The Atlantic Daily: Three Reasons to Be Optimistic About the 2020s

This decade is off to a terrible start. But there’s still time to make it the new roaring ’20s.

Art of a wrecking ball with a smiley face on it
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

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This year was … a lot. Delta, Omicron, inflation, threats to democracy. I get why most people are feeling exhausted.

I still believe that better times are coming. My new newsletter, Work in Progress, focuses on the frontier of science and technology and the ideas that can make the future better for everybody. To send you off into 2022 with some educated optimism, I wanted to share three ideas that I’m really excited about for this decade.

1. Green-energy progress

Climate change is the most complex problem in history. We won’t solve it with technology alone, but we also can’t solve it without technology. In the past 10 years, the price of solar electricity has declined by 90 percent while the efficiency of lithium-ion batteries has increased by 90 percent. That’s a huge deal for creating and storing renewable energy. As the writer Noah Smith explains, “cheap solar, cheap wind, and cheap storage mean that we could see the first large sustained decrease in electricity costs in over half a century.”

2. Advances in understanding complex disease

We’re in a golden age of biotech wonders, like mRNA vaccines. Within a decade, we could fully map out the genetic origins of complex diseases such as multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia, which would help us design great therapies. These diseases are likely “polygenic”—that is, caused by the interaction of two or more genes—and polygenic-disease research is one of the hottest areas in science right now. Scientists have opened the library of the human genome, and we’re really starting to find our way around.

3. AI assistants

Some people think artificial intelligence will make us extinct. I think it will make us more creative. The research lab OpenAI has built a program called GPT-3 that can, among other things, summarize articles, papers, or books of any length in plain English. The full source code isn’t public yet, so I hope it’s not pure vaporware. But the idea of a smart research assistant that can scour the internet and synthesize complicated articles is thrilling to me as a writer.

Great science and tech are like delicate plants. They need the right conditions to grow. But for the past few decades, the U.S. hasn’t done enough to support to support invention and innovation. I have some ideas to change that. Subscribe to my newsletter and join the movement to make the future cool again.

drawing of horse and foal shrouded in mist on orange-yellow background
Gabriela Pesqueira / The Atlantic

What to read if … you or a loved one tested positive for a breakthrough COVID infection:

The science writer and editor Yasmin Tayag explains what to do next.

What to read if … you’re looking for fresh entertainment to close out the year:

Our culture team rounded up the best books, best TV, and best movies of 2021. Happy reading and watching.

Today’s Atlantic-approved activity:

One day, I will / be stronger. I feel it coming. Read Ada Limón’s poem “The Unspoken.”

A break from the news:

Stop spending time on things you hate, our happiness columnist Arthur C. Brooks admonished in one of our must-read pieces from 2021.


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