2023 Good Tech Awards
In the tech industry, 2023 was a year of change.
Inspired by the success of last year's breakout tech star, ChatGPIT, Silicon Valley giants raced to transform themselves into artificial intelligence companies, incorporating generative AI features into their products and creating their own, more powerful AI models. Ran for. They did this while navigating an uncertain tech economy, with abundant layoffs and pivots, and trying to keep their old business models afloat.
Everything did not go smoothly. There were misbehaving chatbots, crypto failures, and bank failures. And then in November, OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPIT, melted down (and quickly reorganized itself) in the wake of a failed boardroom coup, proving once and for all that there's no such thing as resting on one's laurels in tech. Not there.
Every December in my Good Tech Awards column, I try to neutralize my own negativity bias by highlighting some lesser-known tech projects that I find beneficial. This year, as you'll see, many of the awards involve artificial intelligence, but my goal was to sidestep the polarized debate about whether AI will destroy the world or save it and instead focus on the here and now. . What is AI good for today? Who is it helping? What kinds of breakthroughs are already being made with AI as a catalyst?
As always, my award criteria are vague and subjective, and do not involve any actual trophies or awards. These are just short, personal words of praise for some of the tech projects that I think will have real, obvious value for humanity in 2023.
To Be My Eyes, Apple and University of Texas at Austin researchers to improve accessibility through AI
Accessibility – the term for making tech products more useful to people with disabilities – has been an under-appreciated area of improvement this year. Many recent advances in artificial intelligence – such as multimodal AI models that can interpret images and convert text to speech – have made it possible for tech companies to create new features for users with disabilities. I'd argue that this is a clearly good use of AI, and an area where people's lives are already being improved in meaningful ways.
I asked Steven Aquino, a freelance journalist specializing in accessible technology, to recommend his top accessibility successes of 2023. He recommended Be My Eyes, a company that creates technology for people with low vision. In 2023, Be My Eyes was announced A feature known as Be My AIPowered by OpenAI's technology, which allows blind and low vision people to point their smartphone camera at an object and have it describe that object in natural language.
Mr. Aquino also told me about Apple's new product personal voice feature, which is built into iOS 17 and uses AI voice-cloning technology to create a synthetic version of the user's voice. The feature was designed for people who are at risk of losing the ability to speak, such as those recently diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or another degenerative disease, and give them a way to preserve their speaking voice. The way is given so that their friends, relatives and loved ones can hear from them for a long time in future.
I'll present another promising accessibility breakthrough: A research team at the University of Texas at Austin announced this year that it has used AI to develop a “noninvasive language decoder” that can translate thoughts into speech. -Can essentially read people's minds. This kind of technology, which uses AI language models to decode brain activity from fMRI scans, sounds like science fiction. But it may make it easier for people with speech loss or paralysis to communicate. And it doesn't require an AI chip to be implanted in your brain, which is an added bonus.
Vertex Pharmaceuticals and CRISPR Therapeutics to put gene editing to good use
When CRISPR, the Nobel Prize-winning gene editing tool, burst into the public consciousness a decade ago, detractors predicted it could lead to a dystopian world of gene-edited “designer babies” and nightmarish eugenics experiments. Instead, technology is allowing scientists to make steady progress toward treating many troublesome diseases.
In December, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first gene-editing therapy for humans — a treatment for sickle cell disease, called Exa-Cell, jointly developed by Boston's Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Switzerland's CRISPR Therapeutics. Was developed from.
Exa-Cell uses CRISPR to edit the gene responsible for sickle cell, a debilitating blood disease that affects about 100,000 Americans, the majority of whom are black. Although it is still extremely expensive and difficult to administer, this treatment offers new hope to sickle cell patients who have access to it.
Brent Seals, Nat Friedman and Daniel Gross for using AI to uncover the mysteries of antiquity
One of the most fun interviews I did on my podcast this year was with Brent Seals, a professor at the University of Kentucky who has spent the last two decades trying to decipher a set of ancient papyrus manuscripts known as the Herculaneum Scrolls. . These scrolls, which belonged to the library owned by Julius Caesar's father-in-law, were buried under a mountain of ash during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. They were so thoroughly carbonized that they could not be opened without ruining them.
Now, AI has made it possible to read these scrolls without opening them. And this year, Dr. Seals teamed up with two tech investors, Nate Friedman and Daniel Gross, to launch it. vesuvius challenge – Offering a reward of up to $1 million to anyone who successfully deciphers the scroll.
The grand prize has still not been won. But the competition has piqued the interest of amateur history buffs, and this year Luke Ferriter, a 21-year-old computer science student, Won the intermediate prize of $40,000 To decipher one word in the scroll – “violet”. I like the idea of using AI to unlock knowledge from the ancient past, and I like the public-minded spirit of this competition.
Waymo to take the slow path to self-driving
I spent a lot of time driving around San Francisco in self-driving cars in 2023. Robot taxis are a controversial technology – and there are still a lot of issues to be worked out – but for the most part I embrace the idea that self-driving cars will eventually replace our always-alert, wandering human drivers. Will make the roads safe. AI Driver.
Cruise, one of two companies offering robot taxi rides in San Francisco, has faced trouble in recent days, after one of its vehicles hit and dragged a woman who was hit by another car . California regulators said the company had misled them about the incident; Cruise took its cars off the roads, and its chief executive, Kyle Vogt, stepped down.
But not all self-driving cars are created equal, and this year I was grateful for the comparatively slow, methodical approach taken by Cruise's competitor, Waymo.
Waymo, which was spun off from Google in 2016, has been racking up miles on public roads for more than a decade, and it shows. The half-dozen trips I took in Waymo cars this year felt safer and more comfortable than cruise trips. And Waymo's safety data is compelling: According to A study conducted by the company Swiss Re, an insurance company, found in 3.8 million self-driving miles that Waymo's cars were significantly less likely to cause property damage than human-driven cars, and there were no physical injury claims.
I'll put my cards on the table: I love self-driving cars, and I think society will be better off once they become widespread. But they have to be safe, and Waymo's slow and steady approach seems better suited to the task.
National Institute of Standards and Technology to manage America's AI transition
One of the more surprising—and, in my opinion, heartening—tech trends of 2023 is that governments around the world are getting involved in trying to understand and regulate AI.
But all that involvement requires work — and in the United States, a big part of that work falls to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a small federal agency previously better known for things like making sure that the clocks and scales were properly calibrated.
The Biden administration's executive order on artificial intelligence issued in October named NIST as one of the primary federal agencies responsible for monitoring AI progress and mitigating its risks. Order directs the agency developing methods for testing AI systems for security, developing practices to help AI companies identify potentially harmful uses of their products, and developing research and guidelines for watermarking AI-generated content, among other things to do.
NIST, which employs about 3,400 people and has an annual budget of $1.24 billion, is small compared to other federal agencies that perform critical security functions. (For scale: the Department of Homeland Security has an annual budget of about $100 billion.) But it's critical that the government build its own AI capabilities to effectively regulate the progress being made by private-sector AI labs, And we will need to invest more in the work being done by NIST and other agencies to give ourselves a fighting chance.
And on that note: happy holidays, and see you next year!