Home / Opinion / Columns /  There’ll be no let-up in science and technology progress

2022 followed the prior one as a year for rapid improvement in science and technology. The ‘warp speed’ vaccine development for covid that saved millions of lives was the highlight of 2021, which also included the deployment of the James Webb US space telescope, the restart of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and significant advances in structural biology.

That strong innovation thread continued in 2022 with meaningful progress in nuclear fusion, artificial intelligence, quantum technology, vaccine development and mRNA-based applied research. Here are the highlights of the year gone by:

Nuclear fusion: The US announced the first positive net energy nuclear fusion experiment (bit.ly/3Wjs29H). Combine this with the progress being made by a multi-country consortium towards sustained and controlled nuclear fusion, and it appears that fusion has gone from an impractical alternative to a very real and attractive choice that could possibly deliver on its promise as early as within a decade or so.

OpenAI-based products: The last several years have seen dramatic progress in the application of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to everyday problems. This progress has been enabled by a rapid increase in the processing speed and capacity of chips. 2022 saw the development of Generative Pretrained Transformer 3 (GPT-3), which is a state-of-the-art language processing AI model developed by OpenAI. It is capable of generating human-like text and promises to have a wide range of applications. The main issue with language processing AI models is that they may produce errors, called ‘hallucinations’, where the generated content is either nonsensical or unfaithful to the source content. Mainstream technology companies like Google and Meta have refrained from introducing competing products for fear of the backlash on possible hallucinations. ChatGPT, along with other products like DALL-E (transforms text to images), CLIP which does the reverse, and Whisper (multi-lingual speech recognition), could have enormous implications for a diverse country like India if hallucination rates can be reduced.

At the same time, the field of AI has advanced materially with the development of deep-learning chips capable of running neural networks faster, algorithmic and framework developments in AI modelling and AI’s ability to understand and respond to human behaviour.

From quantum mechanics to quantum technology: Quantum technology is where AI was 20 years ago. Quantum mechanics is the science behind quantum technology and is built on the fundamental idea that objects have a dual existence as a particle and a wave. This duality directly leads to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that it is impossible to measure exactly both the position and momentum of an object. The revolution in computers has so far taken place through semiconductors or ‘classical bits’; the revolution in quantum technology is just beginning with the development and deployment of quantum bits or qubits. Qubits offer infinitely more combinations than binary strings of 0s and 1s can. While it is still very nascent, quantum computing and communications offer the potential for extreme scale, solving complex problems and transforming the field of cybersecurity.

Vaccines for infectious diseases: The rapid development of mRNA-based vaccines for covid has rekindled interest and momentum in vaccine research. After decades of research, a malaria vaccine called RTS,S/AS01 was approved for use in 2021 against the falciparum parasite (bit.ly/3XcPO8B). Several million children in areas where malaria is endemic were vaccinated during 2022. Another vaccine developed by the same laboratory in Oxford that developed the AstraZeneca distributed covid vaccine cleared phase 3 trials in 2022 and will likely be approved for use this year. Both these vaccines and several others in development follow the traditional method of live-attenuated or inactive pathogen-based vaccines with adjuvants, and not the newer mRNA-based methods. There are many efforts underway for mRNA-based vaccine ‘platforms’ that can target a whole class of viruses including viral mutations as they arise.

RNA methylation: Exciting progress has been made in manipulating RNA in such a way that plant yields go up dramatically while at the same time increasing drought tolerance. Gene encoding for a protein called FTO for both rice and potato plants increased their yield 300% in laboratory and 50% in field tests. The process uses RNA methylation, a reversible modification to RNA that impacts numerous biological processes and regulates gene expression. This has the potential to dramatically increase yield without the dilemmas usually associated with genetic modification.

In nuclear fusion, structural biology and vaccine manufacturing, India is part of many global consortiums that are at the cutting edge of science. India’s research and development agenda must transition from Soviet-era independent laboratories to institutes of excellence that are part of the university system. This transition will be required to fulfil India’s aspiration of rising from a middle income to an upper middle-income country.

P.S: “I am one of those who think that humanity will draw more good than evil from new discoveries", said two-time Nobel Laureate Marie Curie.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand 

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