by Peter Diamandis: And how do they compare to the top breakthroughs of 1922, 100 years ago?
Let’s rewind 100 years and look at the pace of innovation a century ago. In 1922, the world was just emerging from the aftermath of the Spanish flu—1922 ushered in a new era for progress and rebirth.
In that year, in the United States:
- There were ~12 million cars on the road
- The price of gas was 11 cents per gallon
- The Ford Model-T cost a mere $319
- Only 40% of Americans had electricity in their homes
- Only 35% had a telephone
- Life expectancy was 58 years for men and 61 years for women (about 20 years less than today)
Top breakthrough inventions 1922? There were ONLY 7 (that I could find)…
- The first water skis were demonstrated using wooden boards and a clothesline
- The first manually retractable, convertible car hardtop was invented
- The electric blender was invented for making malts and milkshakes
- The radial arm saw was invented to cut and shape long pieces of stock material
- The use of insulin for the first time in a person to treat diabetes
- Vitamin E was discovered
- The Australians invented Vegemite
In today’s blog, I’ll identify the top 22 breakthroughs/innovations of 2022. For each, I’ll describe “what it is” and “why it matters.”
We’ll look at breakthroughs in 7 categories: Space, Energy, Health, Food, Robotics, Quantum, and AI.
It’s safe to say that the speed of innovation has accelerated a fair amount over the past century.
Let’s dive in…
(#1) The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)
What it is: The successful launch and deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the most sophisticated and complex observatory ever constructed, is an engineering and operations phenomenon. At a cost of >$10 billion, JWST is an infrared observatory orbiting the Sun about 1 million miles from Earth in the second Lagrange point (L2). Its primary mirror is 21.3 feet (6.5 meters) across and can image objects 9x fainter than its predecessor, the Hubble Telescope.
Why it matters: JWST was designed to study the most distant objects in the universe, including the first stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang. JWST’s mission is to unveil unprecedented details about the universe’s origins and lead us to new cosmological discoveries––and perhaps even allow scientists to search for signs of life on other worlds. Scientists have seen into the early universe as it was a mere 100 million years after the Big Bang, which happened about 13.8 billion years ago.
(#2) Successful Asteroid Deflection
What it is: On September 26th, NASA smashed the “fridge-size” Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) Spacecraft into a little moon (160-meter-wide) named Dimorphos orbiting a large asteroid. The impact velocity was 14,000 miles per hour. The change in Dimorphos’ orbit was 26 times larger than NASA had set as its goal. The mission was a great success.
Why it matters: The Earth is in constant danger of being impacted by an asteroid. In 1903 the Tunguska Incident, an asteroid impact over northern Siberia, leveled 1,000 square kilometers (400 square miles) of forest with a 12 Megaton blast. Tunguska-sized events happen about once every thousand years, with 5-kiloton air bursts averaging about once per year. So far, however, astronomers have only detected about 40% of the estimated 25,000 near-Earth asteroids large enough to decimate a large city and common enough to pose a threat. The DART mission demonstrates a human capability to alter the course of an asteroid (e.g. planetary defense).
(#3) Net Positive FUSION Achieved!
What it is: In December 2022, scientists at California’s National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced they achieved a net energy gain in a fusion reactor for the first time (resulting in a net energy gain of 1.5 megajoules). In this fusion reaction, two hydrogen nuclei are fused to form Helium. A small amount of mass is converted into enormous amounts of energy, according to Einstein’s formula E = MC^2. Research on fusion has been pursued for decades. While this particular form of fusion will require a lot more work to reach commercial utility, it inspires us to show what is possible in the future. It is worth nothing that there are currently 37 privately funded fusion companies working on commercializing various forms of fusion. One example is Commonwealth Fusion Systems, spun out of MIT in 2017, which is building a tokamak the size of a tennis court, backed with $250 million in private capital.
Why it matters: Fusion requires a very small amount of hydrogen. Hydrogen in a glass of water could provide enough energy for your lifetime. Unlike fission (which splits atoms), fusion creates NO radioactive waste. The U.S. has pledged to eliminate all CO2 emissions from the electricity sector by 2035. Solar, wind, hydropower, and mini-fission nuclear reactors (a new generation much safer and cheaper than the current generation) would help achieve this audacious goal. But nuclear fusion would be far superior, providing a massive abundance of clean energy.
(#4) Modular Nuclear Reactors Achieve NRC Approval
What it is: After a 2.5-year application process, the NuScale Power Module became the first and only Small Modular Reactor (SMR) to receive design approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. At less than 80 feet tall, the reactor can generate enough clean electricity to power a city of 60,000 homes. The first NuScale Power Module is expected to be completed in Utah and be running by the end of the decade. These NuScale plants are expected to operate continuously for 60 years.
Why it matters: Shrinking reactors makes nuclear power safer, cheaper, and faster to implement. The NuScale reactors will be manufactured off-site and will have lower operating costs than traditional reactors. Globally, nuclear power supplies just 11% of electrical power, down from approximately 18% in 1996. NuScale’s SMR will take up 1% the space of a conventional reactor, which will allow for SMRs to be stacked side-by-side and efficiently minimize space while maximizing power production. It is hoped that these SMRs, being smaller, cheaper, and safer will allow nuclear power to increase its footprint in global energy production.
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(#5) Synthesizing Life Without Sperm or Eggs
What it is: This summer, scientists from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel were able to grow mouse embryos in a lab without the use of sperm, egg, or a womb. The scientists were able to do so by growing the mouse embryos inside a bioreactor made up of stem cells cultivated in a Petri dish. Using a mechanical uterus combined with a novel cocktail of stem cells—some of which were chemically programmed to overexpress genes that switched on the development of the placenta and yolk-sac—the team produced embryos with gene expression patterns 95% similar to natural mouse embryos of the same age. The embryos developed normally, elongating on Day 3, folding their neural tubes and budding tails by Day 6, and developing beating hearts by Day 8. This marked the first time ever that scientists successfully managed to grow fully synthetic mouse embryos outside the womb.
Why it matters: By watching the embryos in a lab instead of a uterus, scientists can get a better understanding as to how some pregnancies might fail and how to prevent this from happening. This also marks a major leap forward in our ability to grow a supply of available organs for transplant. Perhaps this will even pave the way for new treatment strategies in diseases like cancer. Imagine, for instance, a patient with untreatable leukemia that needs a bone marrow transplant to survive. In the future, we may be able to biopsy skin cells from that patient, rewind those skin cells back into stem cells that are grown in naive conditions, and then put those cells into this specialized bioreactor system. The final result? A stockpile of bone marrow stem cells that can efficiently be given to that same leukemia patient without them having to anxiously wait for a donor match.
(#6) 100% Remission of Early-Stage Rectal Cancer in All Patients
What it is: A New England Journal of Medicine study revealed that the cancer immunotherapy dostarlimab—a checkpoint inhibitor—led to complete remission in early-stage rectal cancer in all treated study patients. Approved by the FDA in August last year, dostarlimab is a kind of cancer immunotherapy treatment referred to as a “checkpoint inhibitor.” The name comes from the fact that checkpoint inhibitors block (i.e., inhibit) the brakes (i.e., checkpoints) that tumors use to fend off our immune system’s T cells. There are approximately 45,000 patients per year diagnosed with rectal cancer in the United States. Although this was a small study, the results are both timely and impressive.
Why it matters: This breakthrough matters for two reasons: First, because the rate of this cancer is increasing in younger adults. By 2030, cases will increase by 124.2% in patients (age 20-34) and 46% in patients (age 35-49). Conceivably, this could eliminate the need for surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy one day for rectal cancer patients—with immune memory preventing future cancer spread. Second, this finding may lead to more breakthroughs in cancer therapies and the use of checkpoint inhibitors in other forms of malignant cancers. This is a major win in the “war against cancer.”
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(#7) Breakthrough Vaccine for Malaria and All Influenza Strains
What it is: In September, a novel malaria vaccine developed by Oxford University scientists was found to be up to 80% effective at preventing infection. This December, a research team led by George Washington University developed two highly-effective mRNA vaccines that reduced both malaria infection and transmission. In November, an mRNA-based experimental influenza vaccine was found to induce protection against all known influenza subtypes in animals. Using an mRNA-based approach, Scott Hensley and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania created a vaccine that produced antibody responses against all 20 known strains of influenza A and B in tests on mice and ferrets, with lasting protection for 4 months.
Why it matters: According to the CDC, nearly 90 countries and territories live in areas at risk of malaria transmission. Malaria kills an estimated 627,000 people per year, the majority of them children younger than five years old. Furthermore, fighting the flu represents a yearly challenge because influenza viruses are constantly evolving and evading immune response. As of early December 2022, the CDC has already recorded 4,500 flu deaths since October 1st, compared to 5,000 in all of last season. Some years flu vaccines are effective and in other years, they miss the mark. Instead of playing a continual “cat-and-mouse game,” public health officials now have a tool to fight all potential influenza strains. Blunting the harm of seasonal flus or a potentially vicious flu of pandemic proportions is a big win for public health, especially at times when hospitals are overloaded with patients suffering from COVID-19 and RSV.
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(#8) AI Predicts ALL Known Protein Structures: DeepMind & Meta
What it is: The Grand Challenge of computer modeling since the 1960’s has been known as the “protein folding problem,” in which a program must predict the 3D structure of a protein solely from an amino acid sequence. Earlier this year in July, an AI program called AlphaFold—built by the Google-owned company DeepMind—solved the 3D structures of the roughly 200 million proteins known to science. This past November, researchers from Meta AI (formerly Facebook) announced they used AI to predict the structures of roughly 617 million proteins from bacteria, virus, and other microorganisms that haven’t been fully characterized. This effort by Meta AI took just two weeks, and the structures and underlying code are freely available for use.
Why it matters: Scientific teams around the world are using DeepMind’s AlphaFold2 software to conduct research on COVID-19, cancer, and antibiotic resistance. DeepMind has additionally set up a public database for protein structures predicted by AlphaFold2. This database currently has ~1 million entries, and DeepMind says it will add more than 100 million entries in the next year. Meta AI’s database, the ESM Metagenomic Atlas, will allow scientists to quickly achieve protein structures using an API. This is all significant because nearly everything your body does, it does with proteins. Understanding both the structure and function of individual proteins is crucial for understanding disease and drug development. By scaling up 3D structure prediction capacity, the root causes of disease can be precisely pinpointed, and drugs can be developed with enhanced safety and efficacy.
(#9) Organs Revived in Dead Pigs
What it is: This August, researchers at Yale University were able to successfully revive cells in the hearts, livers, kidneys, and brains of pigs that had been lying dead in a lab for an hour. This was accomplished by using a device similar to a heart-lung machine to pump a unique solution, called OrganEx, into the bodies of the pigs. Amazingly, this caused the pig hearts to start beating and to pump the solution throughout the pig’s body. While the pigs did not survive, their organs became functional again, with the potential to become viable transplant candidates.
Why it matters: In the U.S. alone, there are 100,000 people waiting for an organ transplant. Each day, 17 people die waiting for a life-saving organ and a new name is added to the transplant waiting list every 9 minutes. In the short term, scientists hope that these findings could help doctors preserve the organs of recently deceased individuals for later use in transplant. In success, this can provide doctors with viable organs from bodies long after death. Scientists also believe that this technology may be useful in limiting damage to hearts from heart attacks and to brains from strokes. The longer-term implications reveal the potential to possibly reverse sudden deaths (e.g., reviving soldiers that bleed out on the battlefield, resuscitation of hospital patients, etc.).
(#10) Illumina Unveils $200 Human Genome Sequence
What it is: Genomics giant Illumina unveiled its newest genome sequencing machines: NovaSeq X series. The machines are the company’s most cost-efficient and fastest yet and can sequence a human genome for $200 (compared to $10,000 a decade ago and $600 today) and produce a readout twice as fast. Illumina says the NovaSeq X series machines will cost around $1 million and generate 20,000 whole genomes per year.
Why it matters: The first human genome cost about $3 billion. The next about $100 million. Since then, the cost has been dropping at 5 times the speed of Moore’s Law. Genome sequencing has led to multiple advances in medicine: from blood tests that can detect cancer early and genetically-targeted drugs, to rare disease diagnosis and even the Covid-19 vaccines. But one thing holding back sequencing from being used more broadly is cost. Illumina’s newest machine has the potential to take genomic medicine mainstream. Imagine a future in which every child born is automatically sequenced to anticipate childhood disease. And a future that you’re automatically sequenced when admitted to a hospital to learn which medications/treatments are best for you.