Emerging Tech Brew's year in review

Our look back at this year in emerging tech
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Francis Scialabba

· 11 min read

Counting next week’s issue, we’ll have written about 150 newsletters this year, or ~12.5 per month. For this piece, we decided to comb thru ’em all, not because we’re hopelessly nostalgic, but to identify key events and trends from 2021.

We’re taking a chronological approach here, and BTW—we don’t claim that this list is definitive, it is simply an aggregation of our own reporting, writing, and curation.


Semiconductor chips disappearing

Francis Scialabba

A pesky shortage begins: I mean, technically, it started way before this, in spring of 2020, when automakers slashed chip orders amid Covid–based uncertainty. But the production cuts from automakers start in January, and the chip shortage—which is now expected to stretch through 2023—becomes more well-known.

Alphabet Workers Union formed: The non-contract union debuts with a membership of ~230. It’s since grown to 800+. AWU is “an extension of work that’s been bubbling up at Google for years,” said Raksha Muthukumar, then a member of AWU and a software engineer at Google, who has since left the company.

Speed round: The first all-virtual CES. Waymo ditches the term “self-driving” for “autonomous driving.” The overall cryptocurrency market cap hits $1 trillion for the first time. Telosa teaser. Trump gives an 11-hour pardon to…AV engineer Anthony Levandowski? (???) AI experts talk to us. The 100th birthday of the term “robot” comes and goes. GameStop.


Google fires Meg Mitchell: And restructures its responsible AI team. It had already fired its AI ethics co-lead Timnit Gebru in early December 2020, over a paper criticizing the company’s large language models, and Mitchell, the founder of the team, was let go in February. We broke down the controversy over large language models a month later. (Google disputes both Gebru and Mitchell’s versions of events.)

Crypto craze: First, BTC hits $50k. Then NFTs creep into the public consciousness.

Speed round: Bye-bye, Bezos. Nvidia and Arm deal starts to turn sour. Ford doubles its EV investment to $22 billion through 2025. Your Guide to the Drone Age. The TikTok/Oracle/Walmart love triangle is paused. Lucid SPACs. The US government sells $81 billion worth of air.


Made in America: Amid the global chip shortage, Pat Gelsinger, Intel’s new CEO, says the chipmaker will invest $20 billion to build two new chip plants in Arizona. Intel breaks ground on the fabs in late September, and expects them to become operational in 2024.

Microsoft Mesh is released: It may have taken until Q4 for the “metaverse” to really pierce the public consciousness, but Microsoft releases Mesh, its mixed-reality platform, in Q1. Microsoft frames its HoloLens–based offering as focused on collaboration broadly, and it’s making a significant enterprise push by tying Mesh into the company’s Teams product suite.

  • Speaking of HoloLens, Microsoft agrees to sell ~$22 billion worth of custom HoloLens headsets to the US Army over the next 10 years.

Speed round: The UK starts a venture fund, because why not? Deep Tom Cruise has “his” moment. Zipline delivers Covid-19 vaccines by drone. FloC o’clock. China drops a new five-year plan for “frontier tech.” Jack Dorsey NFTs his first tweet. Introducing: ASML. AmEx tells us about their fraud-detection algorithm. Lina Khan rumblings. Beeple sells an NFT for $69,346,250. Roblox IPO. UiPath files its S-1. Ever Given, the cargo ship, gets stuck in both the Suez Canal and in our hearts and minds.


Waymo gets a leadership change. The leading autonomous vehicle company appoints two co-CEOs, Tekedra Mawakana and Dmitri Dolgov. At the time, Mawakana tells us, “Ride-hailing will still be our primary focus, but we’ll also continue to deepen our investment in goods delivery.”

Crypto craze redux: Coinbase IPOs at a valuation near $100 billion (it’s lower now), while dogecoin’s market cap hits $50 billion (it’s significantly lower now).

Speed round: LG shutters its smart-phone biz. A smart-phone chip powers a historic flight to Mars. Polestar’s plans for a carbon-neutral car. Samy Bengio, former head of Google Brain, steps down. Domino’s driverless delivery. Amazon opens salon. The EU introduces its sweeping proposal to regulate AI. Apple says it will spend $430 billion in the US over five years. Further chip shortage fallout.


ford f-150 lightning pickup truck in the woods


F-150 Lightning debut: The best-selling truck in the US gets an all-electric makeover. The company has since doubled production targets to 80,000 per year by 2024 (it sells ~900K gas-powered ones per year). “We’re not playing for playing’s sake,” Darren Palmer, Ford’s head of battery EVs, tells us. “We will not cede truck leadership to anyone else.”

Speed round: Eth hits $3k for the first time. Apple vs. Epic kicks off. Why it’s so hard to build a chip fab. Mesh Network Week™. Google says it will double embattled AI ethics team. Alexa 🤝 Ford. Snap 🤝 WaveOptics. Tesla nixes Bitcoin. “This sucker’s quick,” says Joe Biden of the F-150 Lightning. What’s an AI sandbox? Amazon extends its facial-recognition moratorium. AI safety firm Anthropic says, “Hello, world.” And, of course, the chip shortage gets even worse.


Airbnb’s AI ethics struggles. In 2015, Airbnb rolled out a “smart pricing” algorithm that had a partial goal of closing disparities between Black and white Airbnb owners’ earnings. Instead, it is found to do  the opposite in a study in Marketing Science—and no one caught the failure until outside researchers poked around years later.

  • Employees tell us the company’s responsible AI team is understaffed, overworked, and unable to proactively find and address issues like this.

Speed round: Grimes goes viral re: AI. Prosus buys Stack Overflow. Waymo raises a cool $2.5 billion. California gives Cruise the state’s first permit for fully driverless passenger rides. WWDC ’21. Google researchers train AI to design microchips used for AI. El Salvador names bitcoin legal tender. Lina Khan is named FTC chair. Oculus (temporarily) adds ads. China shuts down ~90% of bitcoin mining. OpenAI + GitHub = Copilot. Starlink approaches 70,000 users.


Meta’s soft reveal: Then-Facebook-now-Meta announces a metaverse product group, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg makes a mini press run to expound on the concept. In an extended interview with The Verge, he says, “I also don’t think this is going to be all VR. I think it’s going to be AR too,” but concedes that a lot of technical challenges need to be solved on that front.

  • Zuckerberg introduces investors to the concept days later, on the company’s Q2 earnings call.
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Speed round: Maine bans facial recognition. Zebra buys Fetch Robotics. ByteDance licenses out the TikTok algorithm. Pokémon GO makes its 5 billionth lifetime dollar. JEDI is jettisoned. Sin City, or Sensor City? A nuclear energy X bitcoin mining mashup. Riding in Waymos. Amazon absorbs FB’s satellite internet group. OpenAI shutters robotics team. AVs in the Big Apple. NSO Group exposed. DeepMind’s biological database. Neuralink nets $205 million. Time crystals.


Bias bounty. Twitter holds what it bills as the industry’s first-ever AI bias bounty program, in which it opens up its (partially decommissioned) image-cropping algorithm to public scrutiny, and awards some of the participants with prizes for the issues they find. The competition unearths race-, age-, and religion-based biases in the algorithm, and the company hopes to make it into an ongoing program going forward.

Speed round: Google in-houses Pixel processors. Apple faces controversy over an algorithm scanning for CSAM. Large language model debate, redux (also Google releases a new one). Space gets ads; in retrospect it was inevitable. Flying car retrospect…this was also inevitable. SpaceX buys Swarm. Jensen Huang reveals his tomfoolery. Infra bill passes the Senate, after crypto kerfuffle. Samsung smart watch + foldable phone reveal. NHTSA begins investigating Tesla’s “Autopilot.” Then-Facebook drops a “metaverse for work;” in retro—nvm, you get it. Waymo in SF. All together now: Chip shortage gets worse. Dragons?


Image of the Climeworks direct air capture plant Orca

Halldor Kolbeins/Getty Images

World’s largest carbon removal plant goes live. Orca, an Iceland–based direct air capture plant operated by Swiss startup Climeworks, cost $10 million–$15 million to build. Right now, it captures the equivalent of 4,000 tons of CO2 per year—equivalent to 250 US residents—but aims to get that figure up to 500,000 tons by 2030. Climeworks says it’s planning to build an even bigger plant due to high demand for carbon removal—something echoed two months later by US officials.

Speed round: Satellite iPhone rumors. FB Ray-Bans. ByteDance buys VR headset-maker Pico. Apple secures eight states for digital driver’s licenses. Radiologists still > AI. Toyota announces $13.6 billion EV plans. National AI Advisory Committee forms. Apple’s watch chief → car chief. Woolly mammoth resurrection tech. Apple–Epic verdict. Rivian becomes first electric-truck maker to market in US. Walmart 🤝 Argo AI. SpaceX sends civilians to space. Ginkgo Bioworks SPAC. GM figures out its battery fires. FedEx 🤝 Aurora. Ford 🤝 Redwood Materials, plus makes a $11.4 billion battery investment with SK Innovation. Facebook Files begin.


Mark Zuckerberg standing in front of a poster that says "Meta"


Facebook Papers → Facebook Outage → Facebook Rebrand: October begins with the whistleblower behind the Facebook Files—The WSJ’s series of in-depth exposés on the company—revealing her identity as Frances Haugen. Days later, on Oct. 4: the Great Facebook Outage of 2021. The next day: Haugen testifies to the Senate. A few weeks later, FB announces it’ll hire 10,000 new metaverse employees in Europe. Meanwhile, a consortium of newsrooms digs into the documents Haugen leaked, creating a deluge of in-depth reporting on FB.

  • By the end of the month, the company relegates “Facebook” to the name of just one product, and rebrands as “Meta,” after months of teeing up its AR/VR ambitions.

Speed round: Rivian files to go public. GlobalFoundries goes public. GM unveils Ultra Cruise. Daimler 🤝 Lilac oSolutions. Deep sea drama. DFW drones. Magic Leap raises half a billion. Foxconn’s first EV. Tesco says, “Just walk out.” Google aims to run on 100% renewables by 2030. eNaira rolls out. Hertz 🤝 Tesla 🤝Uber. Crypto dispatch: SHIB, Tungsten Cubes, DAOs. Face—ahem, Meta buys VR developer Within.


Infrastructure bill passes. After months of negotiation, President Biden signs the infrastructure bill into law, authorizing $550 billion in new spending on technologies old and new. We wrote a bunch of stories on how it will affect emerging tech:

Speed round: SES announces new semi-solid EV battery. Nuro nets $600 million. Meta kinda-sorta shutters one part of its facial-recognition program. COP26. Autonomous trucking tidbits. 38,000 new satellites, you say? Also: asteroid destruction. Generac 🤝 Ecobee. Fusion funding record no.1 (more later). Rivian IPOs. Nvidia one-ups the metaverse. EEOC :eye emoji AI in hiring. Desktop Metal buys another 3D-printing co. ConstitutionDAO happens. IBM pases 100-qubit milestone. Synthetic, 3D-printed steaks. Ford doubles EV production targets. Jack Dorsey steps down, Parag Agrawal steps up. Nissan unveils EV vision. We’re gonna be talking about this chip shortage thing till 2023, huh?


Speed round: CFS smashes the fusion funding record set by Helion. Lithium shortage forewarning. FTC sues to block Nvidia-Arm. Timnit Gebru announces a new research center. Battery prices fall. AWS re:Invent. NeurIPS. Toyota’s new battery plant. Meta opens Horizon Worlds to the public. C-band bans. Nike enters the metaverse. EV battery bonanza.

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to Climeworks as a Swedish startup, but it is Swiss. We've updated the story to reflect that—apologies for the error.

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.