Last week, I wrote about the grand challenge of artificial general intelligence. Other scientific and engineering grand challenges inspire me as well. For example, fusion energy, extended lifespans, and space colonization have massive potential to remake civilization (for good or ill).
These grand challenges share a few traits:
- A solution would transform the way most people live, hopefully — but not necessarily — for the better.
- Brilliant engineers have been working toward these goals for decades. While they might be reached within our lifetimes, there’s no guarantee.
- They’re technically complex. Thus, it’s difficult for a layperson (and often even experts) to chart a path forward.
Despite their extreme uncertainty, such projects fill my mind with hopes and dreams. Fusion energy promises a safe, clean, unlimited source of electricity. The ability to harvest energy from the fusion of atoms could mitigate climate change and remake geopolitics by empowering all countries to become energy-independent.
Extended lifespans could enable people to accumulate greater wisdom. Of course, they could also concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the longest-lived individuals and create difficult demographic challenges. Purported longevity compounds like resveratrol have fallen short of their promise, but I’m excited by studies on the use of metformin and other compounds to lengthen lifespans.
Space colonization that carries robots and, someday, humans to distant planets, solar systems, and ultimately galaxies would extend the future course of human history beyond the duration of Earth and into a practically unlimited future. Spacefaring technology would lead humanity into uncharted realms much like homo sapiens’ departure from Africa led to a global civilization.
Like artificial general intelligence, these grand challenges have motivated their share of overhyped startups, scorn from skeptics, and tireless enthusiasm from believers. Yet I hope to see progress in all of them within my lifetime. (If we manage to extend lifetimes, that could be a very long time.)
The most exciting thing is that AI developers can play a role in achieving them!
- DeepMind recently used AI to control fusion reactions. More generally, AI is helping to design and simulate large-scale physical systems.
- AI is making inroads into many aspects of healthcare including drug discovery. These include scientific research as well as startups that focus on human longevity.
- Automated control has a longstanding role in space exploration. The latency of communication between Earth and distant planets makes it infeasible to control in real time, say, a vehicle on Mars using a joystick on Earth. Fun fact: Jagriti Agrawal, a founding team member of Kira Learning (disclosure: an AI Fund portfolio company), wrote software that runs on NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover.
AI is not panacea. But as a general-purpose technology, it can be applied to these grand challenges and others. Whenever I’m interested in a topic, be it climate change or quantum computing, my background in AI makes it easier to strike up a fruitful conversation with domain experts. All of us in AI have tools that could be useful to them.