It would be easy to think, reading much of the news, that technology has brought us nothing but pain and strife over the past decade. Social media is blamed for propagatinghoax news stories and filter bubbles, Airbnb is displacing longtime residents in tourist cities, and nefarious deep-fake videos have the power to destroy the lives of both celebrities and private citizens. Even Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the Internet, has acknowledged its worst aspects and vows to make it better.
But technology, like electricity, is largely neutral — it’s what you do with it that matters. And plenty of good has been done.
In fact, tech hasn’t just enriched our lives in obvious, everyday ways. Many innovators and entrepreneurs are trying to develop methods to help it solve some of the world’s biggest problems. In some cases, they’re even succeeding.
Here are a few areas in which tech has actively helped make the lives of people around the world better.
Bionic men, women and children
In 2011, Time magazine listed Hugh Herr, head of the Biomechatronics group at the MIT Media Lab, as the “leader of the bionic Age”. A brilliant rock climber and double amputee, Herr’s work in the field of bionic prosthetics has allowed him and many others who’ve lost limbs to excel in athletic pursuits.
But Herr’s work isn’t an anomaly, prosthetics have progressed in leaps and bounds this decade. Thanks to robotics technology, they’ve become more affordable and easier to wear and use than ever before, and new technologies such as 3D printing have allowed for cheaper prototyping.
Earlier prosthetics, made of metal, were too heavy for children to wear and largely unaffordable (because children are always growing, the limbs need regular replacing). But Open Bionics, a British company founded in 2014, wanted to change all that.
It builds inexpensive prosthetic arms for children, and it partners with Disney to give the custom, robotic devices superhero themes. The company has won multiple awards and has worked with the UK’s National Health Service, as well as helping many children live their best lives along the way.
The next step in prosthetics involves improving feedback to give people a sense of touch — and it’s already happening, with more to come in the next 10 years.
Keeping people safe
The sad truth is that 10 million Americans per year are physically abused by partners, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In some ways, technology hasn’t helped. Spyware installed on phones and other devices can be used to track people and their activity.
On the other hand, tech has given people new tools for fighting abusers. Discreet apps such as SmartSafe direct people to resources and have tips about how to stay safe online and on a phone. They also let users record photos and videos, write notes and even capture voice and audio recordings, all of which are time-stamped and securely stored in the cloud.
The Vodafone Foundation (the charitable arm of the phone carrier) has a similar app of its own and has also been providing victims of abuse with specially adapted smartphones that at the push of a button alert police and begin recording what’s happening in the immediate environment.
App-based services are increasingly helping people stay safe in a number of different scenarios. In 2017 a group of teenage girls in Kenya developed an app called i-Cut that would allow girls to alert police and medical authorities via a panic button if they felt they were at risk of female genital mutilation, which is illegal but not uncommon in the country.
These are just some examples of how connectivity is being used to provide people with a way to reach out and find help when they’re at risk.
A lifeline for refugees
Another group of people for whom connectivity has proved increasingly essential over the past decade are the refugees forced to flee their homes the world over because of conflict and other dangers.
Throughout the summer of 2016, CNET reported extensively on the ways in which tech was helping refugees. We saw how people clung to the Wi-Fi network in the “Calais Jungle” refugee camp in France. We saw how tech tech was essential for refugees in Germany, who were using it to learn languages; find jobs and housing; and figure out how to integrate into their new home country.
Meanwhile in Greece, the Vodafone Foundation was deploying its portable Instant Charge technology, a power source capable of charging 66 phones at a time. It let people who’d made the perilous crossing from Turkey and North Africa get in touch with loved ones and tell them they were safe.
Further afield, the foundation used its Instant Classroom technology to provide education resources in the form of connected tablets, laptops and projectors to help more than 60,000 young refugees in the Dadaab region of Kenya.
Beyond deploying its emergency response technology to help in the refugee crisis, the Vodafone Foundation has brought the tech to the scenes of natural disasters across the US, Asia, Africa and beyond. The foundation’s Instant Network and Instant Network Mini are portable GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) networks that can bring much needed connectivity to the scene quickly and efficiently in times of crisis.
In some disasters, regions not only become disconnected, they also become inaccessible. This is where search and rescue robots come in, going places humans can’t to assess damage, and even to identify and recover victims.
In Fukushima, Japan, which suffered one of the world’s biggest nuclear disasters following an earthquake in 2011, increasingly robust robots have been sent in over the years to try to determine the true extent of the damage and whether there’s any hope for recovery in the future. CNET visited last year to witness the robots in action.
For disasters closer to home, a whole range of apps have sprung up to help you navigate your way through almost any scenario. Prepare your digital first aid kit with our full list of recommended digital services to help you weather the next wildfire, hurricane, flood or earthquake.
When it comes to protecting the vulnerable, it’s not just humans who are at risk. Animals are a precious part of our ecosystem, but many species are increasingly threatened by human poachers.
From anti-poaching drones equipped with night vision to cameras built into rhino horns, tech has been used in a number of ingenious ways over the past decade to protect animals. In Central America, where almost 90% of sea turtle eggs are stolen by poachers, scientists have come up with a particularly wily solution to crack down on illegal egg trafficking.
The InvestEGGator is a GPS-GSM tracking device that’s 3D-printed to look and feel like a real turtle egg. Planted in nests to be stolen by poachers, the eggs can provide real-time mapping of egg trafficking routes to help authorities track and catch the perpetrators.
In 2018, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Pinterest, Alibaba, Baidu and 15 other tech companies from around the globe joined with the World Wildlife Fund, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and Traffic, a nonprofit that monitors trade in wildlife products, to create the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online. Together they pledged to close the open web to the illegal wildlife trade in the hope of protecting species for generations to come.
Making the world more accessible for all
Unfortunately, in 2019 many people with a whole array of disabilities and chronic illnesses are still excluded from society. One of the most significant contributions tech has made to the world over the past 10 years is that it’s proving to be a great equalizer when thoughtfully developed.
It’s helping people better navigate physical environments more effectively in smart homes built for wounded veterans and aging populations. An app called Wayfindr is helping guide visually impaired people through the maze that is the London Underground, thanks to audio and beacon technology.
Live captioning and live transcription are helping people who can’t hear take part in conversations in real time. Augmented reality is bringing story time to life for deaf children and allowing deaf theater patrons to experience the joy of of live performance without attending specially signed sessions.
It’s been CNET’s mission over the past three years to chronicle all the ways tech is making life better for those with disabilities, and the contributions from tech companies big and small have been staggeringly impressive. We can’t wait to see what the next decade brings.
We’re always keen to champion tech that’s helping fight the world’s many problems, so please do share your own favorite examples in the comments.