Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, 2021 was a year of innovation in technologies such as GPS, artificial intelligence, and green hydrogen.

In space travel, SpaceX launched the first civilian crew into space this year, and in collaboration with NASA, launched the DART rocket in November.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) was designed to test a planetary defence system to change the course of asteroids heading for Earth by smashing into them. NASA plans to crash the spacecraft into an asteroid during September 2022.

NASA also finally launched the James Webb Space Telescope with its partners at Arianespace, and the Canadian and European space agencies.

Some of the biggest tech achievements of 2021 are summarised below.

Advances in artificial intelligence

While artificial intelligence (AI) improved substantially in previous years, significant enhancements to video and voice recognition were made in 2021.

Multi-sense AI, as it has been termed, allows robots to sense their environment and “talk” about what they see.

Some AI-powered robots can also display lifelike facial expressions.

Hyper-accurate positioning

While the global positioning system (GPS) has been accurate to approximately five to ten metres for some time, new hyper-accurate positioning technologies are accurate to within a few centimetres.

The enhanced technology is particularly useful for emergency weather warnings, delivery vehicles, and self-driving cars.

Hyper-accurate positioning technology began rolling out worldwide in early 2021.

Green hydrogen

Hydrogen has been investigated as an alternative to fossil fuels for some time now.

The energy-dense fuel burns cleanly, releasing no carbon dioxide during combustion.

Improvements made to green hydrogen technology in 2021 relate more to the availability of the energy source rather than the science behind it.

Green hydrogen has become more affordable this year, and Europe is leading the charge in creating the necessary infrastructure to support the technology.

NASA launches the James Webb  Space Telescope

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope launched at 14:20 Christmas Day on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, South America.

The telescope is on its way to a position about 1.5 million kilometres from Earth called L2 — the Sun-Earth Lagrange Point 2.

L2 is a point in space where Webb’s orbit will be locked to Earth’s, keeping the planet between the telescope and the sun.

“The Webb observatory has 50 major deployments … and 178 release mechanisms to deploy those 50 parts,” mission systems engineer Mike Menzel explained.

“Every single one of them must work. Unfolding Webb is hands-down the most complicated spacecraft activity we’ve ever done.”

Vaccine for malaria and treatment for Ebola

While the global rollout of Covid-19 vaccines was a major scientific breakthrough, it was not the only significant development in health technology.

This year saw the release of a vaccine for malaria, and a treatment for Ebola.

Decades in the making, GlaxoSmithKline’s Mosquirix is the first vaccine for malaria and the first to prevent a parasitic disease by generating an immune response against Plasmodium falciparum — the most prevalent strain in Africa and the deadliest of the five parasites that cause malaria.

The vaccination is only about 50% effective against severe malaria and recorded a significant drop in efficacy after a year.

South African scientists explained that the vaccine would benefit countries where preventative malaria medication and effective treatment are not readily available.

Apple M1 chip

Apple announced M1 Pro and M1 Max in October — two new chips that power the company’s next generation of MacBook Pro computers.

M1 Pro features 33.7 billion transistors — more than 2x the amount in M1. The chip can be configured with up to 32GB of fast unified memory.

M1 Max is the largest chip Apple has ever built — 57 billion transistors and up to 64GB of fast unified memory.

The company highlighted the following features as examples of advanced custom technologies included in the new chips:

  • 16-core Neural Engine for on-device machine learning acceleration and improved camera performance.
  • New display engine that drives multiple external displays.
  • Additional integrated Thunderbolt 4 controllers provide greater input/output bandwidth.
  • Apple’s custom image signal processor, along with the Neural Engine, uses computational video to enhance image quality for sharper video and more natural-looking skin tones on the built-in camera.
  • Apple’s latest Secure Enclave, hardware-verified secure boot, and runtime anti-exploitation technologies.

Google Tensor smartphone chip

Google’s new Pixel 6 smartphones are the first to feature Google’s in-house Tensor chip.

Tensor has a 2×2×4 core configuration, with two cores running at 2.80GHz, two at 2.25GHz, and four cores at 1.80GHz.

It is optimised for Google’s strengths in image processing and artificial intelligence, offering faster and more accurate speech recognition and better battery life.

Blockchain — Decentralised finance (DeFi) and art NFTs

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are the latest craze in the world of cryptocurrencies, with massive global brands and mainstream video game developer Ubisoft jumping on the bandwagon.

NFT artist Mike Winkelmann, who goes by the alias Beeple, sold a collection of his work through well-known auctioneer Christie’s in March.

The most expensive was a collage of 5,000 pieces titled Everydays: The First 5000 Days, which sold for $69,346,250 (over R1 billion).

While NFTs have dominated headlines, another major area of innovation and speculation in the past year was decentralised finance (DeFi).

DeFi includes borrowing and lending services, money market-like savings products, cryptocurrency index funds, decentralised exchanges — all running on blockchain technology.

While the innovations in DeFi and NFTs began on the Ethereum blockchain, the burgeoning space expanded to other platforms, in part driven by the extremely high transaction fees on the Ethereum blockchain.

Alternative platforms that have seen increased adoption this year include Binance Smart Chain, Polygon, Solana, Fantom, Avalanche, and Terra.

Cardano, which briefly overtook Binance Coin as the third-largest cryptocurrency by market cap earlier in the year, launched smart contract capabilities in 2021 and is starting to see DeFi applications developed on the platform.

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