The Best Science and Tech Breakthroughs of 2021

Scientists and engineers explored new frontiers in every technological category in 2021. Advances in everything from spaceflight to microrobotics to artificial intelligence abounded, offering a glimpse of a world in which humanity is a multiplanet species. As well as one physiologically connected to intelligent machines. Below are the best science and tech breakthroughs of 2021, in our humble opinion, which may change when we get our Neuralink brain implants.

split image of monkey using computer, rocket, and organoid eyeballs for best of science and tech 2021
Neuralink/Cell Stem Cell/NASA
SpaceX Lands Its Starship Rocket

Although SpaceX had several spectacular failures trying to fly and land its prototype Starship rocket, that just made the first successful attempt (below) all the sweeter. According to SpaceX, the company plans to use Starships to send people to the Moon and Mars. The complete Starship system, once it comes online, will be an astounding 394 feet tall.

The First (Mini) Helicopter Flight on Mars

While seeing rovers roll around on Mars can feel commonplace, mobility breakthroughs on the Red Planet are beginning to happen. Below is video of the first-ever (mini) helicopter flight on Mars, which occurred on April 19. The flight, while short, was exceptional thanks not only to the helicopter’s long journey to Mars in the Perseverance rover, but also the planet’s super-thin atmosphere.

Google’s DeepMind Sequences Every Known Protein

In July of this year, Google’s DeepMind subsidiary announced it had solved a “grand challenge” in biology known as the “protein folding problem.” Using its cutting-edge AI, AlphaFold, DeepMind released the structures of 350,000 proteins. And noted that the tech will eventually be able to help identify and cure diseases.

Engineers Create Microbots That Float on the Wind

Engineers the world over have been working on ways to shrink robots. Emblematic of the efforts from this year are “microflier” robots that can float on the wind. While the microfliers themselves will reportedly record things like changes in climate and the spread of disease, we can’t help but experience foreboding Black Mirror vibes.

Brain “Organoids” Now Have Eyes

As their name implies, brain organoids, or “cerebral organoids,” are very much like tiny human brains; a fact that makes scientists giving them “eye balls” in August of this year all the wilder. The eyed organoids, while somewhat disturbing, will hopefully help to cure congenital retinal disorders and even personalize drug testing. And help to raise some important issues for bioethics as well, we imagine.

A series of images of brain organoids with eyes, which stand as one of 2021's big scientific breakthroughs.
Elke Gabriel et al./Cell Stem Cell
MIT Makes Manufacturable “Smart” Clothes

“Smart” clothes that can sense and record all of your movements, as well as give you posture suggestions, are now here thanks to MIT. While not wholly new, MIT’s smart clothes are unique because they consist of simple, knitted conductive yarn, and are amenable to mass production. As well as collecting large amounts of data from their users for robot training.

Neuralink Has Monkey Play Pong Telepathically

Finally on the list is Neuralink’s breakthrough demonstration of a monkey telepathically playing Pong. Or, in this context, MindPong. Neuralink was able to pull off the feat by plunging 1,024 ultra-thin electrodes into a Macaque’s brain. (Banana smoothies were essential as well.) The company says that, in the near-term, the tech could help paralyzed people surf the net and express themselves artistically. Merging with superintelligent AI is also apparently not off the table for this rapidly moving decade.

Feature image: Neuralink/Cell Stem Cell/NASA

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