The 2021 Good Tech Awards

In the tech industry, there were profits and pivots.

Thanks to the Pandemic, all of the big tech companies got bigger. Facebook changed its name to Meta, Jeff Bezos went to space, and Jack Dorsey left Twitter.

I use this column every December to cheer myself up after a year of covering tech scandals and shortfalls, and to lift up a few tech projects that improved the world during the year. My criteria are somewhat loose and arbitrary, but I look for projects that apply technology to big societal problems, like start-ups that are using artificial intelligence to fight wildfires, or food-delivery programs.

At a time when many of tech's leaders seem more interested in building new, virtual worlds than improving the world we live in, it's worth praising the technologists who are stepping up to solve some of our biggest problems.

The Good Tech Awards are here.

DeepMind published data and open-source code from its AlphaFold project in July, one of the most exciting A.I. breakthrough of the year.

The project, which used A.I. to predict the structures of proteins, solved a problem that had vexed scientists for decades, and was hailed as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. AlphaFold set off a frenzy among researchers, who are already using it to develop new drugs and better understand the proteins involved in viruses.

AlphaFold seems to be an excellent use of the company's expertise and resources, despite the controversy and missteps of the overall A.I. efforts.

People like eating meat. The industrial-farm system that produces the vast majority of the world's meat supply is an ethical and environmental disaster. Tech might be able to answer our global meat addiction by growing cultured meat in a lab, rather than taking it from slaughtered animals.

Despite a decade of research and development, cultured meat is hard to produce and expensive. Dozens of start-ups including Upside Foods, Mosa Meat and Wildtype are trying to change that.

The company opened a 53,000- square-foot plant in California this year and announced it had figured out a way to grow cells into meat without using animal components.

Mosa Meat, a Dutch start-up, announced major breakthrough in its technology, including a method of growing animal fat that is 98 percent cheaper than the previous method.

Wildtype, a San Francisco start-up that is producing lab-grown seafood, released a new salmon product this year that is getting good reviews in early tests, even though it hasn't been approved by the F.D.A.

Prisons aren't known for their innovation. Two tech projects tried to make the criminal justice system more humane.

The start-up builds open-sourced data tools for criminal justice reform. It was started by a former employee of the internet giant, who wanted to make the data about the prison system available to the public. In North Dakota, the data tools helped the prison officials assess the risk of Covid-19 and identify people who were eligible for early release.

Ameelio, a start-up founded by two Yale students, is trying to disrupt the prison communications industry, which charges inmates and their loved ones excessive fees for phone and video calls. It released a free video calling service in prisons in Iowa and Colorado and plans to add more states next year.

When I heard about 3-D print houses, I thought they were novelty. 3-D printing technology has improved since then, and is now being used to build actual houses in the United States and abroad.

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Alejandro Cegarra was a reporter for The New York Times.

3-D printing houses can be made using local materials in parts of the world where concrete is hard to come by, and they are cheaper and faster than traditional construction.

ICON, a construction technology company based in Texas, has printed more than two dozen structures so far. The company's technology was used to build homes in a village in Mexico this year, and it plans to build a development in Austin, Texas, that will consist of 3-D printed houses.

The approach taken by Mighty Buildings is slightly different. It sells kits that are made in a factory and assembled on-site. It recently struck a deal to 3-D print 15 houses in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and its homes are powered by solar panels and loaded with energy efficient features.

The national housing crisis is not a tech problem. Bad tax laws, NIMBY protection and other factors have made it difficult for many to afford housing. It is comforting to know that if local and state governments get their acts together and start building more housing, 3-D printing could help speed up the process.

The revelations from the former Facebook product manager who was the main source for The Wall Street Journal's Facebook Files series made a big impact this year. By making public thousands of documents detailing internal Facebook research and discussions about the platform's harms, Ms. Haugen advanced our collective knowledge about Facebook's inner workings and was a landmark moment for tech accountability.

The Integrity Institute was started by two former members of Facebook's integrity team, Jeff Allen and Sahar Massachi, to help social media companies navigate tricky issues around trust, safety and platform governance. Their announcement got less attention than Ms. Haugen did, but it is part of a worthy effort to educate lawmakers, technologists and the public about making our social media ecosystems healthier.

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In October of this year, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security held a hearing in Washington.

Ms. Scott is not a tech founder or a start-up mogul. She is giving away her Amazon fortune at a rapid pace that makes other tech philanthropists look like penny-pinchers.

She donated more than $6 billion to a host of charities, schools and social programs, an amazing feat for an individual working with a small team of advisers. The Gates Foundation gave out $5.8 billion in grants in 2020.

Ms. Scott announced her gifts quietly, unlike other donors who splash their names on buildings and museum wings. Let's hope more tech moguls follow her lead.