Experimentation & Social Impact: Assessing some of the “top inventions of 2020”

Each year, Time Magazine selects its “Invention of the Year” as well as a variety of runners-up. Since these inventions are selected, in part, based on their (potential) social impact and/or ability to meet an existing social need, they are helpful examples to use in assessing social impact. Additionally, because many of these inventions are quite new, they provide an opportunity to assess the experimental nature of the various technologies as well.

Below are reproduced 5 of the top inventions, according to Time Magazine. The discussion of each comes from Time Magazine editors and writers.

LUCI, the Steadier Power Chair LUCI, the Steadier Power Chair


Power wheelchairs can be a lot more dangerous than they look. The devices, which weigh up to 400 lb., are prone to tips and collisions, sometimes resulting in serious injuries like broken bones. Barry Dean, a songwriter in Nashville, saw this firsthand when his daughter Katherine, who lives with cerebral palsy, suffered leg and arm injuries when her chair tipped over. So Dean and his engineer brother created LUCI ($8,445), a power-chair accessory that uses sensors to monitor the chair’s environment. As riders steer their chair with a joystick, LUCI collects data that determines safe paths and modifies the chair’s response, like slowing down before an unexpected drop-off or halting to prevent a collision. An associated app, the MyLUCI portal, allows users to track and share data such as their chair’s charging status and location. The power-chair accessory will be available at mobility clinics in the U.S. in November. —Paulina Cachero

Beewise Beehome Beewise Beehome


An astonishing 40% of bees die every year as a result of disease, pesticides and climate change—in part because busy commercial beekeepers miss warning signs. That’s where Beewise, an artificial-¬intelligence-powered hive, comes in. Using precision robotics, computer vision and AI, a Beehome—which costs $15 a month and might host 2 million bees—monitors the insects 24/7. When a hive is exposed to, say, parasites or experiences irregular temperatures, its internal systems respond immediately by applying pesticides, for example. Use of the smart technology can double pollination capacity and honey production, while decreasing colonies’ mortality rate. “Not only do bees not die,” says Saar Safra, Beewise’s CEO. “They thrive.” —Mélissa Godin

Augmedics xvision Augmedics xvision


It all started when Augmedics CEO Nissan Elimelech got a superhero-inspired idea: Wouldn’t it be cool if surgeons had X-ray vision? Several years of R&D produced the next best thing: xvision, a headset that uses augmented reality to turn a patient’s CT scan into a 3-D visualization that helps guide a spinal surgeon through operations in which every millimeter counts. The headset superimposes a 3-D image of a patient’s spine over their body, allowing surgeons to (almost) see what’s under the skin without ever looking away from the operating table. Cleared by the FDA in December 2019, the device is already in use at top U.S. hospitals like Johns Hopkins and Rush University Medical Center. —Jamie Ducharme

Cradlewise Smart Crib Cradlewise Smart Crib


Roughly 60% of 6-month-olds fail to sleep through the night. Enter Cradlewise ($1,500), an AI-powered smart crib and bassinet. Most self-rocking cradles respond when a baby cries, but Cradlewise uses sensors to detect a child’s first stirrings. Based on the baby’s sleep schedule, the crib then determines whether to soothe them back to sleep with bouncing motions or to let them wake up. —J.R. Sullivan

Sarcos Robotics Guardian Exoskeleton Sarcos Robotics Guardian XO Powered Exoskeleton


Decades after RoboCop filled moviegoers’ heads with cyborg-suit fantasies, science has finally delivered: next year, the Salt Lake City firm Sarcos Robotics will release the Guardian XO—one of the first commercially available full-body powered exoskeletons ($8,500 monthly lease). The ­exoskeleton—an earlier iteration of which was recognized in TIME’s 2010 list of Best ­Inventions—is effectively a wearable robot shell that enables wearers to lift as much as 200 lb. It’s designed to prevent on-the-job injuries by reducing the strain of manual labor, and boasts as much as six hours of battery life. —J.R. Sullivan

Conducting a Social Analysis

With any of the 5 technologies above, or really any technology in existence, you can engage in a social analysis of the technology by working through the following sort of questions:

  1. What sort of social need(s) is this invention filling? How is this design socially beneficial? To answer this question, it can be helpful to think of the social values that the invention is protecting and/or promoting.
  2. How is the invention designed to meet the social need(s)? What are its specific design features and how do those design features interact with the user or society more broadly? Here, you should focus on the cognitive and physical socio-technical interactions built into the product
  3. What is the broader social context of the invention? What sorts of side-effects may it have? What sorts of background conditions must be present for it to function? And how might it influence future technological and/or social development? [Note: Here you are basically focusing on the 3 forms of environmental socio-technical interaction]
  4. In what ways and to what degree is this invention a social experiment? Are there likely unknown potential risks, either with this design or with potential future iterations? Are we unsure about the likelihood of some of the known risks? And are those who may be put at risk (going to be) informed and accepting of the risks? [Note: Some of what you say here may lean on and develop what you said for question 3]
  5. What is one design change you would implement to improve this invention’s social impact and/or reduces its experimental nature? In answering, focus again on physical and cognitive socio-technical interactions. Perhaps you’d shift a design feature from being a form of guidance to being a form of coercion, or vice versa.


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The Primacy of the Public by Marcus Schultz-Bergin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.