These Were Our Favorite Tech Stories From Around the Web in 2021

Every Saturday we post a curated collection of our favorite articles and news from the week. But now that the year’s over, we’ll curate 2021 as a whole. It was another wild one.

Tech companies continued to draw criticism for their roles in political and social scandals, most notably when whisteblower and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen testified to lawmakers. Undeterred, Facebook rebranded itself Meta and said it would now focus on building the metaverse. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey stepped down and likewise changed the name of his company Square to Block in a not-so-subtle nod to the blockchain.

Meanwhile, volatile cryptocurrencies set new records, their prices jumping and crashing on a tweet. NFTs, a once-obscure type of cryptoasset, went on an eye-watering tear as redditors pushed meme stocks skyward. It was also the year of ever-bigger AI. Machine learning models surpassed a trillion parameters, designed computer chips, and tackled practical problems in biology, math, and chemistry. Elsewhere, billionaires went to space, regular folks bought 3D printed houses, fusion power attracted billions in investment, gene editing trials hit their stride, and “flying car” companies hit the New York Stock Exchange.

For this year’s list of fascinating stories in tech and science, we sifted our Saturday posts and selected articles that looked back to where it all began, glanced ahead to what’s coming, or otherwise stood out from the chatter to stand the test of time.

The Secret Auction That Set Off the Race for AI Supremacy
Cade Metz | Wired
“How the shape of deep learning—and the fate of the tech industry—went up for sale in Harrah’s Room 731, on the shores of Lake Tahoe. …[The auction for Geoff Hinton’s newly formed AI company] was the beginning of a global arms race, and this race would quickly escalate in ways that would have seemed absurd a few years before.”

The Chase for Fusion Energy
Philip Ball | Nature
“An emerging industry of nuclear-fusion firms promises to have commercial reactors ready in the next decade. …advocates of fusion technology say it has many parallels with the space industry. That, too, was once confined to government agencies but is now benefiting from the drive and imagination of nimble (albeit often state-assisted) private enterprise. This is ‘the SpaceX moment for fusion,’ says [General Fusion CEO] Mowry, referring to Elon Musk’s space-flight company in Hawthorne, California.”

The Gene-Synthesis Revolution
Yiren Lu | The New York Times
“If the first phase of the genomics revolution focused on reading genes through gene sequencing, the second phase is about writing genes. Crispr, the gene-editing technology whose inventors won a Nobel Prize last year, has received far more attention, but the rise of gene synthesis promises to be an equally powerful development. Crispr is like editing an article, allowing us to make precise changes to the text at specific spots; gene synthesis is like writing the article from scratch.”

The Profound Potential of Elon Musk’s New Rocket
Robert Zubrin | Nautilus
“Starship won’t just give us the ability to send human explorers to Mars, the moon, and other destinations in the inner solar system, it offers us a two-order-of-magnitude increase in overall operational capability to do pretty much anything we want to do in space.”

Need to Fit Billions of Transistors on Your Chip? Let AI Do It
Will Knight | Wired
“Google, Nvidia, and others are training algorithms in the dark arts of designing semiconductors—some of which will be used to run artificial intelligence programs. …This should help companies draw up more powerful and efficient blueprints in much less time.”

Renewables Are Set to Soar
James Temple | MIT Technology Review
“New renewable electricity capacity will set another record this year, at 290 gigawatts, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency. …By 2026, global capacity from these carbon-free sources will rise more than 60% over last year’s levels, the intergovernmental research organization now projects. That will add up to some 4,800 gigawatts, on par with all the world’s fossil-fuel and nuclear plants today. In addition, renewables will account for 95% of the overall capacity growth in the power sector over that period.”

3D Printed Home Technologies Scaling Up Around the World
Payal Dhar | IEEE Spectrum
“Despite the high capital investment needed for automated 3D-printing construction compared to conventional technologies, there are concomitant advantages, Satish says, such as in terms of safety, speed, scale and design complexity. ‘We still build using techniques and equipment and tools…that someone building 100 years ago would be familiar with,’ Ruben says. ‘It is the last major industry that hasn’t embraced new technology as a way to increase productivity.’i

Why I’m a Proud Solutionist
Jason Crawford | MIT Technology Review
“Debates about technology and progress are often framed in terms of ‘optimism’ vs. ‘pessimism.’ …It’s tempting to choose sides. …But this represents a false choice. History provides us with powerful examples of people who were brutally honest in identifying a crisis but were equally active in seeking solutions.”

Your Face Is Not Your Own
Kashmir Hill | The New York Times Magazine
“It seemed entirely possible that Clearview AI would be sued, legislated or shamed out of existence. But that didn’t happen. With no federal law prohibiting or even regulating the use of facial recognition, Clearview did not, for the most part, change its practices. Nor did it implode. …’Our growth rate is crazy,’ Hoan Ton-That, Clearview’s chief executive, said.”

Alternative Rocket Builder SpinLaunch Completes First Test Flight
Michael Sheetz | CNBC
“The company is developing a launch system that uses kinetic energy as its primary method to get off the ground—with a vacuum-sealed centrifuge spinning the rocket at several times the speed of sound before releasing. ‘This is about building a company and a space launch system that is going to enter into the commercial markets with a very high cadence and launch at the lowest cost in the industry,’ SpinLaunch CEO Jonathan Yaney told CNBC.”

One Vaccine to Rule Them All
James Hamblin | The Atlantic
i‘A universal SARS-CoV-2 vaccine is step one,’ [Anthony] Fauci said. Step two would be a universal coronavirus vaccine, capable of protecting us not only from SARS-CoV-2 in all its forms, but also from the inevitable emergence of new and different coronaviruses that might cause future pandemics. The race to create such a vaccine may prove one of the great feats of a generation.”

The Facebook Whistleblower Says Its Algorithms Are Dangerous. Here’s Why.
Karen Hao | MIT Technology Review
“Frances Haugen’s testimony at the Senate hearing today raised serious questions about how Facebook’s algorithms work—and echoes many findings from our previous investigation. …We pulled together the most relevant parts of our investigation and other reporting to give more context to Haugen’s testimony.”

Kill the 5-Day Work Week
Joe Pinsker | The Atlantic
“People who work a four-day week generally report that they’re healthier, happier, and less crunched for time; their employers report that they’re more efficient and more focused. These companies’ success points to a tantalizing possibility: that the conventional approach to work and productivity is fundamentally misguided.”

The Internet Is Rotting
Jonathan Zittrain | The Atlantic
“The glue that holds humanity’s knowledge together is coming undone. …By making the storage and organization of information everyone’s responsibility and no one’s, the internet and web could grow, unprecedentedly expanding access, while making any and all of it fragile rather than robust in many instances in which we depend on it.”

How Vulnerable Is the World?
Nick Bostrom and Matthew van der Merwe | Aeon
“Sooner or later a technology capable of wiping out human civilization might be invented. How far would we go to stop it? …We call this ‘the vulnerable world hypothesis’. The intuitive idea is that there’s some level of technology at which civilization almost certainly gets destroyed, unless quite extraordinary and historically unprecedented degrees of preventive policing and/or global governance are implemented.”

With This CAD for Genomes, You Can Design New Organisms
Eliza Strickland | IEEE Spectrum
“Imagine being able to design a new organism as easily as you can design a new integrated circuit. That’s the ultimate vision behind the computer-aided design (CAD) program being developed by the GP-write consortium. ‘We’re taking the same things we’d do for design automation in electronics, and applying them to biology,’ says Doug Densmore, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Boston University.”

How the World’s Biggest Brain Maps Could Transform Neuroscience
Alison Abbott | Nature
“To truly understand how the brain works, neuroscientists also need to know how each of the roughly 1,000 types of cell thought to exist in the brain speak to each other in their different electrical dialects. With that kind of complete, finely contoured map, they could really begin to explain the networks that drive how we think and behave.”

Jetson One Personal eVTOL Looks Like a Ton of Fun to Fly
Loz Blain | New Atlas
“Jetson has filmed some terrific video of a guy flying one of these things around. Wisely, they’ve stayed close to the ground, so there’s a real sense of dynamic motion to the footage and it just looks like brilliant fun. That might end up being a relatively safe and entertaining way to fly these things too, like zero-gravity dune buggies.”

Lost Passwords Lock Millionaires Out of Their Bitcoin Fortunes
Nathaniel Popper | The New York Times
“Stefan Thomas, a German-born programmer living in San Francisco, has two guesses left to figure out a password that is worth, as of this week, about $220 million. The password will let him unlock a small hard drive, known as an IronKey, which contains the private keys to a digital wallet that holds 7,002 Bitcoin.”

A 25-Year-Old Bet Comes Due: Has Tech Destroyed Society?
Steven Levy | Wired
“Much more than a thousand bucks was at stake: The bet was a showdown between two fiercely opposed views on the nature of progress. In a time of climate crisis, a pandemic, and predatory capitalism, is optimism about humanity’s future still justified? [Kevin] Kelly and [Kirkpatrick] Sale each represent an extreme side of the divide. For the men involved, the bet’s outcome would be a personal validation—or repudiation—of their lifelong quests.”

How AI Is Reinventing What Computers Are
Will Douglas Heaven | MIT Technology Review
“[Today’s computers are] smaller and faster, but they’re still boxes with processors that run instructions from humans. AI changes that on at least three fronts: how computers are made, how they’re programmed, and how they’re used. Ultimately, it will change what they are for. ‘The core of computing is changing from number-crunching to decision-­making,’ says Pradeep Dubey, director of the parallel computing lab at Intel. Or, as MIT CSAIL director Daniela Rus puts it, AI is freeing computers from their boxes.”

Can Digital Reality Be Jacked Directly Into Your Brain?
Adam Rogers | Wired
“The idea of uploading a synthetic experience into a mind has been a load-bearing member in science fiction for at least 75 years… But in real life (that’s what this is, right?), we’re a long way from a data port in the nape of every neck. Neuroscientists can decode the signal coming out of the brain well enough to move a cursor or a robotic arm, though they can’t achieve the fluid elegance of a biological connection. Signal going in is even trickier.”

What an Octopus’s Mind Can Teach Us About AI’s Ultimate Mystery
Will Douglas Heaven | MIT Technology Review
“It’s possible that one day there could be as many forms of consciousness as there are types of AI. But we will never know what it is like to be these machines, any more than we know what it is like to be an octopus or a bat or even another person. There may be forms of consciousness we don’t recognize for what they are because they are so radically different from what we are used to.”

The Worldview Changing Drugs Poised to Go Mainstream
Ed Prideaux | BBC
“The ‘psychedelic renaissance’ promises to change far more about our societies than simply the medical treatments that doctors prescribe. Unlike other drugs, psychedelics can radically alter the way people see the world. They also bring mystical and hallucinatory experiences that are at the edge of current scientific understanding. So, what might follow if psychedelics become mainstream?”

Why Electric Cars Will Take Over Sooner Than You Think
Justin Rowlatt | BBC
“This isn’t a fad, this isn’t greenwashing. Yes, the fact many governments around the world are setting targets to ban the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles gives impetus to the process. But what makes the end of the internal combustion engine inevitable is a technological revolution. And technological revolutions tend to happen very quickly.”

Image Credit: Faris Mohammed / Unsplash

Singularity Hub Staff
Singularity Hub Staff
Singularity Hub chronicles technological progress by highlighting the breakthroughs and issues shaping the future as well as supporting a global community of smart, passionate, action-oriented people who want to change the world.
Don't miss a trend
Get Hub delivered to your inbox