The Biggest Technology Failures of 2017
This year, social media threatened the planet, homemade CRISPR injections went viral, and a security robot drowned itself. Meet the technologies that we wish we hadn’t.
MIT Technology Review spends most of the year identifying and writing about the most important emerging technologies. One day each year we highlight the worst of the lot.
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Today is that day.
Do-it-yourself gene therapy
Toaster—bathtub. Titanic—iceberg. Fire—Hindenburg. Some ideas just do not belong together.
This year you can add “DIY—gene therapy” to the list. Josiah Zayner did it on video in August, injecting himself with a syringe full of the DNA-slashing chemicals known as CRISPR, in a blend he concocted himself to strengthen his muscles. Zayner, who operates an online shop for biohackers called (what else?) The Odin, seemed to be vying for either a role on Jackass or a Darwin Award. In all likelihood, his formula wasn’t strong enough to do much. The danger, though, is that other people could follow suit. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved three life-saving (and immensely expensive) gene therapies for cancer and blindness in 2017, but it says that selling DIY gene therapies is illegal. Since Zayner doesn’t actually sell those formulations, he says he’s in the clear, but he also argues that people should be free to alter their own DNA if they want to.
More: “This Guy Says He’s the First Person to Attempt Editing His DNA with CRISPR” (Buzzfeed), “Biohackers Disregard FDA Warning on DIY Gene Therapy” (MIT Technology Review), “Information About Self-Administration of Gene Therapy” (FDA)
Last year we put Facebook on this list for propagating fake news. This year we are nominating Twitter. Specifically, @realDonaldTrump. The president’s tweets are often misogynistic, can drip with racial animus, and single out private citizens for intimidation. According to the White House, Trump’s utterances are “official statements” even when he’s retweeted murder videos and threatened North Korea with nuclear annihilation (“… they won’t be around much longer!”). Twitter says it allows the president to stretch its terms of service because he’s “newsworthy” and “of public interest.” Or maybe it’s because, by one analyst’s estimate, Trump’s twitter account is worth $2 billion in market value to the struggling company. Trump and his intrigues—Russia, women, taxes, court picks—are certainly social-media catnip. Let’s hope disaster doesn’t follow.
More: “Why Twitter Won’t Suspend Donald Trump” (Fortune), “Trump Retweeted Snuff Film, Possibly Violating Twitter’s Rules” (Newsweek), “Twitter Explains Why Trump Can Use Its Site as Venue for Violence, Hate” (Ars Technica), “The 25 Worst Donald Trump Tweets of 2017, So Far” (Salon), “What Is Trump Worth to Twitter? One Analyst Estimates $2 Billion” (Bloomberg)
The $400 Internet-of-things juicer epitomized Silicon Valley’s worst instincts (Keurig for juice!) and lands on this year’s list by popular demand. Venture capitalists threw $120 million at cold-press juice entrepreneur Doug Evans, a vegan who compared himself to Steve Jobs and whose technology sounded potentially impressive—a squeezer said to exert enough force to lift two Teslas, containing a Wi-Fi wireless chipset, a scanner, and a computer.
But all it did was squeeze juice from pre-formed $5 packages of organic vegetable matter, and soon videos emerged of people squeezing the packs manually. On September 1, Juicero shut down operations. “Thank you again for coming on this journey with us,” the company said.
More: “Silicon Valley’s $400 Juicer May Be Feeling the Squeeze” (Bloomberg), “Juicero, Start-Up with a $700 Juicer and Top Investors, Shuts Down” (New York Times), “To Our Loyal Customers and Partners” (Juicero)
In December, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 along party lines to reverse rules that had made “net neutrality” the law of the land. Net neutrality is the idea that all Internet content should be equally accessible, whether it’s from Netflix, the dark Web, or a tiny video startup. In this version of the Internet, service providers like Verizon and Comcast are comparable to your water utility or electric company, transmitting service through the equivalent of dumb pipes.
The opposite principle—which goes by the Orwellian name “Internet freedom” and has now triumphed in Washington—is that service providers should have a greater say in what content reaches you. They might charge to speed some of it up, or make it easier to receive their own programming. In any case, these companies, which enjoy monopoly power in some areas of the U.S., are likely to gain new advantage over the huge innovations happening on the Web. That’s something Tim-Berners Lee, who created the first Web pages in 1989, calls “one of the greatest threats” to the neutral space he imagined he’d invented.
More: “The Demise of Net Neutrality Will Harm Innovation in America” (MIT Technology Review), “Protect Net Neutrality and Internet Freedom” (Tim Berners-Lee), “Reconfirming Comcast’s Commitment to an Open Internet” (Comcast)
The Knightscope K5 is a crime-fighting robot. Its cone-shaped body gliding on hidden wheels is straight out of Dr. Who. The robot is designed to discourage wrongdoers with its array of cameras—but not everyone is happy sharing public space with the five-foot, 300-pound security cones. For one thing, given that a K5 ran over a toddler, they seem capable of breaking Isaac Asimov’s first law of robotics—no robot may injure a human. But the real problem is that humans don’t really like them. Schoolchildren taunt them, drunks topple them, and homeless people smear their lenses with barbecue sauce. “It is your duty to destroy these things if you see them,” tweeted one man during a protest against the robots in San Francisco. Finally, there came some watery schadenfreude when a K5 rolled itself into the fountain of an office and retail complex in Washington, D.C. “We were promised flying cars; instead we got suicidal robots,” said one office worker, whose photos of the keeled-over robot went viral on the Web. Knightscope called the accidental drowning “an isolated event.”
More: “This Crime-Fighting Security Robot Drowned in Mere Inches of Water, Much to the Internet’s Amusement” (Time); “A Robot Security Guard Is Terrifying Homeless People in San Francisco” (New York Post)
If you think buyers of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin suffer from tulip-mania, consider the largely unknown startup Block.one. By December it had raised $700 million by selling its own brand of electronic credits, called EOS tokens, to investors in what’s called an initial coin offering, or ICO.
An ICO is a kind of crowdfunded alternative to a stock market debut. They became all the rage in 2017, and more than 150 companies have raised in excess of $4 billion through them. Often, the promise is that buyers of the virtual coins can redeem them for a company’s eventual product. But EOS tokens give the buyer the right to nothing specific. The coins, the company says, have no “uses, purpose, attributes, functionalities, or features.”
And yet, people have bought them. In fact, Block.one has raised more money than all but 10 of the 195 IPOs carried out on U.S. stock exchanges during 2017, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Financial authorities are pushing back. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has warned investors about the risks of ICOs and blocked at least two of them, and China has banned ICOs altogether.
More: “Chasing the Next Bitcoin, Investors Shell Out $700 Million for Coins with ‘No Purpose’” (Wall Street Journal), “What the Hell Is an Initial Coin Offering?” (MIT Technology Review), “Company Halts ICO After SEC Raises Registration Concerns” (Securities and Exchange Commission)
The decoding of the human genome was supposed to show how we’re all related, point the way to fantastic new drugs, and stand as a monument to human achievement. Now, though, it’s been turned into a test that tells you whether your newborn baby will have musical ability or go prematurely bald. Such genome readouts for newborns went mainstream this year, mostly in China, but they exist in the U.S. as well. To be sure, there’s a veneer of science here.
Genes really do explain much of who you are. The problem is that these types of predictions, especially for personality traits, are none too reliable. But who cares, if you can make money off them? Entrepreneurs this year gamely embraced all sorts of genetic “entertainment” tests purporting to say what wine you will like, or how good your kid will be at soccer. Proponents of direct-to-consumer genetic reports say fears that DNA knowledge will prove toxic are overblown. Consumers, they say, don’t need genetic nannies.
More: “Baby Genome Sequencing for Sale in China” (MIT Technology Review), “How to Spend $1,900 on Gene Tests Without Learning a Thing” (MIT Technology Review)
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March 25-26, 2019
San Francisco, CA