Artificial intelligence mastered a lot of tasks in 2018. There are algorithms that win human debates, book dinners, eliminate checkout lines, tend gardens, spot plumbing leaks, and call for help when we trip and fall. But the machines aren’t completely taking over just yet. There’s at least one thing we’re sure even the savviest silicone noggin can’t do: put together Popular Science’s annual list of the year’s most pivotal, influential, and just plain awesome innovations.
Our 31st annual Best of What’s New list is the culmination of a year spent obsessing over, arguing about, and experiencing the newest technologies and discoveries across 10 distinct disciplines. Yes, there are eye-poppingly-bright TVs. Sure, there are video games that will suck us in for hours. And, naturally, there’s a car that, on the right road, will just drive itself.
Here, we dig deep, because some innovations don’t make a lot of noise, yet have the potential to make a real and lasting impact. A drug that blocks mind-numbing migraines or a fake egg that scrambles like the real thing are no less impressive than the fastest spacecraft ever to break free of earth’s atmosphere. Why? Because the effects of each of the feats will reverberate for years down the road.
And, while we have you, let’s all just take a moment to appreciate that this year’s collection includes a full-on jet pack.
Let’s not waste any time: There’s a jet suit in this year’s Best of What’s New list, yet somehow that’s not even what we dubbed the Innovation of the Year. That honor goes to a NASA probe that is, put simply, the fastest thing ever made by humans. Its destination? A little place known as the sun. There’s no doubting the sheer epicness of this year’s top Aerospace innovations; even the more-practical offerings—a floating virtual assistant for the ISS or an extra-safe helicopter—are so awesome you’ll find yourself casually bringing them up on your next first date or company holiday party. Everybody understands how cool space is.
In large part, the items on year’s list of the best new gadgets don’t change the world as much as they change the way we, as tech-loving super nerds, see it. This year’s Best of What’s New gadgets category includes leaps forward in both virtual and augmented reality, which were welcome reprieves from the increasingly hectic world of, well, actual reality. Other honorees help us combat common problems: Tougher glass prevents broken smartphone screens, and a sleep aid blocks noise but lets through crucial alarms. Perhaps most importantly, however, fidget spinners were officially nowhere to be seen in 2018. Rest in the clearance bin, little buddies.
Few innovations thrill us more than the ones we drive. When you consider an electric supercar that snaps back your head with acceleration or a set of tungsten-coated brakes that’ll have you straining against your seatbelt faster than you can say “internal combustion engine,” it’s easy to conclude 2018 was a heckuva year for the road-going brilliance.
Because we rely on home products for the intimate and urgent matters of our everyday lives, we need these staples to serve us well. A true innovation for the house should either work better than its predecessor (Post-it’s super-strong sticky notes or Milwaukee’s cordless saw that outperforms the wireless kind) or fulfill a need we didn’t realize we had (keeping our coffee at the perfect temperature or instantly detecting plumbing leaks).
There are no tanks or firetrucks or massive surveillance initiatives among the items we’ve dubbed the best security innovations of 2018. That’s because safety happens by the inch, through a relentless effort to stop the simple vulnerabilities that can lead to major threats—on our doorsteps, overseas, and in our streets. Our honorees down malicious drones without risking collateral damage, help military vehicles transverse tough terrain, offer new ways for police to capture fleeing assailants, and prevent porch pirates from nabbing our packages. Even our old friend the combination lock got a snoop-stopping upgrade. All the better to protect us with, my dears.
All the gadgets on our Best of What’s New list are groundbreaking, but they can’t all be fun. The lineup of innovations in entertainment, however, boasts more good-time gear than Infinity War had super heroes. This year’s winners include a pro-grade HDTV, speakers that double as modern art, and an ill-fated movie subscription service that shifted the way people go to the theater. But the star of 2018 was gaming. This year, we witnessed a game shatter platform barriers and a cardboard controller kit transform into a steering wheel we could use to dominate the lap times of our little ones.
The best gear gets out of your way. The items we bring with us outside—whether it’s on the trail or to our backyard patios—should work so well we forget we’re using them. The top shoes are the ones you don’t think about at all, but that painlessly support your miles-long schlep through the woods. This year’s best products in recreation—including a one-pound tent, a truly innovative sports bra, and a fire pit that keeps smoke out of your eyes—make our active lives more fun and comfortable.
Countless new products and medications hit stores’ shelves and doctors’ prescription pads every year. Many are a result of small tweaks to already available treatments. A select few, though, totally change the game: A preventative migraine drug slashes monthly headaches in half, an injectable gene restores sight to those with a degenerative eye condition, and a better-designed sunscreen helps more people keep damaging rays at bay. These 10 medical advances represent how science, technology, and creative thinking can help us live longer, better lives.
Virtual assistants make phone calls on your behalf now. Google Assistant’s new Duplex technology can talk to real human people, which means you may never have to make a dinner reservation again. Elsewhere on our list of the top software innovations of 2018, there’s tech that’ll do fun things, like deliver a pizza to your spot in a public park, and programming that takes on seriously important things, like enable 911 dispatchers to find mobile callers way faster.
It’s an elegant way to avoid urban flooding: Lay down paving tiles that soak up rain and divert it from sewers to greenery. But that innovation, the Climate Tile, is just one of the problem-solving projects we’ve named the best engineering breakthroughs of 2018. There’s also a 3D printer slated to build affordable homes in impoverished areas, and a sea life sampler that lets biologists gather marine specimens without damaging their squishy bodies. Other “bests” are a bit more whimsical: a banana that grows in the cold, vegan scrambled eggs, and robots that turn backflips 60 feet in the air.