Humanity is on the brink of major scientific breakthroughs, but nobody seems to care

The inside of an blue-lit laboratory with a number of rods attached to the walls.
US government scientists reportedly produced an energy gain during a fusion reaction for the second time ever in a possible breakthrough.Damien Jemison/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
  • Humanity could be on the brink of making major progress in multiple areas of science.

  • These include artificial intelligence, room-temperature superconductors, and nuclear fusion.

  • A lesson from ChatGPT: People get excited by progress when they understand what it means.

Almost exactly a decade ago at the Milken Institute's annual conference in 2013, a discussion among some of Silicon Valley's most powerful figures weighed up a critical question: Where's the good stuff?

Peter Thiel, a billionaire investor who was a panelist at the event, reckoned it was fair to ask if all innovation could offer were iPhones that allowed people to send pictures of their cat halfway around the world. Not the most compelling reason to be a techno-optimist, by his estimation.

It's not a surprising attitude from the man who also wrote: "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters."

Happily for Thiel, the good stuff may be coming. But the techies and scientists need to get better at marketing their wares.

Almost anyone who regularly uses the internet will understand the potential of artificial intelligence thanks to OpenAI's release of ChatGPT, a chatbot application that brings the company's underlying GPT-3.5 and GPT-4 large language models to life. LLMs have been around for years, but the average consumer only understood their importance when they could see in a tangible way how powerful they could be. That mass understanding has undeniably supercharged the field of AI.

But other equally society-changing discoveries may be on the way and should provoke as much public excitement.

In South Korea last month, researchers declared the discovery of the world's first room-temperature, ambient-pressure superconductor — a rock-like material known as LK-99. If it does exist, it could reduce the massive amounts of electrical waste we have today and open, in the view of its original researchers, "a new era for humankind."

Since the findings were not peer-reviewed, the announcement was first met with skepticism. A paper submitted by researchers at the Peking University in Beijing on Sunday suggests the initial excitement may be overblown. Efforts remain underway to replicate the room-temperature superconductor's creation. Still, few people understand the significance of discovering it.

It also emerged that US scientists had achieved "net energy gain in a fusion reaction" for the second time, the Financial Times reported. This adds significant heft to the case made by nuclear-energy advocates who say nuclear is nothing to be scared of and a good source of green energy.

Hard science needs good PR and marketing

OpenAI's chatbot has enjoyed a rare level of popularity. It might take similar efforts to translate hard-science discoveries into tangible benefits for the average human.

Another issue, according to Silicon Valley's accelerationist crowd, is an apparent fear of progress.

Marc Andreessen, a venture capitalist who was Thiel's co-panelist at the Milken Institute conference back in 2013, said during a recently aired podcast that the world had "bifurcated into two domains" since the 1970s that had split where progress can and can't be made.

Andreessen said on the Hermitix podcast that the world of "bits" that constitute everything from the internet to social media has seen staggering leaps forward, while the world of "atoms" that constitute things like nuclear energy has been lost to decades of stagnation.

"If you're in the virtual world it's like wow. It's amazing, everything is spectacular," he said. "The minute you get into a car, the minute you plug something into a wall, the minute you eat food, you're still living in the 1950s."

That stagnation occurs in part, Andreessen said, because of what happens when a new technology interacts with social systems: "What it does is it threatens to upend the social order."

In Andreessen's view, innovations in the atomic world seem to be even more consequential than those of the digital world and this is why there were bans on new nuclear power stations in the 1970s in places like California.

The impact of any new technology on society is supposed to be thoroughly examined. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has been put through the wringer by Congress and other lawmakers globally for AI's potential impact on jobs, its misinformation, and its potential to sway elections.

But if Andreessen and his ilk want the general public to get excited by nuclear energy and superconductors, they may have the answer in ChatGPT. Humans need to see and understand the benefits of progress for themselves.

Correction: August 8, 2023 — Because of an editing error, the summary bullets in an earlier version of this story misstated one of the technological areas that could be on the brink of major progress. The bullets meant to refer to room-temperature superconductors, not room-temperature semiconductors.

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