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Intelligent Machines

The 10 worst technologies of the 21st century

We all make mistakes sometimes.

You’d think it would be easy to come up with a list of bad technologies from the past couple of decades. But we had a hard time agreeing: What makes a “bad” technology?

After all, technologies can be bad because they fail to achieve admirable aims, or because they succeed in wicked ones. The most useful technologies can also be the most harmful—think of cars, which are crucial to the modern world yet kill over 1.25 million people a year. And when well-intentioned technologies fail, is it because they are fundamentally flawed or just ahead of their time?

Take the Segway. Inventor Dean Kamen hyped it as a device that would transform cities and transportation. It turned out to be an expensive scooter that makes you look silly. Hoverboards were similarly all the rage until their batteries started exploding. But now (smaller) scooters and (safer) powered skateboards are increasingly popular.

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If Google Glass had been developed by a lesser company, we probably wouldn’t pick on it so much. But Google should have known better. It made the wearer appear elitist and invasive. Then again, like Segways and hoverboards, this was a failed product, not a failed technology; augmented-reality glasses and heads-up displays are finding their public.

Some technologies are well-intentioned but solve no real problems and create new ones. Before electronic voting, automated tabulating of paper ballots left an auditable paper trail. Now elections are more vulnerable to hacking.

Some failures apply a technological fix to what is really a social or political problem. Take One Laptop per Child, which set out to solve inequality in education with a new gadget. But was it simply too early? Commercial laptops, tablets, and—above all—smartphones have since inundated the developing world.

Indiscriminate uses of technology worry us. Sometimes this is because regulations are flouted. Gene-editing techniques like CRISPR may one day cure all manner of diseases, but right now we don’t know if CRISPR is safe to use in humans. That’s why the CRISPR babies born in 2018 make our list.

Other times, it’s because technology has outpaced regulation. Data trafficking, the sharing and remixing of people’s data without their control or awareness, has contributed to the undermining of personal liberty and democracy itself.

Some technologies are just misapplied. So far cryptocurrency looks mainly like a way for a handful of speculators to get very rich while a lot of other people end up poorer. But the technology underlying it, blockchain, could yet be transformative in other areas.

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Still, there are a few inventions we could agree have no redeeming features. Juul and other e-cigarettes are addicting a new generation to nicotine, through a loophole that allowed them to escape public health regulations meant to discourage cigarette smoking. Plastic coffee pods save half a minute in the mornings but produce tons of hard-to-recycle waste. And as for selfie sticks … need we say more?

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