The Silver Lining of 2020*
(Bloomberg Opinion) - For obvious reasons, 2020 is not going to be a good year. At the same time, it has made more scientific advances than any recent year - and those advances will continue long after the disappearance of Covid-19 as a major threat.
Two of the most obvious and tangible signs of progress are the mRNA vaccines that are currently being sold across America and around the world. These vaccines appear to be very effective and safe and can be manufactured more quickly than traditional vaccines. They are the main reason for a relatively optimistic outlook for 2021. mRNA technology may also have broader potential, for example by helping to heal damaged hearts.
Other advances in life sciences could prove to be no less impressive. A promising vaccine candidate for malaria, perhaps the greatest killer in human history, is in the final stages of testing. Advances in vaccine technology have created the real possibility of a universal flu vaccine, and that front is currently being worked on. New CRISPR techniques are on the verge of overcoming sickle cell anemia, and other CRISPR methods have enabled scientists to create a new smartphone-based diagnostic test that detects viruses and offers diagnoses within half an hour.
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It was a good year for artificial intelligence as well. GPT-3 technology enables the creation of a remarkably human-like writing of great depth and complexity. This is an important step in creating automated units that can react in a very human way. DeepMind has now used computational techniques to make great advances in protein folding. This is a breakthrough in biology that may make new drug discovery easier.
A general prerequisite for many of these advances is decentralized access to enormous computing power, typically through cloud computing. China appears to be making advances in a photon method for quantum computing, a development that is difficult to verify but could prove of great importance.
Computer biology in particular is booming. The Moderna vaccine mRNA was self-developed in two days with no access to Covid-19, a remarkable feat that would not have been possible until recently. This likely heralds the arrival of many other future breakthroughs in computational biology.
Internet access itself will spread. For example, Starlink has a plausible plan to deliver satellite internet connections around the world.
It's also been a good year for advances in transportation.
Driverless vehicles appeared to have stalled, but Walmart will be using them on some truck deliveries in 2021. Boom, a startup committed to developing a viable and affordable supersonic flight, is now valued at over $ 1 billion. Prototypes are expected next year. SpaceX hit virtually every launch and missile target it announced for the year. Toyota and other companies have announced major advances in batteries for electric vehicles. The corresponding products are expected to hit the market in 2021.
All of this will prove to be a boon to the environment, as will advances in solar energy, which is as cheap in many environments as any relevant alternative. China opens a new and promising fusion reactor. Despite the lack of a coherent US national energy policy, the notion of a largely green energy future no longer seems utopian.
In previous eras, advances in energy and transportation have typically brought further technological advances by enabling people to conquer and transform their physical environment in new and unexpected ways. We can hope that the general trend will continue.
While the definition of scientific advancement is not entirely met, the rise of remote working is a real breakthrough. Many more Zoom meetings will take place and many business trips will never return. Many may consider this a mixed blessing, but it will greatly improve productivity. It will be easier to hire foreign workers, it will be easier for tech or finance workers to move to Miami, and it will be easier to live in New Jersey and only commute to Manhattan once a week. The most productive employees can work from home more easily.
It was without a doubt a tragic year. However, besides the sadness and failure, there has been some progress. This is something to keep in mind even if we can't quite get ourselves celebrating as we look back on 2020.
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tyler Cowen is a columnist for the Bloomberg Opinion. He is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and writes for the Marginal Revolution blog. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Antihero".
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