The Good Tech Awards 2023


In the technology industry, 2023 was a year of transformation.

Spurred on by the success of last year's tech star ChatGPT, Silicon Valley giants rushed to become artificial intelligence companies, incorporating generative AI features into their products and running to build their own more powerful AI models. They did so while navigating an uncertain tech economy, with layoffs and turnarounds galore, and while trying to keep their old business models afloat.

Not everything went well. There was chatbots that misbehave, crypto weaknesses and bank bankruptcies. And then in November, ChatGPT creator OpenAI folded (and quickly reconstituted) itself. failed coup in the boardroomproving once and for all that in technology there is nothing like resting on your laurels.

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 found beneficial. This year, as you'll see, many of the awards involve artificial intelligence, but my goal was to sidestep the polarizing debates about whether AI will destroy the world or save it and instead focus on the here and now. What is AI for today? Who does it help? What kind of breakthroughs are already being made with AI as a catalyst?

As always, my award criteria are vague and subjective, and these are not actual trophies or awards. These are just small personal comments of thanks for some technological projects that I thought would have real and obvious value to humanity in 2023.

Accessibility, the term for making technology products more usable by people with disabilities, has been an underrated area of ​​improvement this year. Several recent advances in artificial intelligence, such as multimodal AI models that can interpret images and convert text to speech, have made it possible for technology companies to create new features for disabled users. I would say this is an unequivocally good use of AI and an area where people's lives are already improving significantly.

I asked Steven Aquino, a freelance journalist specializing in accessible technology, to recommend his top accessibility developments of 2023. He recommended Be My Eyes, a company that makes technology for the visually impaired. In 2023, Be My Eyes announced a feature known as Be My AIpowered by OpenAI technology, which allows blind and low vision people to point their smartphone camera at an object and have that object described to them in natural language.

Mr. Aquino also pointed me to the new version of Apple. Personal voice function, which is built into iOS 17 and uses AI voice cloning technology to create a synthetic version of a user's voice. The feature was designed for people who are at risk of losing the ability to speak, such as those with a recent diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or another degenerative disease, and gives them a way to preserve their voice so that their friends, family, and loved ones can loved ones will be able to hear from them for a long time into the future.

I'll add another promising advance in accessibility: a research team from the University of Texas at Austin Announced This year it had used AI to develop a “non-invasive language decoder” that can translate thoughts into speech; essentially, reading people's minds. This type of technology, which uses an artificial intelligence language model to decode brain activity from fMRI scans, sounds like science fiction. But it could make communication easier for people with speech loss or paralysis. And it doesn't require putting an AI chip in the brain, which is an added advantage.

When CRISPR, the Nobel Prize-winning gene-editing tool, burst into public consciousness a decade ago, pessimists predicted it could lead to a dystopian world of gene-edited “designer babies” and nightmarish eugenics experiments. Instead, technology has allowed scientists to make steady progress toward treating a number of heartbreaking diseases.

In December, The Food and Drug Administration approved the first gene-editing therapy for humans: a treatment for sickle cell anemia, called Exa-cel, which was co-developed by Vertex Pharmaceuticals of Boston and CRISPR Therapeutics of Switzerland.

Exa-cel uses CRISPR to edit the gene responsible for sickle cell anemia, a debilitating blood disease that affects approximately 100,000 Americans, most of whom are black. While it remains tremendously expensive and difficult to administer, the treatment offers new hope to sickle cell patients who have access to it.

One of the funniest. interviews I did on my podcast this year He was with Brent Seales, 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. The scrolls, which belonged to a library owned by Julius Caesar's father-in-law, were buried under a mountain of ash in AD 79 during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. They were so completely charred 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. Seales partnered with two technology investors, Nat Friedman and Daniel Gross, to launch the Vesuvius Challenge — offering prizes of up to $1 million to anyone who successfully deciphers the scrolls.

The grand prize has not yet been won. But the competition sparked a frenzy of interest among history buffs, and this year a 21-year-old computer science student, Luke Farritor, won an intermediate prize of $40,000 to decipher a single word, “purple,” from one of the scrolls. I love the idea of ​​using AI to unlock the wisdom of the ancient past and I love the public spirit of this competition.

I spent a lot of time in 2023 traveling around San Francisco in self-driving cars. Robot taxis are a controversial technology (and there are still many problems to be solved), but for the most part I believe that driverless cars will make our roads safer by replacing distracted and fallible human drivers with always alert human drivers. AI drivers.

Cruise, one of two companies that offered robotaxi rides in San Francisco, has imploded in recent days, after one of their vehicles ran over and dragged a woman who had been hit by another car. California regulators said the company had misled them about the incident; Cruise took its cars off the streets and its CEO, Kyle Vogt, resigned.

But not all autonomous vehicles are created equal, and this year I appreciated the comparatively slow and methodical approach taken by Cruise competitor Waymo.

Waymo, which split from Google in 2016, has been logging miles on public roads for more than a decade, and it shows. The half-dozen trips I took in Waymo cars this year seemed safer and smoother than the cruise trips I took. And Waymo's safety data is compelling: according to a study carried out by the company with Swiss Re, an insurance company, over 3.8 million driverless miles, Waymo cars were significantly less likely to cause property damage than human-driven cars, and generated no bodily injury claims of any kind .

I'll put my cards on the table: I like 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.

One of the most surprising (and, in my opinion, encouraging) technology trends of 2023 was seeing governments around the world get involved in trying to understand and regulate AI.

But all that involvement takes work, and in the United States, much of that work has fallen to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a small federal agency that was previously best known for things like making sure clocks and scales were calibrated. properly.

The Biden administration's executive order on artificial intelligence, released in October, designated NIST as one of the primary federal agencies responsible for monitoring the progress of AI and mitigating its risks. The order runs the agency developing ways to test the security of AI systems, devising exercises to help AI companies identify potentially harmful uses of their products, and producing research and guidelines for flagging AI-generated content, among other things.

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 work. (To see the scale: The Department of Homeland Security has an annual budget of nearly $100 billion.) But it is important for the government to develop its own AI capabilities to effectively regulate the advances that private sector AI labs are making, and we will need to invest more in the work that NIST and other agencies do to have a fighting chance.

And on that note: Happy holidays and see you next year!

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