphere. These G.M.O. supertrees, the company claims, grow bigger and faster than normal trees and can survive in soil with metal concentrations that would be toxic to other plants.
Twelve, which is based in Berkeley, Calif., is using a novel electrochemical process to turn carbon dioxide into industrial products as varied as sunglasses and jet fuel. The company raised a $130 million funding round this year and struck deals with companies like Mercedes-Benz and Procter & Gamble.
BeeHero, which was started in Israel in 2017, is using new technology to address problems facing one of the most important parts of our global food supply: bees. Bees pollinate more than one-third of all crops, but they are dying off at alarming rates, setting off fears of a food shortage. To tackle this, BeeHero developed a “precision pollination platform” — basically, a bee-tracking sensor system that allows for industrial beekeepers to monitor the health and productivity of their hives in real time. The company raised a $42 million Series B (Series Bee?) round this year from investors including General Mills.
To the National Ignition Facility, Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Helion, for keeping the fusion dream alive
Nuclear fusion, an emissions-free form of energy generation that has long been viewed as the “holy grail of energy,” took a few important steps toward reality this year.
The biggest fusion news of the year came just a few weeks ago when scientists at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California crossed a major threshold known as “ignition,” creating a fusion reaction that generated more energy than it took to produce. That breakthrough was hailed by officials including Jennifer M. Granholm, the secretary of energy, who called it a “landmark achievement.”
Many start-ups have also been plugging away on fusion. 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, mass-market fusion technology. Helion says it plans to create energy with its next fusion reactor, Polaris, by 2024. Another company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which was spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2018, is using an array of powerful magnets to power its prototype fusion machine outside Boston, and plans to have it up and running by 2025.
Experts have cautioned that despite the latest breakthroughs, affordable fusion power may not be widely available for years. But this year, both the public and private sectors offered a glimpse of a fusion-powered future.
To Locket, for making photo-sharing fun again
If 2022 was the year when social media died, it was also the year when start-ups began trying to recapture what had 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 your smartphone’s home screen, creating a kind of digital photo frame that your closest friends and loved ones can upload photos to.
Locket was created by Matt Moss, a young developer who wanted a way to send photos to his long-distance girlfriend; this year, the app quickly grew to millions of users, raised a major funding round and won an Apple cultural impact award. There are no filters, preening influencers, data-harvesting schemes or algorithmic feeds on Locket — it’s just an easy, no-frills way to share photos with your loved ones.
My wife and I started using Locket this year to share photos of our kid, in a way that wouldn’t require us digging through text chains or huge photo albums to find them later on. It’s not the tech product I’ve used most often, or the one I think will create the most net good for society. But it’s fun, uncomplicated and respectful of its users — three qualities to which more tech products should aspire.