When the 2010s began, smartphones were in their infancy, artificial intelligence had few consumer-facing applications, and self-driving cars were a sci-fi fantasy. A lot has changed. As 2019 comes to a close, here's a look back at some of the best and most important inventions of the decade.
1. Google Assistant
Unlike the early iterations of A.I. that could, say, identify faces in photos or beat you in chess but not do much else, Google Assistant is perhaps the closest thing yet to what's known as general artificial intelligence. The Assistant, installed on the Google Home smart speaker, Google phones, and other devices, converses with people primarily by voice. At your command, it can compose messages, make calendar reminders, or scan the internet for answers to questions--sometimes with a dose of humor--and can instantly translate spoken words into 27 different languages. When it comes to accurately understanding what you want, it's leaving Siri and Alexa in its dust.
The technology is still in its early days, but there's no denying the world-changing potential of the gene-editing system known as Crispr. Essentially a process for slicing out undesired strands of DNA--i.e., disease--and replacing them with new ones, the tech is being used by scientists and startups to try to cure diseases from sickle cell anemia to cancer. An ongoing patent battle between Berkeley and MIT over who owns the right to license the technology hasn't slowed down its use. A Chinese scientist revealed in late 2018 that he'd created genetically modified human embryos, so it's entirely possible we'll look back in a few decades and say this is where humanity went wrong. But here's to being optimistic.
3. SpaceX's Reusable Rocket
Say what you will about Elon Musk the Twitter user--his ideas are visionary, and when he executes, his inventions can be world-changing. SpaceX spent much of the decade developing its reusable rocket system. In December 2015, when its Falcon 9 rocket launched, delivered a payload into orbit, and then landed at Cape Canaveral, it ushered in a new era of space travel. A Falcon 9 launch costs about $62 million, or $2,500 per pound of cargo--one-quarter of what it cost a decade ago--which has helped make space accessible to startups. And it could also come in handy if, you know, we ever need to abandon Earth entirely and move civilization to Mars.
The concept is extraordinarily simple: Send money to people instantly by tapping a few buttons on your smartphone. Launched by college roommates Andrew Kortina and Iqram Magdon-Ismail in 2010, Venmo created a new way for people to split their dining bills or pay their rent and left a generation wondering how their predecessors ever settled IOUs. The company, which was purchased by PayPal in 2015, boasts 40 million annual users--a digital customer base larger than that of most major banks--and expects its 2019 payment volume to exceed $100 billion.
5. Nest Thermostat
Who would have guessed there would be a market for an attractively designed thermostat? Tony Fadell, the inventor of the iPod, and former Apple engineer Matt Rogers. The pair founded smart thermostat company Nest in 2010, a surprising pivot after designing one of the most popular gadgets in history. Nest's thermostat lets you preprogram a temperature schedule. It learns your habits over time and, based on motion sensing and devices that are connected to your Wi-Fi, can tell whether someone is home and adjust accordingly. This all lowers the amount of energy your home uses when you're not home, saving customers money and the planet from unnecessary carbon emissions. It's perhaps no surprise then that Google paid $3.2 billion for Nest in 2014.
Mocked by many at the time of its 2010 launch for its name--and for its awkward size somewhere between a big phone and a small computer--the iPad has sold 400 million units to date and spawned competitors from the likes of Amazon, Microsoft, Samsung, and Google. Today, tablets have become essential devices for business. Just look at how they've made the food service industry more efficient by replacing cash registers and helping track inventory. More than one million iPad-native apps now live in the App Store, touching every industry from real estate and medicine to education.
7. The Self-Driving Car
Google and Apple secretly started testing fully autonomous cars in the first half of this decade. Most of the major car manufacturers, plus ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, have since followed suit, and today, passengers can hail driverless cabs being beta tested in cities like Phoenix and Pittsburgh. Thanks to machine vision and some super-sophisticated artificial intelligence, the technology promises to make the roads a whole lot safer, resulting in 90 percent fewer deaths, according to the most optimistic estimates. At least one industry is not looking favorably on this innovation hitting roads more broadly: the nation's nearly four million truck and taxi drivers.
8. Consumer LED Light Bulb
LED bulbs are much more energy-efficient than the incandescent ones that have been used for decades, which waste 90 percent of their energy consumption on generating heat. But until 2010, LED bulbs were bulky, costly, and unfeasible for anything besides large industrial spaces. Then, in the face of federal legislation mandating better efficiency, manufacturers like GE and Philips developed bulbs meant for the everyday consumer. The bulbs use 20 percent of the energy of their incandescent predecessors and can last 25,000 hours--with average use, that's more than a decade.
9. Ring Doorbell
Ring founder Jamie Siminoff was unanimously rejected when he pitched his smart doorbell on Shark Tank in 2013. Five years later, Amazon bought his company for a cool $1 billion. The Wi-Fi enabled doorbell starts recording video automatically when its built-in motion sensors are activated, and a two-way intercom lets homeowners speak with the person at their door via an app. The LAPD has said it sees 50 percent fewer break-ins when Ring is installed. YouTube is filled with videos of burglars fleeing when porch floodlights flip on or the homeowner asks, "Who's there?" Meanwhile, activists and lawmakers have called on Amazon to reveal more about just what kinds of information police departments can access via their surveillance partnerships with the company.
10. Tesla Powerwall
As solar power becomes more and more affordable--it's cheaper than gas and coal in many parts of the country--the new challenge becomes finding a way for your home to store excess energy and use it when needed. Tesla's Powerwall, launched in 2015, offers that ability with a high level of sophistication, letting you program your usage to collect energy during off-peak hours, then consume it at peak times. As states begin to implement energy pricing that varies based on time of use--California, Arizona, and Massachusetts already have--that means it will save you even more money while also putting less stress on local power plants.