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Weekly Dose of Optimism #42
Helion, Nuclear Power, Google Search, Sohn Conference, Pancreatic Cancer Vaccines
Hi friends 👋,
Happy Friday and welcome back to our 42nd Weekly Dose of Optimism.
It was honestly hard to choose what to include and what to cut this week because so much good/big/optimistic news dropped over the past few days.
Energy. AI. Cancer Vaccines. The important stuff that makes our lives better and helps our civilization progress.
Let’s get to it.
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Jennifer Hiller for The Wall Street Journal
In a deal that is believed to be the first commercial agreement for fusion power, the tech giant has agreed to purchase electricity from startup Helion Energy within about five years. Helion, which is backed by OpenAI founder Sam Altman, committed to start producing electricity through fusion by 2028 and target power generation for Microsoft of at least 50 megawatts after a year or pay financial penalties.
Sam Altman. So hot right now. Sam Altman.
As if leading the generative AI renaissance wasn’t enough, Altman’s nuclear fusion company, Helion, just inked the first ever commercial nuclear fusion deal. The deal between Helion and Microsoft is a bold one: it’s based on Helion’s commitment to start producing and providing electricity through fusion in the next 5 years. The main hurdle is, of course, that neither Helion nor any other organization in the world has ever produced commercial-scale electricity through fusion.
Fusion is the Holy Grail of energy. As Altman put it, the promise of fusion is that it will “power the world and to do it extremely cheaply.” Such abundant, cheap energy would have second and third order effects on progress that are hard to predict. However, nuclear fusion has been one of those technologies that’s always, as Fran Fraschilla* would say, “a couple years away from being a couple years away.”
When scientists at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory finally achieved net energy gain in December 2022, the excitement was matched with reminders that commercialization of fusion might still be decades away. Welp, at least on paper, the commercialization of fusion is upon us.
Whether Helion hits the 2028 goal or not — and it has to pay financial penalties to Microsoft if it doesn’t — absurdly ambitious timelines can be useful in accelerating entire industries. See: Tesla and SpaceX.
*Yes, we just quoted basketball scout Fran Fraschilla in our analysis of nuclear fusion.
Akielly Hu for Grist
A Gallup survey released in late April found that 55 percent of U.S. adults support the use of nuclear power. That’s up four percentage points from last year and reflects the highest level of public support for nuclear energy use in electricity since 2012.
Not be outdone by its nuclear brother, nuclear fission is also having a bit of a moment. The oft-misunderstood energy source, which produces about ~20% of electricity in the U.S., reached its highest level of support in the US since 2012.
As we wait for truly commercially available nuclear fusion, increased nuclear fission energy output presents one of the best paths towards a cleaner energy future. Despite its current output and future potential, nuclear fission struggles from a pretty bad stigma that prevents it from gaining widespread support. The public stigma stems from two primary sources:
Historical Events: Chernobyl in 1986, the Three Mile Island in 1979, and Fukushima in 2011.
Lack of Understanding/Word Association: People associate nuclear power with nuclear bombs. Not a great comp! Second, people are afraid of nuclear waste and radiation. Third, it’s hard to not worry when you think Homer Simpson is responsible for keeping you safe. D’oh!
But when you peel back the stigma, it becomes quite obvious that the promise of nuclear far outweighs the negative. Or at least, that’s an opinion, according to this Gallup survey that more and more Americans are starting to adopt.
That’s a good backdrop for nuclear startups. A couple weeks ago, a16z’s American Dynamism practice announced that it’s leading the Series B for Radiant Industries, which “is building portable 1-megawatt nuclear reactors, the size of a shipping container, that can reliably produce power for 20 years.” We’re pretty excited about Aalo Atomics, too.
OpenAI is old news.
Google Search is the future of AI.
But 99% of you idiots don’t even know how to use it.
Here are 69 ways to boost your productivity using Google AI 👇
So, Google came out swinging this week with the full reveal of how it is infusing AI across its suite of products. Admittedly, we haven’t done a deep-dive on how the keynote was received (other than just watching smashups of Sundar saying AI repeatedly) but at first glance: this was a strong response from Google.
In “The Unbearable Heaviness of Being Positioned,” Packy argued that Google was so deeply Positioned in search, which it monetizes through links, that it was susceptible to a potentially superior search product that delivered answers, like ChatGPT.
It’s obviously too early to tell, but based on the demo this week, it seems like Google may have found a nice middle ground. Build AI-powered search that provides answers and build monetizable links/modules into those answers.
Ultimately, competition is good for consumers and, in generative AI, we’re getting that in spades right now. Google vs. OpenAI vs. Meta vs. any number of smaller, fast-moving startups. It’s going to push innovation, force companies to really build for users, and ultimately result in better products.
The Sohn Conference was held virtually this last Tuesday, and it was filled with heavy hitters and cross over interviews that nerds us like dream about (all of which you can find here). O’Shaughnessy x Karniol-Tambour. Sokoloff x Druckenmiller. And of course, Collison x Altman.
It’s not super often that you get to watch the CEO of one tech darling (Stripe) interview the CEO of another (OpenAI). Aside from Altman’s insights on the current and future landscape of AI and some great discussion across a number of progress-related topics, it’s kind of cool to watch Collison jab Altman with jokes about SBF and Worldcoin. Maybe these guys aren’t that different from us, after all.
And like most of us, Altman mostly uses ChatGPT for summarizing stuff and hasn’t fully adopted the other uses cases or plugins.
So the next time you see some dumb thread about all of the 10x productivity hacks you’re missing out on by not using AI properly, just remember Sam Altman basically just uses it to read emails more quickly.
Benjamin Mueller for The New York Times
On Wednesday, the scientists reported results that defied the long odds. The vaccine provoked an immune response in half of the patients treated, and those people showed no relapse of their cancer during the course of the study, a finding that outside experts described as extremely promising.
Abstracting away much of the scientific complexity, here’s what happened: a team of researchers at BioNtech developed personalized vaccines that successfully provoked an autoimmune response in pancreatic cancer patients and those people showed no relapse of their cancer during the course of the study.
While the study was small and the commercialization of the vaccines is still early, this was a milestone for personalized cancer vaccines. The team was able to develop and deliver personalized and efficacious vaccines to patients within roughly 9 weeks of having their tumors removed. It’s not hard to imagine a world in which there is almost instantaneous development and delivery of highly personalized vaccines that treat all kinds of diseases.
Here’s to a world in which nuclear fusion is providing abundantly cheap energy to power endless AI search and instantaneously personalized and delivered vaccines.
Bonuses: Humans did more amazing stuff this week than we could fit, so if you want a little extra, check out how generative AI is building better antibodies, smelling things in the metaverse, and some space porn via James Webb.
That’s all for this week. We’ll be back in your inbox on Monday.
Thanks for reading,