In the tech industry, 2021 has been a year of profit and pivot.
Thanks in part to the pandemic and the digitization of our lives, all of the big tech companies have grown. Facebook changed its name to Meta, Jeff Bezos went to space, Jack Dorsey left Twitter, and Silicon Valley fell stronger for crypto.
Each December, in part to cheer myself up after a year of covering up scandals and tech shortcomings, I use this column to raise a handful of tech projects that have made the world a better place during the year. My criteria are somewhat vague and arbitrary, but I’m looking for dignified and altruistic types of projects that apply technology to big societal issues, and that don’t get much attention from the tech press, like start-ups. that use artificial intelligence. to fight forest fires, or food delivery programs for the needy.
Especially at a time when many tech leaders seem more interested in building new virtual worlds than improving the world we live in, it’s worth commending the technologists who are stepping up to solve some of our biggest problems. .
So here is, without further ado, this year’s Good Tech Awards.
To DeepMind, for solving the protein problem (and publishing his work)
One of the most exciting AI breakthroughs of the year came in July when DeepMind, a Google-owned artificial intelligence company, released data and open source code for its groundbreaking AlphaFold project.
The project, which used AI to predict protein structures, solved a problem that had upset scientists for decades, and was hailed by experts as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. And by freely publishing its data, AlphaFold has sparked a frenzy among researchers, some of whom are already use it to develop new drugs and better understand the proteins involved in viruses such as SARS-CoV-2.
Google’s overall AI efforts have been fraught with controversy and missteps, but AlphaFold appears to be an unequivocal use of the company’s vast expertise and resources.
Towards Upside Foods, Mosa Meat and Wildtype, for pushing lab-grown meat into the mainstream
People like to eat meat. But the factory-farm system that produces the vast majority of the world’s meat supply is an ethical and environmental disaster, and the plant-based substitutes haven’t appealed to carnivores much. Hence the importance of cultured meat – which is grown from cells in the lab, rather than slaughtered animals, and which could be the technological answer to our global dependence on meat.
Despite more than a decade of research and development, cultivated meat is still far too expensive and difficult to produce. But that may soon change, thanks to the efforts of dozens of start-ups, including Upside Foods, Mosa Meat, and Wildtype.
Foods upside down, formerly known as Memphis Meats, opened a 53,000 square foot factory in California this year, and announcement he had found a way to turn cells into meat without using animal components.
And Wild type, a San Francisco-based start-up that produces lab-grown seafood, this year launched a new cell-based salmon product that is becoming good reviews in early testing, although the Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved it.
To Recidiviz and Ameelio, for bringing better technology to the criminal justice system
Prisons are not known as hotbeds of innovation. But two tech projects this year attempted to make our criminal justice system more humane.
Recidivism is a nonprofit tech start-up that creates open source data tools for criminal justice reform. It was started by Clementine Jacoby, a former Google employee who saw an opportunity to collect data on the prison system and make it available to prison authorities, lawmakers, activists and researchers to inform their decisions. Its tools are in use in seven states, including North Dakota, where the data tools have helped prison authorities assess the risk of a Covid-19 outbreak and identify incarcerated people eligible for early release.
Ameelio, a nonprofit startup founded by two Yale students and backed by tech greats like Jack Dorsey and Eric Schmidt, is trying to disrupt prison communications, a notoriously exploitative industry that charges inmates and their families. close to exorbitant charges for phone and video calls. This year he published a free video call service, which is being tested in prisons in Iowa and Colorado, with plans to add more states next year.
To ICON and Mighty Buildings, for using 3D printing to deal with the housing crisis
When I first heard of experimental efforts to 3D print houses a few years ago, I dismissed them as something new. But 3D printing technology has been steadily improving since then and is now being used to build real homes in the United States and abroad.
3D printing houses have several advantages: they are significantly cheaper and faster than traditional construction (houses can be 3D printed in as little as 24 hours), and they can be made using local materials. in parts of the world where concrete is hard to go through, to visit, to get there first.
ICON, a Texas-based construction technology company, has 3D printed more than two dozen structures to date. Its technology was used to print houses in a Mexican village this year, and the company plans to innovate next year on a development in Austin, Texas that will be made up entirely of 3D printed homes.
Mighty buildings, based in Oakland, Calif., takes a slightly different approach. It sells prefabricated house kits made up of 3D printed panels made in the factory and assembled on site. Its homes are powered by solar panels and come with energy efficient features. It recently made an agreement to 3D print 15 homes in a Rancho Mirage, California subdivision.
Our national housing crisis, it must be said, is not primarily a technological problem. Bad zoning and tax laws, NIMBY protectionism and other factors have all helped make housing unaffordable for many. But it’s heartwarming to know that if and when local and state governments come together and start building more homes, 3D printing could help speed up the process.
To Frances Haugen and the Integrity Institute, for helping clean up social media
Few tech stories have had as much of an impact this year as the revelations of Frances Haugen, the Facebook product manager-turned-whistle-blower who was the primary source of the Wall Street Journal blockbuster.Facebook filesseries. By releasing thousands of documents detailing Facebook’s internal research and discussions of the platform’s harms, Ms. Haugen has advanced our collective knowledge of the inner workings of Facebook, and her testimony to Congress has been a historic moment for technological responsibility.
Shortly after Ms Haugen went public, two former members of Facebook’s Integrity Team, Jeff Allen and Sahar Massachi, launched the Integrity Institute, a non-profit organization that aims to help social media companies overcome thorny issues of platform trust, security and governance. Their announcement garnered less attention than Ms Haugen’s document dump, but it’s all part of the same laudable effort to educate lawmakers, technologists and the public to make our social media ecosystem healthier.
And an honorary mention to MacKenzie Scott, for becoming the fastest philanthropist in the world
Ms Scott, who divorced Jeff Bezos in 2019, hasn’t introduced any new technology or startups in 2021. But she is handing over her Amazon fortune – estimated at over $ 50 billion – at a rate that makes it others tech philanthropists look like penny tongs.
She donated more than $ 6 billion in 2021 alone to a host of charities, schools and social programs, a stunning feat for someone working with a small team of advisers. (For the scale, the entire Gates Foundation made $ 5.8 billion in direct grants in 2020.)
And unlike other donors, who display their names on the buildings and wings of the museum, Ms Scott has announced her gifts discreetly in a series of discreet blog posts. Hopefully, by 2022, more tech moguls will follow his lead.