Weekly Dose of Optimism #74
Solar Surge, Nuclear Hermes, Self-Driving Labs, CAR-T, Retro Biosciences, AOM Season 1 Finale
Hi friends 👋,
Happy Friday and welcome back to our 73rd Weekly Dose of Optimism. This will be out final post of the year here at Not Boring, and what a year it’s been!
AI has gone mainstream. Drug discovery and development seem to have hit escape velocity. Nuclear has the most momentum it’s had in over half a century. The robots are coming. The economy didn’t melt down. And you could probably start a legitimate space startup in your college dorm room (h/t Jeff Bezos).
2023 was obviously not without its challenges — there are wars raging in Europe and the Middle East as we speak. We’re not ignoring all of that, but we are optimistic about the future. The kind of optimism we’re talking about is “the very optimistic belief that things will inevitably go wrong, but that each new challenge is an opportunity for further progress.” And on that front, we’ve had a great year.
Let’s get to it.
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Will Wade for Bloomberg
Electricity generated from US solar and wind systems will surpass power produced by burning coal for the first time next year, driven by surging panel installations.
Solar cost curves create some of the most beautiful charts in the world. They usually focus on the plummeting cost of solar panels, the exponential growth of solar capacity, or solar’s growing share of energy output. The chart above, based on data recently released by the U.S. Energy Information Agency, not only captures solar’s massive growth over the last decade, but also showcases coal’s even more dramatic drop-off. Combine the two trends, and for the first time ever, the U.S. will generate more electricity from solar and wind than from coal in 2024.
We can’t fully credit coal’s demise to renewables, as much more of its output has been replaced by oil and gas. But oil and gas, especially gas, are safer than coal, and gas is much safer. They’re each a little bit cleaner, too.
The transition won’t happen overnight, but the crossover is an important step for a nation that was built on coal but will need a lot more solar, fission, and fusion to progress from here. Speaking of which…
“Hermes is the first non-water-cooled reactor to be approved for construction in the U.S. in over 50 years.”
Last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved a construction permit for Kairos Power's Hermes molten salt demonstration reactor, marking the first non-water-cooled reactor construction approval in the U.S. in over 50 years. Most notably, Kairos uses a fluoride salt-cooled high-temperature reactor (KP-FHR) as opposed to traditional light-water reactors (LWRs). 50 years was a long time to wait, and we may have to wait a few more years until we see this technology really impacting life in the US, but it’s important for a few reasons.
The NRC hasn’t approved an advanced reactor design since 1973!
Advanced reactors can be cheaper and safer than older designs and it’s insane that the NRC has stood in their way.
Just another notch on nuclear’s recent momentum.
Let’s keep up this momentum in 2024, NRC!
Katharine Sanderson for Nature
The system, called Coscientist, can design, code and carry out several reactions — making compounds including paracetamol and aspirin in the wet lab using its robot apparatus.
A team at Carnegie Mellon released “Coscientist,” an AI-model built off of GPT-4 and Anthropic’s models that can autonomously design and execute chemical reactions, and has now successfully synthesized compounds such as paracetamol and aspirin. Coscientist can already do many of a chemist’s routine tasks, but in the future, chemistry tools and hardware will come pre-programmed with software like Coscientists, creating what one analyst called, “Self-driving labs.”
The crazy stuff will happen at the intersections. Quantum x Fusion. Space x Batteries. Biotech x AI. And of course that crazy stuff will cause some fear at first, but over time, we’ll look back at the pre-self-driving-lab era as quaint and painfully slow.
Like, yes please, let’s have an AI working 24/7 researching, designing, and synthesizing compounds that could benefit our health and cure our diseases.
Heidi Ledford for Nature
Researchers are closing in on ways to produce CAR T cells in the body, raising hopes that the notoriously expensive and bespoke cancer therapies might one day become more accessible.
CAR-T cell therapy is currently used to treat certain types of blood cancers and has shown significant success in patients for whom traditional treatments were ineffective. There’s a problem, though: CAR-T is notoriously expensive and thus inaccessible to the vast majority of people.
But new research presented this week at a Hematology conference in San Diego (talk about a bloody good time!) aims to engineer these T cells directly inside the body using a virus, potentially simplifying and reducing the cost of the treatment. This more straightforward, less-invasive treatment processes could open up a whole new avenues of both cancer and other disease treatments, since it’s less expensive and could be used to target other types of cells as well.
Ashlee Vance for Bloomberg
Retro Biosciences, a startup with $180 million from Sam Altman, has a simple and audacious goal: Add 10 good years to your life. And until now, we haven’t had a glimpse of its best ideas.
2023: The Year of Sama. He’s founded or backed leading companies in AI, fusion, and crypto, among others. Now, he’s unveiling more information about his longevity play, Retro Biosciences.
The company’s mission is ambitious: add 10 healthy years to your life. And its approach is unique, as compared to other biotech companies, in that it’s simultaneously working on five projects, instead of focusing all of its resources on one breakout drug. Among those five bets, one is in the removal of damaged cells, one is in the rejuvenation of blood plasma, and three are in cell reprogramming.
Adding 10 years of healthy living would be no small feat. The development of clean water and sanitation in the 19th and 20th centuries added 20-30 years of lifespan. Vaccines and antibiotics have raised the average another few years. Anesthesia made life-extending surgeries possible. And of course, general improvements in agriculture and public health have also moved the needle. If Retro is successful, we can add cell reprogramming to that list.
There’s this weird pressure I feel with the older folks in my life. It’s almost like the pressure to stay healthier longer is compounded by the fact that we seem to be on the precipice of major longevity breakthroughs. Each year they live increases the probability they’ll be around for that breakthrough. Anyway, that’s a good pressure to feel and a pressure that we’re uniquely privileged to experience in the year 2023.
Bonus 1: Future’s Bret Adcock shared an amazing thread detailing the latest news in AI x Robotics. Humanoid robots walking around Berkley, Ilya explaining why OpenAI isn’t getting into robots, AI news anchors, and a bunch of quiet but important model upgrades.
Bonus 2: Age of Miracles Last Season 1 Episode
Packy here. Perfect timing: last Weekly Dose of the year, last episode of Age of Miracles Season 1. And we’re ending on a very optimistic note.
Throughout the season, we covered the history of nuclear fission and fusion energy, discussed the challenges to their widespread adoption, and talked to the founders and investors working hard to overcome those challenges. We even let people who think other energy sources, like solar, are the real answer tell us why we’re wrong.
My takeaway from all of this: we need a lot more energy. Solar, wind, geothermal, oil, and gas will all play a role. But fission and fusion are going to be critical if we want energy superabundance, so much energy that we can put most of humanity’s needs “below the API,” as Casey Handmer put it.
So for the last episode, we briefly reflect on the season before sharing some of our favorite guests’ answers to the question: “What would the world look like if we had abundant energy?”
Creating this season of Age of Miracles with Julia DeWahl, Nancy Xu, Amelia Salyers, the Turpentine team, and our incredible roster of guests has been one of my highlights of 2023. We’ve gotten over 120k listens so far, and I hope we’ve created something evergreen that people can use to get up to speed on what I’ve come to believe is humanity’s most important pursuit.
We’ll be dropping full-length versions of some of our favorite episodes in the coming weeks while we gear up for season 2. Stay tuned, and while you’re home for the holidays, I hope you share it to nuke-pill your friends & family.
That’s all for this week. If you’re a developer and have some time this weekend, check out Merge.
We’ll be back in your inbox in 2024.
Thanks for reading,
Dan + Packy