Tech

Three inflection points for emerging tech in 2022

Carbon removal, satellite broadband, and generative AI all had breakout years.
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· 6 min read

Every year has its breakout technologies, and 2022 was no different. Here’s a look back at three emerging technologies that hit an inflection point this year.

Carbon removal

The role of carbon-dioxide removal (CDR) has long been a topic of discussion within the climate-tech community, but 2022 boosted the profile of this suite of both proven and nascent technologies.

This year, direct air capture (DAC) projects saw a wave of significant investments from both private and public sources. In the second quarter alone, VCs invested $841 million in carbon-capture and DAC startups—nearly double the total VC funding for the sector over the previous four quarters combined, according to data from Pitchbook.

The US Department of Energy issued guidelines for how it will award the $3.5 billion of funding for DAC hubs in the bipartisan infrastructure law, and policymakers updated a carbon-capture tax credit to include support for DAC. Climeworks, a Swiss startup that operates the world’s largest DAC plant, raised $650 million to help scale its tech and broke ground on a second plant in Iceland with 9x the capacity of its first.

Corporations looking to reach their own net-zero goals also came together to try and provide a guaranteed customer base for CDR startups. In April, Stripe, Alphabet, Shopify, Meta, and McKinsey Sustainability announced Frontier, which aims to do just that, and plans to spend $925 million collectively over the next nine years on permanent carbon removal.

In the same month that Frontier made this splashy private sector CDR announcement, an IPCC report stated for the first time that pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere will be a necessary piece of the strategy to limit global warming.

Even still…CDR remains unproven at scale and prohibitively expensive for most buyers. Even if it does overcome those hurdles, it is unlikely to ever be the most efficient solution for decarbonizing our planet.

“The cheapest form of carbon removal is mitigation today. It’s always going to be cheaper to cut the tonne of carbon today—that we can—than it will be to suck that carbon out of the atmosphere later in the century,” Zeke Hausfather, climate research lead at Stripe and an IPCC author, told us in April.

But 2022 may prove to be a turning point in how governments, companies, and investors think about CDR and the importance of scaling this technology—from less than 10,000 tonnes of CO2 removal this year—to several billion tonnes of CO2 per year by 2050.—GD

Satellite broadband

Up above us, companies like Apple and Globalstar, SpaceX and T-Mobile, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, and more, are duking it out over a new frontier of business: satellite connectivity.

“It’s been a big year because you’ve seen a lot of satellites launched,” Chris Daehnick, senior solution leader and associate partner at McKinsey, told Emerging Tech Brew. “And in addition to the launches, you’ve also seen an unprecedented contract for future launches.”

SpaceX had a dominant year, breaking its own annual launch record in July, and had over 3,500 satellites in orbit as of this month, according to an astronomer who tracks satellites. Starlink told the FCC in May that it had over 400,000 global subscribers, up from the 145,000 subscribers it reported at the start of 2022, a surge likely driven in part as a result of the company’s entry into Ukraine after Russia invaded the country.

But it wasn’t the only one making moves. In September, Apple announced it would spend $450 million to develop a satellite-based emergency feature for iPhones, in partnership with Globalstar, called Emergency SOS via satellite. Most of the money will be used to fund Globalstar’s satellite constellation.

  • Eutelsat and OneWeb agreed in July to merge in a bid “to compete with Starlink and Amazon.”
  • Amazon’s Project Kuiper signed multibillion-dollar launch deals for its satellites and announced plans for a new satellite factory outside of Seattle.
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Big picture: “I think the market has to some degree been validated.” Daehnick said.”And I think you’ll look back on 2022 and say that this was when a lot of people finally said, ‘Oh, this is real.’”—JM

Generative AI

The generative AI trend first picked up steam in 2020, when OpenAI released GPT-3, a large language model that made waves for its ability to produce human-like text.

But it wasn’t until 2022 that the trend exploded.

In 2022, a slew of powerful generative AI vehicles debuted for text, image, and video, and the tools are already being used across a wide range of industries, from marketing to graphic design. Even amid a historic contraction in venture funding, investment in generative AI startups was up 15% year over year as of late November, according to Pitchbook data. What’s more, VC interest in the space skyrocketed from 2020 to 2021, with deal count nearly doubling from 48 to 84, and a spike in deal value of nearly 400%.

It all began with OpenAI’s April debut of DALL-E 2, an image-generation model that made waves for its wide-ranging capabilities—for instance, illustrating everything from an astronaut riding a horse in space to a bowl of soup “as mixed-media with needlework.”

  • Other image-generation models, like Stable Diffusion and Midjourney, also went viral, with one AI-generated creation even (controversially) winning an art prize at a state fair and another appearing on the cover of Cosmopolitan.
  • Since Stable Diffusion’s open-source debut in late August, it’s surpassed 1 million downloads, Tom Mason, CTO of Stability AI, told us in early December.

The growth in generative AI didn’t stop with static images. Tech giants like Meta and Google debuted their own video-generation AI tools, Make-A-Video and Imagen Video. And Amazon released Create with Alexa, a model specialized in generating prompt-based short-form animated children’s content.

Most recently, OpenAI wrapped up the year with the release of ChatGPT, a conversational AI model that picks up where GPT-3 left off two years ago, and the model crossed the million-user mark in less than a week. OpenAI is also reportedly gearing up to launch GPT-4 in 2023.

“It’s hard for me to think of any new technology that has seen so much development in so short a time,” Andy Baio, a technologist, writer, and former CTO of Kickstarter, told us in late November. “I’ve been in technology for over 20 years…And just to see in a matter of months, with new developments really every single week, just how rapidly this [technology] has gotten better…It’s an area that is overflowing with potential—and practical and creative applications—but it is also a morass of legal, ethical, and moral dilemmas.”—HF

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