Thanks in part to the pandemic and the digitisation of our
lives, all of the big tech companies got bigger. 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 year of
covering tech’s scandals and shortfalls, I use this column to lift up a handful
of tech projects that improved the world during the year. My criteria are
somewhat loose and arbitrary, but I look for the kinds of worthy, altruistic
projects that apply technology to big, societal problems, and that don’t get
much attention from the tech press, like startups that are using artificial
intelligence to fight wildfires or food-delivery programmes for the needy.
Especially at a time when many of tech’s leaders seem more
interested in building new, virtual worlds than improving the world we live in,
it is worth praising the technologists who are stepping up to solve some of our
So here, without further ado, are this year’s Good Tech
To DeepMind, for
cracking the protein problem (and publishing its work)
One of the year’s most exciting artificial intelligence
breakthroughs came in July, when DeepMind — a Google-owned AI company —
published data and open-source code from its groundbreaking AlphaFold project.
The project, which used AI to predict the structures of
proteins, solved a problem that had vexed scientists for decades, and it was
hailed by experts as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time.
And by publishing its data freely, AlphaFold set off a frenzy among
researchers, some of whom are already using it to develop new drugs and better
understand the proteins involved in viruses like SARS-CoV-2.
Google’s overall AI efforts have been fraught with
controversy and missteps, but AlphaFold seems like an unequivocally good use of
the company’s vast expertise and resources.
To Upside Foods, Mosa
Meat and Wildtype, for pushing lab-grown meat toward the mainstream
People love eating meat. But the industrial-farm system that
produces the vast majority of the world’s meat supply is an ethical and
environmental disaster, and plant-based substitutes haven’t caught on widely
with carnivores. Hence the importance of cultured meat — which is grown from
cells in a lab, rather than taken from slaughtered animals — and which might be
tech’s answer to our global meat addiction.
Despite more than a decade of research and development,
cultured meat is still far too expensive and hard to produce. But that may be
changing soon, thanks to the efforts of dozens of startups, including Upside
Foods, Mosa Meat and Wildtype.
Upside Foods, formerly known as Memphis Meats, opened a
53,000-square-foot plant in California this year and announced it had figured
out a way to grow cells into meat without using animal components.
Mosa Meat, a Dutch cultivated-meat startup, announced major
breakthroughs in its technology, too, including a method of growing animal fat
that is 98% cheaper than the previous method.
And Wildtype, a San Francisco startup that is producing
lab-grown seafood, released a new, cell-based salmon product this year that is
getting good reviews in early tests, even though the US Food and Drug
Administration has not approved it yet.
To Recidiviz and
Ameelio, for bringing better tech to the criminal justice system
Prisons aren’t known as hotbeds of innovation. But two tech
projects this year tried to make our criminal justice system more humane.
Recidiviz is a nonprofit tech startup that builds
open-source data tools for criminal justice reform. It was started by
Clementine Jacoby, a former Google employee who saw an opportunity to corral
data about the prison system and make it available to prison officials,
lawmakers, activists and researchers to inform their decisions. Its tools are
in use in seven states, including North Dakota, where the data tools helped
prison officials assess the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks and identify
incarcerated people who were eligible for early release.
Ameelio, a nonprofit startup founded by two Yale students
and backed by tech honchos like Jack Dorsey and Eric Schmidt, is trying to
disrupt prison communications, a notoriously exploitative industry that charges
inmates and their loved ones exorbitant fees for phone and video calls. This
year, it released a free video calling 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 address the housing crisis
When I first heard about experimental efforts to 3D-print
houses a few years ago, I dismissed them as a novelty. But 3D-printing
technology has improved steadily since then and is now being used to build
actual houses in the United States and abroad.
3D-printing houses has several advantages: It is
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 come by.
ICON, a construction technology company based in Texas, has
3D-printed more than two dozen structures so far. Its technology was used to
print homes in a village in Mexico this year, and the company plans to break
ground next year on a development in Austin, Texas, that will consist entirely
of 3D-printed houses.
Mighty Buildings, based in Oakland, California, is taking a
slightly different approach. It sells prefab home kits consisting of 3D-printed
panels that are made in a factory and assembled on-site. Its homes are powered
by solar panels and loaded with energy-efficient features, and it recently
struck a deal to 3D-print 15 houses in a subdivision in Rancho Mirage,
Our national housing crisis, it should be said, is not
primarily a tech problem. Bad zoning and tax laws, not-in-my-backyard
protectionism and other factors have played a part in making housing
unaffordable for many. But it is comforting to know that if and when local and
state governments get their acts together and start building more housing, 3D
printing could help speed up the process.
To Frances Haugen and
the Integrity Institute, for helping to clean up social media
Few tech stories made as big an impact this year as the
revelations from Frances Haugen, the former Facebook product manager turned
whistleblower who was the main source for The Wall Street Journal’s blockbuster
“Facebook Files” series. By making public thousands of documents detailing
internal Facebook research and discussions about the platform’s harms, Haugen
advanced our collective knowledge about Facebook’s inner workings, and her
congressional testimony was a landmark moment for tech accountability.
Shortly after Haugen went public, two former members of
Facebook’s integrity team, Jeff Allen and Sahar Massachi, started the Integrity
Institute, a nonprofit that is meant to help social media companies navigate
thorny issues around trust, safety and platform governance. Their announcement
got less attention than Haugen’s document dump, but it is all part of the same
worthy effort to educate lawmakers, technologists and the public about making
our social media ecosystem healthier.
And an honorary mention to MacKenzie Scott, for becoming the
world’s fastest philanthropist
Scott, who got divorced from Jeff Bezos in 2019, did not
introduce new technology or a startup in 2022. But she is giving away her
Amazon fortune — estimated to be worth more than $50 billion — at a pace that
makes other tech philanthropists look like penny-pinchers.
She donated more than $6 billion in 2022 alone to a host of
charities, schools and social programmes, an astonishing feat for an individual
working with a small team of advisers. (For scale, the entire Gates Foundation
gave out $5.8 billion in direct grants in 2020.)
And unlike other donors, who splash their names on buildings
and museum wings, Scott announced her gifts quietly in a series of understated
blog posts. Let’s hope that in 2022, more tech moguls follow her lead.
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