For obvious reasons, 2020 will not go down as a good year. At the same time, it has brought more scientific progress than any year in recent memory -- and these advances will last long after COVID-19 as a major threat is gone.
Two of the most obvious and tangible signs of progress are the mRNA vaccines now being distributed across America and around the world. These vaccines appear to have very high levels of efficacy and safety, and they can be produced more quickly than more conventional vaccines. They are the main reason to have a relatively optimistic outlook for 2021. The mRNA technology also may have broader potential, for instance by helping to mend damaged hearts.
Other advances in the biosciences may prove no less stunning. A very promising vaccine candidate against 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 work is proceeding on that front. New CRISPR techniques appear on the verge of vanquishing sickle-cell anemia, and other CRISPR methods have allowed scientists to create a new smartphone-based diagnostic test that would detect viruses and offer diagnoses within half an hour.
It has been a good year for artificial intelligence as well. GPT-3 technology allows for the creation of remarkably human-like writing of great depth and complexity. It is a major step toward the creation of automated entities that can react in very human ways. DeepMind, meanwhile, has used computational techniques to make major advances in protein folding. This is a breakthrough in biology that may lead to the easier discovery of new pharmaceuticals.
One general precondition behind many of these advances is the decentralized access to enormous computing power, typically through cloud computing. China seems to be progressing with a photon method for quantum computing, a development that is hard to verify but could prove to be of great importance.
Computational biology, in particular, is booming. The Moderna vaccine mRNA was designed in two days, and without access to COVID-19 itself, a remarkable achievement that would not have been possible only a short while ago. This likely heralds the arrival of many other future breakthroughs from computational biology.
Internet access itself will be spreading. Starlink, for example, has a plausible plan to supply satellite-based internet connections to the entire world.
It also has been a good year for progress in transportation.
Driverless vehicles appeared to be stalled, but Walmart will be using them on some truck deliveries in 2021. Boom, a startup that is pushing to develop feasible and affordable supersonic flight, now has a valuation of over $1 billion, with prototypes expected next year. SpaceX achieved virtually every launch and rocket goal it had announced for the year. Toyota and other companies have announced major progress on batteries for electric vehicles, and the related products are expected to debut in 2021.
All this will prove a boon for the environment, as will progress in solar power, which in many settings is as cheap as any relevant alternative. China is opening a new and promising fusion reactor. Despite the absence of a coherent US national energy policy, the notion of a mostly green energy future no longer appears utopian.
In previous eras, advances in energy and transportation typically have brought further technological advances, by enabling humans to conquer and reshape their physical environments in new and unexpected ways. We can hope that general trend will continue.
Finally, while not quite meeting the definition of a scientific advance, the rise of remote work is a real breakthrough. Many more Zoom meetings will be held, and many business trips will never return. Many may see this as a mixed blessing, but it will improve productivity significantly. It will be easier to hire foreign workers, easier for tech or finance workers to move to Miami, and easier to live in New Jersey and commute into Manhattan only once a week. The most productive employees will be able to work from home more easily.
Without a doubt, it has been a tragic year. Alongside the sadness and failure, however, there has been quite a bit of progress. That’s something worth keeping in mind, even if we can’t quite bring ourselves to celebrate, as we look back on 2020.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.