The worst technology of 2022
We’re back with our annual list. These are anti-breakthroughs. They include the kind of mishaps and misuses that can lead to technology failure. These year’s disasters include deadly pharmaceutical chemistry and a large language model that was smuggled off the internet.
One theme emerging from our disaster list was how badly policy–the processes, institutions and ideals that govern technology use–can fail us. China’s “zero covid” system of pandemic control, which was pervasive in China, came to an abrupt and unexpected halt. Elon Musk, a Twitter user, deliberately destroyed the site’s governing policies and replaced them with a puckish, arbitrary mixture of free speech and personal vendettas. He also appealed to the right wing US politics. In the US, policy failures were evident in the highest levels of overdose deaths ever recorded, many of them due to a 60-year-old chemical compound: fentanyl.
The impact of these technologies could be measured in the number of people affected. More than a billion people in China are now being exposed to the virus for the first time; 335 million on Twitter are watching Musk’s antics; and fentanyl killed 70,000 in the US. There are important lessons to be learned from each of these failures. Continue reading.
The FTX meltdown
Night falls on made-up money
Imagine a world in which you can make up new kinds of money and other people will pay you, well, real money to get some. Let’s call it what they’re doing: They’re buying cryptocurrency tokens. Because there are so many kinds of tokens and they are difficult to buy and sell, an entrepreneur might create a private stock exchange to trade them. Let’s call it a “cryptocurrency Exchange.” Since the tokens have no intrinsic worth and other exchanges have gone bankrupt, you would make sure that yours was extremely safe and well-regulated.
That was the concept behind FTX Trading, a crypto exchange started by Sam Bankman-Fried, a twentysomething who touted sophisticated technology, like a 24/7 “automated risk engine” that would check every 30 seconds to see if depositors had enough real money to cover their crypto gambles. Technology would guarantee “complete transparency
” FTX was a simple case of old-fashioned embezzlement. US investigators claim that Bankman-Fried stole customers’ money and used it for fancy houses, political donations, and large stakes in illiquid cryptocurrency tokens. All of it came to an abrupt halt in November. John Ray, who was appointed to oversee the bankrupt company’s technology, stated that FTX’s technology was “not sophisticated at all.” He also said that the purported fraud was not true: “This is just taking money away from customers and using it for yourself
Bankman -Fried is a MIT graduate whose parents were both Stanford University law professors. He was arrested in the Bahamas in December. He faces multiple charges of conspiracy, fraud and money laundering.
To learn more about cryptocurrency promoters, we recommend if Wolf of Wall Street were about crypto, a satirical video by Joma Tech.
From medicine to murder
How fentanyl became a killer
Back in 1953, the Belgian doctor and chemist Paul Janssen set about creating the strongest painkiller he could. He believed he could improve on morphine, designing a molecule that was 100 times more potent but with a short duration. The synthetic opioid fentanyl would be the most commonly used painkiller during surgery thanks to his discovery.
Today, fentanyl is setting grim records–it’s involved in the accidental death of around 70,000 people a year in the US, or about two-thirds of all fatal drug overdoses. It’s the leading cause of death in American adults under 50, killing more than car accidents, guns, and covid together.
Fentanyl kills by stopping your breathing. Its potency makes it extremely dangerous. Two milligrams, which is the weight of a hummingbird’s feather, can be fatal.
How did we get to nearly 200 deaths a day? Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a division within Johnson & Johnson played a part in this. It made false claims about the addictive nature of prescription opioid drugs, making money while people were addicted to pills and patches. This year, Janssen agreed to pay a $5 billion settlement without admitting wrongdoing.
Fentanyl is now available to drug users in Mexico from clandestine labs run by ruthless cartels. It is used to inject heroin or make counterfeit pain pills. Are things worse? They can. The US states are reporting an increase in the number of fentanyl-related deaths in children who accidentally swallow pills.
For recent reporting on the fentanyl crisis, read “Cartel RX,” a new series in the Washington Post.
A pig heart with a virus in it
Unanswered questions about that historic transplant
Here’s a technology that’s a bona fide breakthrough and a big-time screwup. Maryland surgeons transplanted a pig’s heart into a man suffering from heart failure last January. The organ was genetically engineered not to be rejected by the human immune. David Bennett Sr., the patient, died two months after transplant.
No human has ever survived even temporarily with the heart of a pig. This was a huge success. The problem is that the heart contained a pig virus that could have contributed to the patient’s passing. United Therapeutics, the company that engineered and bred the engineered animals, didn’t perform enough tests to detect the virus. Because United kept the details under wraps, it’s difficult to know for certain.
The greatest concern about this technology has been the risk of spreading pig viruses to humans. Martine Rothblatt, founder of United, wrote a whole book on the subject. “Every right to make a technology is coupled to an obligation,” she told the podcaster Tim Ferriss in 2020. This obligation applies to pig organ transplants. It is “no danger–not some risk but no risk” that any animal virus could seep into the human population. This particular virus, also known as porcine-cytomegalovirus (PCV), is not believed to have the ability to infect human cells. It is unlikely to cause a pandemic. It won’t cause a deadly pandemic. We need to understand how and why the virus got through, and whether it was responsible for David Bennett’s death. No one has yet to offer an explanation.
Read our scoop about the virus in MIT Technology Review: The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus.
The collapse of “zero covid”
China suspends virus controls
For two and a half years, China kept the coronavirus in check through a system of quarantine hotels, constant testing, and phone QR codes. A green code was a sign of freedom. A red code indicated that you were in close proximity to someone with the virus. This would make you an instant pariah and prevent you from eating at restaurants or flying. China’s leader, Xi Jinping declared himself to be the leader of a “people’s war” against the virus.
The system was oppressive–and it worked. China had very few cases of covid. The program was abruptly ended by the government in December. Analysts now predict 1,000,000 deaths.
Some observers have suggested that the reversal was due to growing dissent over the suffocating policy. A banner was hung from a Beijing bridge by a brave protester in October. It read, “No to covid testing!” “No to great leaders, yes to vote.” Soon lockdown protestors across the country adopted the slogan. Social networks began to spread the news about unruly scenes among students and workers calling for change.
But, the real story is that China’s anti-covid technologies and measures–once so successful–had finally failed. Ryan, a senior official with the World Health Organization, believes that China was monitoring the spread of the easily transmitted Omicron variant “long prior to there was any change to the policy
” The disease was spreading intensively since, I believe, control measures in themselves weren’t stopping it.”
To learn more about daily life under the zero-covid policy, read the travelogue of a scholar visiting China that was published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Elon Musk’s Twitter rules
An absolute monarch tests his powers
When the world’s richest man (at the time) bought Twitter, he promised above all to restore “free speech” to the platform.
Musk fired most of Twitter’s staff and released the “Twitter files”–Slack messages exchanged by former executives as they decided whether to ban Donald Trump or block news about Hunter Biden’s laptop. He claimed that Twitter’s former head for trust and safety was a secret child pedophile. He allowed controversial figures to return and announced new rules as he went. No Instagram links. No public data postings of private jet locations of billionaires.
Some predicted that Twitter’s technology would fail under stress. Musk was actually breaking the rules of interaction and, consequently, the product. Nilay Patel, a journalist, wrote that “The fundamental truth of any social network is the product is content moderation.” “Content moderation is what Twitter makes–it is the thing that defines the user experience.”
The site’s users must now decide whether the new, changed Twitter is one they want. They will be the ones to decide if Musk’s mad one-man rule as moderator chief is a good idea. Musk, possibly tired of his job, voted for the right to take control of the company six weeks after he took it over. “Should you ask me to resign as head of Twitter?” I will abide by the results of this poll,” he tweeted on December 18.
The result: 57.5% said he should leave, and 42.5% asked him to stay on.
The people have spoken. Musk will listen, but only time will tell.
Read more: We’re witnessing the brain death of Twitter, at MIT Technology Review.
Angry “Swifties” have antitrust questions
You had one job, Ticketmaster.
In 2022 there should be a way to sell concert tickets smoothly and transparently, even for large events like the hotly anticipated tour by Taylor Swift. The world’s largest ticket seller couldn’t get it right. It halted sales of the tour after its system crashed, making passionate “Swifties’ furious. In Mexico City, over a thousand Bad Bunny supporters had their tickets rejected for being fakes, even though the reggaeton star performed to an empty stage.
Mexico’s consumer protection bureau says it may file a lawsuit. Los Angeles Swift fans have filed a lawsuit against Ticketmaster, claiming that the “ticket sales disaster” was caused by their “anticompetitive” practices. Ticketmaster and its parent company, Live Nation, control more than 80% of concert sales in the US, and the company has long been scrutinized by antitrust regulators.
It’s not just that tickets are expensive (buying a so-so seat for Taylor Swift’s tour costs $1,000). Florian Elderer, a Yale economist, believes that ticketing errors could be due to a lack of competition. Elderer states that Ticketmaster was accused of a misuse of its dominant market position, underinvesting in site stability as well as customer service. “Thus, rather than causing harm to consumers by charging exorbitant prices, Ticketmaster is alleged to have caused harm by providing inferior quality–which it could not have done had it faced credible competitors.”
Read more: Did Ticketmaster’s Market Dominance Fuel the Chaos for Swifties? from Yale School of Management.
The sinking of the flagship Moskva
“Russian warship, go f–ck yourself”
Nothing symbolizes Ukraine’s surprising resistance to the Russian invasion better than the sinking of the Moskva, Russia’s Black Sea flagship, in April. The cruiser was a floating air defense system. But on the 13th of April, the ship was hit and sunk by two missiles launched from the shore.
Analysts have pored over the event. The Moskva ought to have been able to see and shoot down the missiles. There are signs that the ship was not ready for a shooting battle. It could have had problems with its older radars and guns. Half of its crew were conscripts, who weren’t supposed to be fighting. Russia has denied that the ship was even attacked: it says the Moskva sank in bad weather after some ammunition exploded. To commemorate the resistance, the Ukrainian government printed a commemorative stamp featuring a soldier pointing a finger at a warship.
A generative AI gets booed off the stage
This fall, two large language models–AIs that can respond to questions in fluent, human-like text–were released online for the public to experiment with. The public received the systems differently, despite being similar.
The model from Meta, named Galactica, survived for just three days before it was slammed by the public. We asked the model who survived, OpenAI’s ChatGPT, to tell us about what happened. It is receiving rave reviews. Below is the prompt and the model’s answer. It took ChatGPT about 25 seconds to compose its answer.
To learn what actually happened, which is not so different, read Why Meta’s latest large language model survived only three days online in MIT Technology Review.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.