Every Saturday we post a selection of articles from the week. These stories might include an eye-catching bit of news or a deep dive into a bigger theme. With the end of the year here, we dug through every one of those posts again to surface 25 stories that managed to stay fresh amid another wild year of science and tech news.
Some big trends stood out amid the chatter. This was the year of generative AI. Algorithms producing words and images aren’t new, but with the likes of DALL-E 2, Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, and ChatGPT, they became a mainstream hit in 2022. And even as dodgy claims of machine sentience were firmly refuted, applications for “synthetic creativity,” as Kevin Kelly called it, widened beyond the literary and visual to include AI hallucinations of drug molecules and math proofs. With next-generation algorithms already in the works, expect more in 2023.
Even as AI hit new highs, pandemic-fueled trends whipsawed the other way.
Companies, from Amazon to Meta, announced layoffs as tech stocks dived. Big visions, including self-driving cars and the metaverse, seemed to gain little ground as notable projects, like Argo AI, pulled the plug. Maybe the hottest such trend, cryptocurrency, was deep into an epic slump when FTX, one of the world’s biggest crypto exchanges, imploded overnight. And of course, under new owner Elon Musk, drama at Twitter continues to haunt headlines.
Still, even as tech continues wading through the current correction, longer trends in science and technology are unlikely to slow down. “While the economy reliably fluctuates between boom and bust, and valuations rise and fall on Wall Street’s whims, the technology itself goes in only one direction,” Steven Levy recently wrote for Wired. “Connection speeds get faster, chips get more capacity, and rocket ships get more reliably reusable.”
Beyond the dominant themes, we found a few standalone gems too, like a deep exploration into the threat posed by enormous solar storms, a fascinating study into doppelgängers, a CEO who takes his “flying car” to work, and a road trip to the edge of the universe.
Without further ado: Here’s this year’s list. Enjoy! See you in 2023.
Picture Limitless Creativity at Your Fingertips
Kevin Kelly | Wired
“For the first time in history, humans can conjure up everyday acts of creativity on demand, in real time, at scale, for cheap. Synthetic creativity is a commodity now. Ancient philosophers will turn in their graves, but it turns out that to make creativity—to generate something new—all you need is the right code. We can insert it into tiny devices that are presently inert, or we can apply creativity to large statistical models, or embed creativity in drug discovery routines. What else can we use synthetic creativity for?”
An End to Doomerism
Hannah Ritchie | Big Think
“The issue is that people mistake optimism for ‘blind optimism’—the blinkered faith that things will always get better. Problems will fix themselves. If we just hope things turn out well, they will. Blind optimism really is dumb. And it’s not just stupid, it’s dangerous. If we sit back and do nothing, we will not make progress. That’s not the kind of optimism that I’m talking about. Optimism is seeing problems as challenges that are solvable; it’s having the confidence that there are things that we can do to make a difference.”
Paradise at the Crypto Arcade: Inside the Web3 Revolution
Gilad Edelman | Wired
“…to a core of true believers, Web3 stands apart from the garish excesses and brazen misbehavior of the flashing-neon crypto casino. If cryptocurrency was originally about decentralizing money, Web3 is about decentralizing…everything. Its mission is almost achingly idealistic: to free humanity not only from Big Tech domination but also from exploitative capitalism itself—and to do it purely through code.”
Yann LeCun Has a Bold New Vision for the Future of AI
Melissa Heikkiläarchive page and Will Douglas Heaven | MIT Technology Review
“In a draft document shared with MIT Technology Review, LeCun sketches out an approach that he thinks will one day give machines the common sense they need to navigate the world. For LeCun, the proposals could be the first steps on a path to building machines with the ability to reason and plan like humans—what many call artificial general intelligence, or AGI.”
The State of the Transistor in 3 Charts
Samuel K. Moore and David Schneider | IEEE Spectrum
“In 1947, there was only one transistor. According to TechInsight’s forecast, the semiconductor industry is on track to produce almost 2 billion trillion (10^21) devices this year. That’s more transistors than were cumulatively made in all the years prior to 2017.”
The Metaverse Is Inevitable, Regardless of What Happens to Meta
Louis Rosenberg | BigThink
“The metaverse is about transforming how we humans experience the digital world. So far, digital content has been accessed primarily through flat media viewed in the third-person. In the metaverse, our digital lives increasingly will involve immersive media that appears all around us and is experienced in the first-person. Regardless of Meta’s fate, the metaverse is inevitable because the human organism evolved to understand our world through first-person experiences in spatial environments.”
CRISPR, 10 Years On: Learning to Rewrite the Code of Life
Carl Zimmer | The New York Times
“i‘I remember thinking very clearly, when we publish this paper, it’s like firing the starting gun at a race,’ [Jennifer Doudna] said. In just a decade, CRISPR has become one of the most celebrated inventions in modern biology. It is swiftly changing how medical researchers study diseases: Cancer biologists are using the method to discover hidden vulnerabilities of tumor cells. Doctors are using CRISPR to edit genes that cause hereditary diseases. ‘The era of human gene editing isn’t coming,’ said David Liu, a biologist at Harvard University. ‘It’s here.’i“
Will Transformers Take Over Artificial Intelligence?
Stephen Ornes | Quanta
“Just 10 years ago, disparate subfields of AI had little to say to each other. But the arrival of transformers suggests the possibility of a convergence. ‘I think the transformer is so popular because it implies the potential to become universal,’ said the computer scientist Atlas Wang of the University of Texas, Austin. ‘We have good reason to want to try transformers for the entire spectrum’ of AI tasks.’i”
Google’s ‘Sentient’ Chatbot Is Our Self-Deceiving Future
Ian Bogost | The Atlantic
“…a Google engineer became convinced that a software program was sentient after asking the program, which was designed to respond credibly to input, whether it was sentient. A recursive just-so story. I’m not going to entertain the possibility that LaMDA is sentient. (It isn’t.) More important, and more interesting, is what it means that someone with such a deep understanding of the system would go so far off the rails in its defense, and that, in the resulting media frenzy, so many would entertain the prospect that Lemoine is right.”
What If We Didn’t Have to Test New Drugs on Animals?
Emily Sohn | Neo.Life
“In one place [the bipartisan FDA Modernization Act 2.0] changes the word ‘preclinical’ to ‘nonclinical,’ and in another it replaces the word ‘animal’ with the more anodyne ‘nonclinical tests or studies.’ That may not sound like a lot. Enshrined into law, it would eliminate an 85-year-old requirement that pharmaceutical companies must test drugs on animals before starting clinical trials in people and would usher in a new era of cell-based or computer-based testing instead.”
Twitter’s Potential Collapse Could Wipe Out Vast Records of Recent Human History
Chris Stokel-Walker | MIT Technology Review
“Almost from the time the first tweet was posted in 2006, Twitter has played an important role in world events. The platform has been used to record everything from the Arab Spring to the ongoing war in Ukraine. It’s also captured our public conversations for years. But experts are worried that if Elon Musk tanks the company, these rich seams of media and conversation could be lost forever. Given his admission to employees in a November 10 call that Twitter could face bankruptcy, it’s a real and present risk.”
This Is Life in the Metaverse
Kashmir Hill | The New York Times
“My goal was to visit at every hour of the day and night, all 24 of them at least once, to learn the ebbs and flows of Horizon and to meet the metaverse’s earliest adopters. I gave up television, books and a lot of sleep over the past few months to spend dozens of hours as an animated, floating, legless version of myself. I wanted to understand who was currently there and why, and whether the rest of us would ever want to join them.”
Here Comes the Sun—to End Civilization
Matt Ribel | Wired
“When another big [coronal mass ejection] heads our way, as it could at any time, existing imaging technology will offer one or two days’ notice. But we won’t understand the true threat level until the cloud reaches the Deep Space Climate Observatory, a satellite about a million miles from Earth. It has instruments that analyze the speed and polarity of incoming solar particles. If a cloud’s magnetic orientation is dangerous, this $340 million piece of equipment will buy humanity—with its 7.2 billion cell phones, 1.5 billion automobiles, and 28,000 commercial aircraft—at most one hour of warning before impact.”
Can Computers Learn Common Sense?
Matthew Hutson | The New Yorker
“Oren Etzioni, the CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, in Seattle, told me that common sense is ‘the dark matter’ of AI.’ It ‘shapes so much of what we do and what we need to do, and yet it’s ineffable,’ he added. …If computer scientists could give their AI systems common sense, many thorny problems would be solved. …Such systems would be able to function in the world because they possess the kind of knowledge we take for granted.”
Quantum Computing Has a Hype Problem
Sankar Das Sarma | MIT Technology Review
“It took the aviation industry more than 60 years to go from the Wright brothers to jumbo jets carrying hundreds of passengers thousands of miles. The immediate question is where quantum computing development, as it stands today, should be placed on that timeline. Is it with the Wright brothers in 1903? The first jet planes around 1940? Or maybe we’re still way back in the early 16th century, with Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine? I do not know. Neither does anybody else.”
Why Twitter Is More Powerful Than the Printing Press
Jessica E. Lessin | The Information
“…those who dismiss [Elon] Musk’s takeover of Twitter as just a modern example of a rich mogul buying printing presses or television stations fall into a dangerous trap. They forget that the internet is unlike any communication technology that has come before it; they underestimate the power of the technology to scale and to control the public conversation.”
MoMA’s Newest Artist Is an AI Trained on 180,000 Works, From Warhol to Pac-Man
Jesus Diaz | Fast Company
“The colossal installation—a stunning 24- by 24-foot digital display that fills the entire MoMA lobby—renders an infinite animated flow of images, each of them dreamed up as you watch by an AI model fed by the museum’s entire collection of artwork. This flow is controlled by what happens around it, making the piece feel like it’s alive.”
How to Build a Wormhole in Just 3 (Nearly Impossible) Steps
Paul Sutter | Ars Technica
“You’ve got yourself a fancy new spaceship and you want to start on a five-year tour of the galaxy. But there’s a problem: Space is big. Really big. And even at the fastest speeds imaginable, it takes eons of crawling across the interstellar voids to get anywhere interesting. The solution? It’s time to build a wormhole. …It’s a staple of science-fiction, and it’s rooted in science-fact. How difficult could it be? Here’s a hint: incredibly difficult.”
Can We Prove the World Isn’t a Simulation?
David Chalmers | Nautilus
“You might think you have definitive evidence that you’re not [in a simulation]. I think that’s impossible, because any such evidence could be simulated. Maybe you think the glorious forest around you proves that your world isn’t a simulation. But in principle, the forest could be simulated down to every last detail, and every last bit of light that reaches your eyes from the forest could be simulated, too. Your brain will react exactly as it would in the nonsimulated, ordinary world, so a simulated forest will look exactly like an ordinary one.”
The Hibernator’s Guide to the Galaxy
Brendan I. Koerner | Wired
“Scientists are on the verge of figuring out how to put humans in a state of suspended animation. It could be the key to colonizing Mars. …In recent years, these researchers have been piecing together the molecular changes that occur when certain species ratchet down their metabolism. And since so many hibernators are our close genomic cousins, there is good reason to believe that we can tweak our brains and bodies to mimic what they do.”
Please Ignore My Last 577 Tweets
Jacob Stern | The Atlantic
“If you had told me last Wednesday afternoon, when my Twitter account had a grand total of three tweets and 200-something followers, that roughly 24 hours later the account would have tweeted 577 times and boosted its follower count to 42,000, I would not have believed you. And if you had further told me that this unfathomable ascent was all part of a massive scam to con would-be Moonbird buyers out of tens of thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency, I would have asked you what a Moonbird is. And yet here we are.”
Your Doppelgänger Is Out There and You Probably Share DNA With Them
Kate Golembiewski | The New York Times
“Because the doppelgängers’ appearances are more attributable to shared genes than shared life experiences, that means that, to some extent, their similarities are just the luck of the draw, spurred on by population growth. There are, after all, only so many ways to build a face. ‘Now there are so many people in the world that the system is repeating itself,’ Dr. Esteller said. It’s not unreasonable to assume that you, too, might have a look-alike out there.”
Can Planting a Trillion New Trees Save the World?
Zach St. George | The New York Times
“The idea that planting trees can effectively and simultaneously cure a host of the world’s most pressing maladies has become increasingly popular in recent years, bolstered by a series of widely cited scientific studies and by the inspiring and marketable goal, memorably proposed by a charismatic 13-year-old, of planting one trillion trees. …Nearly everyone agrees that planting trees can be a useful, wholesome activity. The problem is that, in practice, planting trees is more complicated than it sounds.”
Jetson CEO Takes His eVTOL on a Commute to Work
Loz Blain | New Atlas
“Walk out into your back yard, jump into a next-generation electric VTOL flying machine, lift off and soar your way to the office helipad: that’s the dream of personal eVTOL ownership, and Jetson co-founder Tomasz Patan has lived it, in a new video.”
How Long Is the Drive to the Edge of the Universe?
Randall Munroe | The New York Times
“The edge of the observable universe is about 270,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away. If you drive at a steady 65 miles per hour, it will take you 480,000,000,000,000,000—that’s 4.8 × 10¹⁷—years to get there, or 35 million times the current age of the universe. …Be sure to pack extra snacks.”
Image Credit: André Lopes / Unsplash