We’re back with our latest list of the worst technologies of the year. Think of these as anti-breakthroughs, the sort of mishaps, misuses, miscues, and bad ideas that lead to technology failure. This year’s disastrous accomplishments range from deadly pharmaceutical chemistry to a large language model that was jeered off the internet.
One theme that emerges from our disaster list is how badly policy—the rules, processes, institutions, and ideals that govern technology’s use—can let us down. In China, a pervasive system of pandemic controls known as “zero covid” came to an abrupt and unexpected end. On Twitter, Elon Musk intentionally destroyed the site’s governing policies, replacing them with a puckish and arbitrary mix of free speech, personal vendettas, and appeals to the right wing of 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. In each of these messes, there are important lessons about why technology fails. Read on.
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 what they’re buying cryptocurrency tokens. But because there are so many types of tokens, and they’re hard to buy and sell, imagine that an entrepreneur creates a private stock market to trade them. Let’s call that a “cryptocurrency exchange.” Because the tokens have no intrinsic value and other exchanges have gone belly-up, you’d make sure yours was ultra-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 assure “complete transparency.”
Behind the façade, though, FTX was seemingly just old-fashioned embezzlement. According to US investigators, Bankman-Fried took customers’ money and used it to buy fancy houses, make political donations, and amass huge stakes in illiquid crypto tokens. It all came crashing down in November. John Ray, appointed to oversee the bankrupt company, said that FTX’s technology “was not sophisticated at all.” Neither was the purported fraud: “This is just taking money from customers and using it for your own purpose.”
Bankman-Fried, an MIT graduate whose parents are both Stanford University law professors, was arrested in the Bahamas in December and faces multiple counts 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. His discovery, the synthetic opioid fentanyl, would become the painkiller most widely used during surgery.
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 is what makes it deadly. Two milligrams—the weight of a hummingbird feather—can be a fatal dose.
How did we get to nearly 200 deaths a day? Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a division of Johnson & Johnson, played a role. It made false claims about how addictive prescription opioid drugs were, minting money while people got hooked on pills and patches. This year, Janssen agreed to pay a $5 billion settlement without admitting wrongdoing.
Now fentanyl reaches drug users from clandestine labs in Mexico, run by ruthless cartels. It’s used to spike heroin or pressed into counterfeit pain pills. Can things get worse? They can. US states are reporting a rapid uptick in fentanyl deaths in young children who accidentally ingest 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. Last January, surgeons in Maryland transplanted a pig heart into a dying man with heart failure. The organ was genetically engineered to resist rejection by the human immune system. The patient, David Bennett Sr., died two months after the transplant.
No human had ever survived even temporarily with a pig heart before. That part was a massive success. The problem is that the heart harbored a pig virus, one that might have contributed to the patient’s death. It looks as if the company that designed and bred the engineered pigs, United Therapeutics, didn’t test well enough to detect the virus. It’s hard to know for sure, because United swept a veil of secrecy around what happened.
The risk of spreading pig viruses into humans has always been the gravest question about this technology. Martine Rothblatt, the founder of United, even wrote an entire book on the subject. “Every right to make a technology is coupled to an obligation,” she told the podcaster Tim Ferriss in 2020. With pig organ transplants, that obligation is “no risk—not some risk, but no risk—” of any kind of animal virus seeping into the human population.
This particular virus, known as porcine cytomegalovirus, isn’t believed to be able to infect human cells. It won’t spawn a deadly pandemic. You might say, “No harm, no foul.” But what about the next time? We need to know how and why the virus slipped through and whether it was part of what killed David Bennett. And so far, no one has offered 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 meant freedom. A red code meant you’d been near someone with the virus—turning you into an instant pariah, unable to eat in a restaurant or board a plane. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, styled himself the leader of a “people’s war” against the germ.
The system was oppressive—and it worked. China had incredibly few cases of covid. But in December, the government abruptly disbanded the program. Now analysts predict 1 million deaths.
Some observers have linked the reversal to widening dissent over the suffocating policies. In October a bold protester hung a banner from a Beijing bridge. “No to covid tests!” it read. “No to great leader, yes to vote.” Soon lockdown demonstrators around the country had taken up the slogan. Unruly scenes of students and workers demanding change began to spread on social networks.
But the real story may be that China’s suite of anti-covid measures and technologies—once so effective—had finally failed. Mike Ryan, a senior official at the World Health Organization, believes China was tracking widening outbreaks of the easily transmitted omicron variant “long before there was any change in the policy.”
“The disease was spreading intensively because, I believe, the control measures in themselves were not stopping the disease,” says Ryan.
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 insinuated that Twitter’s former head of trust and safety was a secret pedophile. He let controversial figures back on and announced new rules as he went, seemingly on the fly: No parodies. No Instagram links. No posting of public data showing the location of billionaires’ private jets.
Some predicted Twitter’s technology would break under the stress. But what Musk was breaking—violently and suddenly—were the rules of interaction on the site and, therefore, the product itself. “The essential truth of every social network is that the product is content moderation,” wrote the journalist Nilay Patel. “Content moderation is what Twitter makes—it is the thing that defines the user experience.”
The users, who must decide whether the new, changed Twitter is one they want, will deliver the real verdict on Musk’s manic one-man rule as moderator in chief. Six weeks after taking control of the company, Musk, perhaps tiring of the job, put his reign to a vote. “Should I step down 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. But will Musk listen?
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. But the world’s largest ticket seller couldn’t get it straight. It bobbled sales for the tour when its system crashed, leaving passionate “Swifties” furious. Then, in Mexico City, more than a thousand Bad Bunny fans had their tickets rejected as fakes—even as the reggaeton star played to a partly empty venue.
Mexico’s consumer protection bureau says it may file a lawsuit. Swift fans in Los Angeles already have, alleging that the “ticket sale disaster” was due to Ticketmaster’s “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). According to Yale economist Florian Elderer, lack of competition could account for the ticketing mistakes. “The allegations against Ticketmaster are that it abused its dominant market position by underinvesting in site stability and customer service,” Elderer says. “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, bristling with missile tubes, 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. But there are signs the ship wasn’t ready for a shooting war. It may have been having problems with its aging radars and guns. Half its crew were recent conscripts who officially weren’t even 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 its resistance, Ukraine’s government printed a memorial stamp, featuring a soldier holding up a middle finger at the 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. Although the two systems were similar, their public reception was anything but.
The model from Meta, called Galactica, survived only three days before furious criticism caused the company to pull the plug. We decided to prompt the surviving model, OpenAI’s ChatGPT (which is getting rave reviews), to tell a story about what happened. Below is our prompt and the model’s response. It took ChatGPT about 25 seconds to compose its answer.
To read 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.