When you think of the biggest tech stories of the year, you probably think of something like Elon Musk buying Twitter, former crypto wunderkind Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX filing for bankruptcy, all the people who lost their life savings when UST imploded or the tens of thousands of tech workers who got laid off. It was not the most upbeat year we’ve ever had in the tech world. And yet, from progress in climate tech, to breakthroughs in AI technology, to the most awe-inspiring images of outer space we could dream of, there's a lot to be excited about as we close out 2022.
Climate tech bolstered by the Inflation Reduction Act
After years of inaction, Congress finally took a step toward addressing climate change with a surprise — and surprisingly large — bill that funds everything from green hydrogen to cold-weather heat pumps. The Inflation Reduction Act seemed destined for failure, like every climate bill before it, until it suddenly wasn’t. Senator Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) intransigence looked like it was a calculated effort to kill the bill, but in reality, it may just have been an attempt to guarantee American competitiveness in some of the more consequential industries of the 21st century. The law provides $369 billion toward a variety of climate initiatives, and while it’s not nearly enough to address the scope of the problem, it’s far better than nothing. And if investor sentiment is anything to go by, it may be the lure needed to get them rushing into climate tech.
–Tim De Chant
Generative AI comes into its own
Generative AI has its problems, to be sure. But it also has undeniably positive disruptive potential. As generative AI came to the fore this year, bolstered by emerging AI techniques, we got a glimpse of the labor it can save across the art (see: Stable Diffusion, DALL-E 2), programming (GitHub Copilot) and writing world (GPT-3, ChatGPT). Art-generating AI can eliminate mundane work like sketching backgrounds for portrait photos, while code-generating AI can reduce the amount of repetitive coding a programmer has to finish. The jury's out on whether it's a net good, but if social media's anything to go by, generative AI is already supercharging the workflows of the white-collar workforce.
Orbital internet helps bring the world online
The promise of satellite-based internet connections is coming true, though as usual the tech is not yet evenly distributed. But we've already seen Starlink connect Antarctica and war-torn Ukraine, both rather extreme test cases. If they can do it there (or on a yacht, for that matter), they can also do it in rural America, regions hit by natural disasters, or in far-flung villages in developing countries. We may even see pirate internet connections popping up in places like China and North Korea, circumventing their control over information. It's a hugely enabling technology and 2022 was the year it went from experiment to product. And just wait until you can do it with your phone!
One of the biggest mainstream critiques of crypto is just how energy-intensive it can be. Depending on how a blockchain validates its transactions, simply buying an NFT could use an outsized amount of energy, and as more people onboarded into the space in 2021, the environmental impact of the crypto industry has become increasingly concerning. For years, the team behind the Ethereum blockchain has promised a monumental event called The Merge, which would transition Ethereum from the energy-intensive proof-of-work protocol to the more environmentally friendly proof-of-stake process. In September, this change -- The Merge, with a capital M -- finally succeeded after a multiyear coding effort.
Are we saying that crypto is inherently good? Don’t @ me. But is it good news that the second most popular blockchain recently became about 99% more energy efficient? Hell yeah.
A year of historic firsts in labor organizing
This year feels like it has been… several years, but believe it or not, it was this April when the Amazon Labor Union, led by future folk hero Christian Smalls, secured the first union election victory at Amazon in the U.S. People referred to this as a David and Goliath situation, and that’s not an exaggeration. Amazon pulled out all the stops -- like violating labor laws and spending millions on anti-union consultants -- to stop the Staten Island fulfillment center from advocating for themselves. But against all odds, Amazon now must contend with a union.
Meanwhile, in the video game industry, Raven Software QA testers at Activision Blizzard won the historic first union at a major U.S. gaming company. And just weeks ago, a second group of QA testers at the gaming behemoth formed a union as well. A handful of Apple Stores also won their first U.S. unions this year. Outside the tech sphere, we’ve seen more than 250 Starbucks stores unionize in the last two years while union drives at franchises like Trader Joe's are gaining steam.
And in the world of the gig economy, small gains are being made on the national level. Usually the fight among gig worker classification happens at the state level, but this year the Department of Labor proposed a ruling that if passed would make it easier for app-based ridehail and delivery drivers to become employees if they can prove they are economically dependent on a company.
–Amanda Silberling & Rebecca Bellan
Text-generating open source AI blossoms
Capable text-generating AI models were once the exclusive domain of well-financed labs and companies (think OpenAI and Alphabet's DeepMind). But over the past year, the open source AI community has risen to the challenge of developing free, permissively licensed alternatives. BigScience, a community-powered project with the goal of making natural language systems widely available for research, released Bloom, which is roughly on par with OpenAI's GPT-3 in terms of its capabilities. More recently, BigScience launched the Petals project, which allows volunteers to donate their hardware power to tackle a portion of a text-generating workload and tap others to complete larger tasks, similar to Folding@home and other distributed compute setups. It's a promising turn of events, to be sure -- particularly as progress in the text-generating domain accelerates.
This summer, the JWST delivered its first deep field images, representing the culmination of 26 years of hard work. It's difficult not to get lost in the breathtakingly beautiful images of Stephan’s Quintet or the Carina nebula, but what these incredible photographs represent is even more spectacular. As our own Aria Alamalhodaei put it, "these achievements are just the beginning. Scientists still have plenty of questions -- about exoplanets, the formation of the universe and more -- and now they have a new powerful tool in their arsenal to seek answers."
A real braille tablet
The Dot Pad is a huge step forward in the world of braille displays, which traditionally have been bulky, expensive and limited in functionality. Not only can the Dot Pad show multiple lines of text at once, its tactile display can mirror a phone's or computer's, showing icons and images in touchable form. It's still working its way from development to full-scale manufacturing, but the American Printing House for the Blind has already licensed the tech and is building its own version — we'll be testing it out at CES.
Momentum for the fediverse
Here’s a not-so-hot take: Maybe it’s not a good thing when the social media companies that drive the public conversation are for-profit entities that can be traded on the stock market and/or taken private by egomaniacal billionaires! It’s been a big year for Mastodon, a nonprofit, open source social network that is part of the fediverse, an ecosystem of interoperable platforms that run on ActivityPub. Since Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, Mastodon has exploded in popularity. According to data from Similarweb, traffic to joinmastodon.org (the directory of Mastodon servers) increased more than 1,500% year over year in November. In less than two weeks, Mastodon’s monthly active user count doubled to more than 1 million. The jury’s still out on whether the exodus to Mastodon is temporary or not -- there’s a lot of friction in the onboarding process, which will make it hard for Mastodon to reach more mainstream audiences. But there has perhaps never been a moment when a social media landscape independent of tech giants has seemed more within reach.