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The year 2022, in the technological world, was one of big leaps and even bigger falls.

The drops included some of the industry’s most recognizable names. Sam Bankman-Fried started the year as the biggest celebrity in crypto, with a net worth of over $20 billion, and ends as a disgraced outcast facing criminal fraud charges. Elon Musk started 2022 as the richest man in the world, with a thriving electric car company and a name synonymous with success; he ends up more than $100 billion poorer, as the embittered and beleaguered owner of a social media company that seems to be ruining his life.

The technology industry also struggled with tough macroeconomic conditions, including high inflation and rising interest rates. As the industry’s decade of hypergrowth drew to a close, startups died, tech giants cut perks and laid off employees, and investors’ dreams of a new, encrypted internet known as “web3” fell by the wayside.

But focusing exclusively on what went wrong runs the risk of missing out on the many noble, intelligent, and socially valuable technology projects that made progress this year.

I’ve been highlighting these types of projects in my annual Good Tech Awards column for several years now. These aren’t necessarily technologies that I’m sure will improve the world without causing any problems. They are tools that I believe it could improve the world or help address thorny social challenges. Some of them can also go very badly if mismanaged or co-opted in harmful ways.

There were many to choose from this year. Here’s what made the final cut.

The most impressive technological advance of the year, by a significant margin, was the boom in “generative AI” – a term for the new type of artificial intelligence applications, trained on massive amounts of data, that can create new media objects out of thin air. . .

This year, AI imagers like DALL-E 2, Stable Diffusion, and Midjourney dazzled users (myself included) with their creations and sparked a Cambrian explosion of new ultra-capable AI tools. Over the past few weeks, ChatGPT, a text-generating AI built by OpenAI, has become a viral sensation (and every professor’s worst nightmare) when it starts churning out term papers, original poetry, and code snippets from I work.

Some credit for the generative AI boom must go to Google, which created much of the foundational technology. But this year, Google (which has kept most of its AI experiments private, much to its recent chagrin) has been bested by OpenAI, as well as the makers of Midjourney and Stable Diffusion, all of which have released public-facing products that have allowed millions of people experience generative AI for themselves.

The ultimate effects of generative AI are still unknown. Some people argue that these apps will destroy millions of jobs, while others argue that they will be a boon to human creativity. But whether you’re an AI optimist or pessimist, this year’s advances mean we’re no longer debating theoretical costs and benefits – the tools are here, and now we can decide how to use them.

I know I know. Placing a crypto project on a “good tech” list in 2022 is like putting credit default swaps on a “cool financial innovations” list in 2008.

But while the crypto industry has taken a nosedive this year — wiping out trillions of dollars in value and leaving many investors empty-handed — there has been at least one silver lining. In September, Ethereum, the network behind the second most valuable cryptocurrency after Bitcoin, completed what became known as “the merger” – a cumbersome project years in the making to switch Ethereum from an energy-hungry form of blockchain. known as “proof of work” to a much greener form of blockchain known as “proof of stake”.

The switch, which cryptocurrency developers likened to trying to change an airplane’s engine mid-air, was a resounding success and reduced the energy needed to power Ethereum by over 99%. (However, that hasn’t boosted the price of cryptocurrency Ether, which ended the year down nearly 70 percent.)

While 2022 was a horrible year for startup fundraising in general, it was a great year for climate tech startups, who raised billions of dollars to bring climate-friendly technologies to market.

Kevin Roose and Casey Newton are the hosts of Hard Fork, a podcast that makes sense of the rapidly changing world of technology. Subscribe and listen.

There are too many promising climate tech start-ups to name – and to be honest, I don’t know enough about climate science to say which ones have the best chance of success – but a few that caught my eye this year were Living Carbon, Doze and BeeHero. .

Living Carbon, a three-year-old start-up in California, is genetically engineering trees and other plants to capture and store more carbon from the atmosphere. These transgenic supertrees, the company claims, grow longer and faster than normal trees and can survive in soils with concentrations of metals that would be toxic to other plants.

Twelve, based in Berkeley, Calif., is using a new electrochemical process to turn carbon dioxide into industrial products as varied as sunglasses and jet fuel. The company has raised $130 million in funding this year and has struck deals with companies including Mercedes-Benz and Procter & Gamble.

BeeHero, which was started in Israel in 2017, is using new technologies to solve problems faced by one of the most important parts of our global food supply: bees. Bees pollinate more than a third of all crops, but they are dying at alarming rates, fueling fears of food shortages. To address this, BeeHero has developed a “precision pollination platform” – basically a bee tracking sensor system that allows industrial beekeepers to monitor the health and productivity of their hives in real time. The company raised $42 million of Series B (Series Bee?) this year from investors including General Mills.

Nuclear fusion, an emission-free form of power generation that has long been seen as the “holy grail of energy”, has taken some important steps towards 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 an important threshold known as “ignition,” creating a fusion reaction that generated more energy than normal. needed to produce . That discovery was hailed by officials, including Jennifer M. Granholm, the energy secretary, who called it “a landmark achievement.”

Many start-ups are also investing in the merger. 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 he plans to create power with its next fusion reactor, Polaris, by 2024. Another company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which sprung out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2018, is using an array of powerful magnets to power its prototype fusion machine outside of Boston, and plans to have it up and running by 2025.

Experts have warned that, despite the most recent advances, affordable fusion energy may not be widely available for years. But this year, both the public and private sectors offered a glimpse of a merger-driven future.

If 2022 was the year that social media died, it was also the year that startups started trying to recapture what 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 installs on your smartphone’s home screen, creating a kind of digital picture frame where your closest friends and loved ones can send you photos.

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 round of funding, and won an Apple Cultural Impact Award. There are no filters, overbearing influencers, data collection schemes or algorithmic feeds in 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 children in a way that didn’t require us to sift through chain letters or huge photo albums to find them later. It’s not the technology product I’ve used most often or the one I think will create the greatest net good for society. But it’s fun, uncomplicated, and respectful of its users — three qualities that more tech products should aspire to.

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