10 History-Altering Breakthroughs in 2020
Thursday December 24, 2020
By Thomas Frey
The Davinci Institute
In 2020, every day is a blur. We roll out of bed, grab a cup of coffee, try to make sure we’re presentable from the waist up, and check the schedule for our first Zoom call. And then we realize it’s Saturday.
Similar to our days, truth is a blur. The truth from China Daily, BBC, or Al Jazeera is seldom the same as the truth from NBC, The Times of India, Reuters, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, Kyodo News, or Newsweek.
Often while presenting conflicting data, rival camps continue to argue about truth to the point that a growing number of people have stopped watching and reading the news and perusing social media altogether.
That’s unfortunate. Because while we’ve been preoccupied or looking the other way, quietly and below the radar, some significant, potentially history-altering breakthroughs and developments occurred in 2020.
Here are 10 accomplishments and trends that caught my eye this year … when I wasn’t completely distracted.
- Scientists created the world’s first room-temperature superconductive material
Superconductivity supports technologies ranging from healthcare to transportation. Superconductive materials will be critical in dramatically improving the efficiency of electricity transmission. One of the challenges, though, is that the materials used to-date only maintain their characteristics in an environment of -140 degrees Celsius. This year, scientists at the University of Rochester produced a superconductive material that functions at room temperature. There’s one catch, though. The room-temperature material was only superconductive at extremely high pressure: 39 million pounds per square inch. One challenge solved, one more to go.
- Scientists reversed the human aging process at the cellular level
United Nations data indicates that worldwide life expectancy continues to inch up, but the rate of increase is declining. In a promising development, though, when Scientists at Tel Aviv University exposed elderly volunteers to pure oxygen in high-pressure chambers, they produced two kinds of cellular changes that could slow the aging process. First, the exposure restored the length and structure of chromosomes. Second, it reduced the number of senescent cells that preclude the regeneration of normal cells.
- Hyper-Tube train transport exceeded 1,000 km/hr speeds
Today’s jet aircraft typically travel at around 1,000 km/hr. A South Korean research institute recently reached that speed with their 1:17 scale rail transportation model, which relies on tube travel in a near-zero pressure vacuum. They hope to be doing full scale tests in 2022 with deployment in 2024. Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is expected to achieve similar or faster speeds.
- Lab-grown meat was approved for consumption and sale
Since cattle farms account for 27% of human-based methane emissions, researchers are hoping that cultured meat can make a major dent in reducing environmental damage. Recently, cultured chicken meat grown from biopsied cells and nurtured in nutrients in the confines of a bioreactor, was approved for sale and consumption by the Singapore Food Agency. The U.S. based company that produced the product, which is mixed with a plant-based meat substitute, is one of many firms around the world with similar emerging products.
- A synthetic “DNA disc” for data storage could be on the horizon
This one is not a breakthrough, yet, but it’s exciting and amazing nonetheless. The European Commission is financing a project with a French research lab to develop a synthetic DNA disc for data storage. One gram of DNA is capable of holding 455 exabytes of information – an amount not much less that the volume of data that will be generated daily worldwide in just a few years. The lab expects to develop proof of concept within three years.
- Robo-taxis are on the streets
A Chinese company has introduced its fully driverless fleet of robo-taxis. Their 25 modified Fiat Chrysler minivans have been approved by the city of Shenzhen to operate there with no locational restrictions and no requirements for a backup driver or remote control.
- China joined the U.S. in the “quantum supremacy” club
Since quantum computers can perform more tasks simultaneously than traditional supercomputers, quantum supremacy is achieved when a quantum computer performs a task that can’t be reasonably replicated by a supercomputer. China researchers recently announced their quantum computer had performed a task in 200 seconds that would have taken a supercomputer 2.5 billion years. Google was the first member of the quantum supremacy club last year when its quantum computer performed a task in 200 seconds that would have taken 10,000 years with a traditional computer.
- Sales of electric cars in China exceeded sales of traditional cars
According to the Chinese Association of Automobile Manufacturers, the combined sales of battery electric, plug-in hybrid, and fuel cell electric cars has outpaced the sale of other vehicles in that country. The electric car sales were led by Chinese carmaker BYD, followed by those from a joint venture with GM and SAIC.
- South Korea is planning for drone human transport traffic
Forget about robo-taxi automobiles, how about taxi drones? Given the recent demonstration in South Korea of an unmanned taxi drone produced by a Chinese company, South Korea is developing an air traffic control system to manage passenger and freight delivery drones. The Chinese taxi drone that was unveiled can carry 485 pounds and travel at 80 miles per hour.
- The future of air travel is electric
And along those same lines, electric unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) now outnumber electric cars in the U.S. They’re typically used for mapping, photography, and public safety, but as battery technology progresses, electric manned air travel will continue to evolve, as demonstrated by the preceding story.
What should all of this tell us? For one thing, in spite of the day-to-day challenges we face, science and scientists are marching on for the betterment of mankind and our individual lives. Our future is bright, and it will continue to become brighter.
Let’s all try to keep that in mind!