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Superconductors are among the most bizarre and exciting materials yet discovered. Counterintuitive quantum-mechanical effects mean that, below a critical temperature, they have zero electrical resistance. This property alone is more than enough to spark the imagination.
A current that could flow forever without losing any energy means transmission of power with virtually no losses in the cables. When renewable energy sources start to dominate the grid and high-voltage transmission across continents becomes important to overcome intermittency, lossless cables will result in substantial savings.
What’s more, a superconducting wire carrying a current that never, ever diminishes would act as a perfect store of electrical energy. Unlike batteries, which degrade over time, if the resistance is truly zero, you could return to the superconductor in a billion years and find that same old current flowing through it. Energy could be captured and stored indefinitely!
With no resistance, a huge current could be passed through the superconducting wire and, in turn, produce magnetic fields of incredible power.
You could use them to levitate trains and produce astonishing accelerations, thereby revolutionizing the transport system. You could use them in power plants—replacing conventional methods which spin turbines in magnetic fields to generate electricity—and in quantum computers as the two-level system required for a “qubit,” in which the zeros and ones are replaced by current flowing clockwise or counterclockwise in a superconductor.
Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic; superconductors can certainly seem like magical devices. So, why aren’t they busy remaking the world? There’s a problem—that critical temperature.
For all known materials, it’s hundreds of degrees below freezing. Superconductors also have a critical magnetic field; beyond a certain magnetic field strength, they cease to work. There’s a tradeoff: materials with an intrinsically high critical temperature can also often provide the largest magnetic fields when cooled well below that temperature.
This has meant that superconductor applications so far have been limited to situations where you can afford to cool the components of your system to close to absolute zero: in particle accelerators and experimental nuclear fusion reactors, for example.
But even as some aspects of superconductor technology become mature in limited applications, the search for higher temperature superconductors moves on. Many physicists still believe a room-temperature superconductor could exist. Such a discovery would unleash amazing new technologies.
The Quest for Room-Temperature Superconductors
After Heike Kamerlingh Onnes discovered superconductivity by accident while attempting to prove Lord Kelvin’s theory that resistance would increase with decreasing temperature, theorists scrambled to explain the new property in the hope that understanding it might allow for room-temperature superconductors to be synthesized.
They came up with the BCS theory, which explained some of the properties of superconductors. It also predicted that the dream of technologists, a room-temperature superconductor, could not exist; the maximum temperature for superconductivity according to BCS theory was just 30 K.
Then, in the 1980s, the field changed again with the discovery of unconventional, or high-temperature, superconductivity. “High temperature” is still very cold: the highest temperature for superconductivity achieved was -70°C for hydrogen sulphide at extremely high pressures. For normal pressures, -140°C is near the upper limit. Unfortunately, high-temperature superconductors—which require relatively cheap liquid nitrogen, rather than liquid helium, to cool—are mostly brittle ceramics, which are expensive to form into wires and have limited application.
Given the limitations of high-temperature superconductors, researchers continue to believe there’s a better option awaiting discovery—an incredible new material that checks boxes like superconductivity approaching room temperature, affordability, and practicality.
Without a detailed theoretical understanding of how this phenomenon occurs—although incremental progress happens all the time—scientists can occasionally feel like they’re taking educated guesses at materials that might be likely candidates. It’s a little like trying to guess a phone number, but with the periodic table of elements instead of digits.
Yet the prospect remains, in the words of one researcher, tantalizing. A Nobel Prize and potentially changing the world of energy and electricity is not bad for a day’s work.
Some research focuses on cuprates, complex crystals that contain layers of copper and oxygen atoms. Doping cuprates with various different elements, such exotic compounds as mercury barium calcium copper oxide, are amongst the best superconductors known today.
Research also continues into some anomalous but unexplained reports that graphite soaked in water can act as a room-temperature superconductor, but there’s no indication that this could be used for technological applications yet.
In early 2017, as part of the ongoing effort to explore the most extreme and exotic forms of matter we can create on Earth, researchers managed to compress hydrogen into a metal.
The pressure required to do this was more than that at the core of the Earth and thousands of times higher than that at the bottom of the ocean. Some researchers in the field, called condensed-matter physics, doubt that metallic hydrogen was produced at all.
It’s considered possible that metallic hydrogen could be a room-temperature superconductor. But getting the samples to stick around long enough for detailed testing has proved tricky, with the diamonds containing the metallic hydrogen suffering a “catastrophic failure” under the pressure.
Superconductivity—or behavior that strongly resembles it—was also observed in yttrium barium copper oxide (YBCO) at room temperature in 2014. The only catch was that this electron transport lasted for a tiny fraction of a second and required the material to be bombarded with pulsed lasers.
Not very practical, you might say, but tantalizing nonetheless.
Other new materials display enticing properties too. The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the theoretical work that characterizes topological insulators—materials that exhibit similarly strange quantum behaviors. They can be considered perfect insulators for the bulk of the material but extraordinarily good conductors in a thin layer on the surface.
Microsoft is betting on topological insulators as the key component in their attempt at a quantum computer. They’ve also been considered potentially important components in miniaturized circuitry.
A number of remarkable electronic transport properties have also been observed in new, “2D” structures—like graphene, these are materials synthesized to be as thick as a single atom or molecule. And research continues into how we can utilize the superconductors we’ve already discovered; for example, some teams are trying to develop insulating material that prevents superconducting HVDC cable from overheating.
Room-temperature superconductivity remains as elusive and exciting as it has been for over a century. It is unclear whether a room-temperature superconductor can exist, but the discovery of high-temperature superconductors is a promising indicator that unconventional and highly useful quantum effects may be discovered in completely unexpected materials.
Perhaps in the future—through artificial intelligence simulations or the serendipitous discoveries of a 21st century Kamerlingh Onnes—this little piece of magic could move into the realm of reality.
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New planets found in distant corners of the galaxy. Climate models that may improve our understanding of sea level rise. The emergence of new antimalarial drugs. These scientific advances and discoveries have been in the news in recent months.
While representing wildly divergent disciplines, from astronomy to biotechnology, they all have one thing in common: Artificial intelligence played a key role in their scientific discovery.
One of the more recent and famous examples came out of NASA at the end of 2017. The US space agency had announced an eighth planet discovered in the Kepler-90 system. Scientists had trained a neural network—a computer with a “brain” modeled on the human mind—to re-examine data from Kepler, a space-borne telescope with a four-year mission to seek out new life and new civilizations. Or, more precisely, to find habitable planets where life might just exist.
The researchers trained the artificial neural network on a set of 15,000 previously vetted signals until it could identify true planets and false positives 96 percent of the time. It then went to work on weaker signals from nearly 700 star systems with known planets.
The machine detected Kepler 90i—a hot, rocky planet that orbits its sun about every two Earth weeks—through a nearly imperceptible change in brightness captured when a planet passes a star. It also found a sixth Earth-sized planet in the Kepler-80 system.
AI Handles Big Data
The application of AI to science is being driven by three great advances in technology, according to Ross King from the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Manchester, leader of a team that developed an artificially intelligent “scientist” called Eve.
Those three advances include much faster computers, big datasets, and improved AI methods, King said. “These advances increasingly give AI superhuman reasoning abilities,” he told Singularity Hub by email.
AI systems can flawlessly remember vast numbers of facts and extract information effortlessly from millions of scientific papers, not to mention exhibit flawless logical reasoning and near-optimal probabilistic reasoning, King says.
AI systems also beat humans when it comes to dealing with huge, diverse amounts of data.
That’s partly what attracted a team of glaciologists to turn to machine learning to untangle the factors involved in how heat from Earth’s interior might influence the ice sheet that blankets Greenland.
Algorithms juggled 22 geologic variables—such as bedrock topography, crustal thickness, magnetic anomalies, rock types, and proximity to features like trenches, ridges, young rifts, and volcanoes—to predict geothermal heat flux under the ice sheet throughout Greenland.
The machine learning model, for example, predicts elevated heat flux upstream of Jakobshavn Glacier, the fastest-moving glacier in the world.
“The major advantage is that we can incorporate so many different types of data,” explains Leigh Stearns, associate professor of geology at Kansas University, whose research takes her to the polar regions to understand how and why Earth’s great ice sheets are changing, questions directly related to future sea level rise.
“All of the other models just rely on one parameter to determine heat flux, but the [machine learning] approach incorporates all of them,” Stearns told Singularity Hub in an email. “Interestingly, we found that there is not just one parameter…that determines the heat flux, but a combination of many factors.”
The research was published last month in Geophysical Research Letters.
Stearns says her team hopes to apply high-powered machine learning to characterize glacier behavior over both short and long-term timescales, thanks to the large amounts of data that she and others have collected over the last 20 years.
Emergence of Robot Scientists
While Stearns sees machine learning as another tool to augment her research, King believes artificial intelligence can play a much bigger role in scientific discoveries in the future.
“I am interested in developing AI systems that autonomously do science—robot scientists,” he said. Such systems, King explained, would automatically originate hypotheses to explain observations, devise experiments to test those hypotheses, physically run the experiments using laboratory robotics, and even interpret the results. The conclusions would then influence the next cycle of hypotheses and experiments.
His AI scientist Eve recently helped researchers discover that triclosan, an ingredient commonly found in toothpaste, could be used as an antimalarial drug against certain strains that have developed a resistance to other common drug therapies. The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Automation using artificial intelligence for drug discovery has become a growing area of research, as the machines can work orders of magnitude faster than any human. AI is also being applied in related areas, such as synthetic biology for the rapid design and manufacture of microorganisms for industrial uses.
King argues that machines are better suited to unravel the complexities of biological systems, with even the most “simple” organisms are host to thousands of genes, proteins, and small molecules that interact in complicated ways.
“Robot scientists and semi-automated AI tools are essential for the future of biology, as there are simply not enough human biologists to do the necessary work,” he said.
Creating Shockwaves in Science
The use of machine learning, neural networks, and other AI methods can often get better results in a fraction of the time it would normally take to crunch data.
For instance, scientists at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, located at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have a deep learning system for the rapid detection and characterization of gravitational waves. Gravitational waves are disturbances in spacetime, emanating from big, high-energy cosmic events, such as the massive explosion of a star known as a supernova. The “Holy Grail” of this type of research is to detect gravitational waves from the Big Bang.
Dubbed Deep Filtering, the method allows real-time processing of data from LIGO, a gravitational wave observatory comprised of two enormous laser interferometers located thousands of miles apart in California and Louisiana. The research was published in Physics Letters B. You can watch a trippy visualization of the results below.
In a more down-to-earth example, scientists published a paper last month in Science Advances on the development of a neural network called ConvNetQuake to detect and locate minor earthquakes from ground motion measurements called seismograms.
ConvNetQuake uncovered 17 times more earthquakes than traditional methods. Scientists say the new method is particularly useful in monitoring small-scale seismic activity, which has become more frequent, possibly due to fracking activities that involve injecting wastewater deep underground. You can learn more about ConvNetQuake in this video:
King says he believes that in the long term there will be no limit to what AI can accomplish in science. He and his team, including Eve, are currently working on developing cancer therapies under a grant from DARPA.
“Robot scientists are getting smarter and smarter; human scientists are not,” he says. “Indeed, there is arguably a case that human scientists are less good. I don’t see any scientist alive today of the stature of a Newton or Einstein—despite the vast number of living scientists. The Physics Nobel [laureate] Frank Wilczek is on record as saying (10 years ago) that in 100 years’ time the best physicist will be a machine. I agree.”
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The key difference between science fiction and fantasy is that science fiction is entirely possible because of its grounding in scientific facts, while fantasy is not. This is where Black Mirror is both an entertaining and terrifying work of science fiction. Created by Charlie Brooker, the anthological series tells cautionary tales of emerging technology that could one day be an integral part of our everyday lives.
While watching the often alarming episodes, one can’t help but recognize the eerie similarities to some of the tech tools that are already abundant in our lives today. In fact, many previous Black Mirror predictions are already becoming reality.
The latest season of Black Mirror was arguably darker than ever. This time, Brooker seemed to focus on the ethical implications of one particular area: neurotechnology.
Warning: The remainder of this article may contain spoilers from Season 4 of Black Mirror.
Most of the storylines from season four revolve around neurotechnology and brain-machine interfaces. They are based in a world where people have the power to upload their consciousness onto machines, have fully immersive experiences in virtual reality, merge their minds with other minds, record others’ memories, and even track what others are thinking, feeling, and doing.
How can all this ever be possible? Well, these capabilities are already being developed by pioneers and researchers globally. Early last year, Elon Musk unveiled Neuralink, a company whose goal is to merge the human mind with AI through a neural lace. We’ve already connected two brains via the internet, allowing one brain to communicate with another. Various research teams have been able to develop mechanisms for “reading minds” or reconstructing memories of individuals via devices. The list goes on.
With many of the technologies we see in Black Mirror it’s not a question of if, but when. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that by the 2030s we will be able to upload our consciousness onto the cloud via nanobots that will “provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system, provide direct brain-to-brain communication over the internet, and otherwise greatly expand human intelligence.” While other experts continue to challenge Kurzweil on the exact year we’ll accomplish this feat, with the current exponential growth of our technological capabilities, we’re on track to get there eventually.
As always, technology is only half the conversation. Equally fascinating are the many ethical and moral questions this topic raises.
For instance, with the increasing convergence of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, we have to ask ourselves if our morality from the physical world transfers equally into the virtual world. The first episode of season four, USS Calister, tells the story of a VR pioneer, Robert Daley, who creates breakthrough AI and VR to satisfy his personal frustrations and sexual urges. He uses the DNA of his coworkers (and their children) to re-create them digitally in his virtual world, to which he escapes to torture them, while they continue to be indifferent in the “real” world.
Audiences are left asking themselves: should what happens in the digital world be considered any less “real” than the physical world? How do we know if the individuals in the virtual world (who are ultimately based on algorithms) have true feelings or sentiments? Have they been developed to exhibit characteristics associated with suffering, or can they really feel suffering? Fascinatingly, these questions point to the hard problem of consciousness—the question of if, why, and how a given physical process generates the specific experience it does—which remains a major mystery in neuroscience.
Towards the end of USS Calister, the hostages of Daley’s virtual world attempt to escape through suicide, by committing an act that will delete the code that allows them to exist. This raises yet another mind-boggling ethical question: if we “delete” code that signifies a digital being, should that be considered murder (or suicide, in this case)? Why shouldn’t it? When we murder someone we are, in essence, taking away their capacity to live and to be, without their consent. By unplugging a self-aware AI, wouldn’t we be violating its basic right to live in the same why? Does AI, as code, even have rights?
Brain implants can also have a radical impact on our self-identity and how we define the word “I”. In the episode Black Museum, instead of witnessing just one horror, we get a series of scares in little segments. One of those segments tells the story of a father who attempts to reincarnate the mother of his child by uploading her consciousness into his mind and allowing her to live in his head (essentially giving him multiple personality disorder). In this way, she can experience special moments with their son.
With “no privacy for him, and no agency for her” the good intention slowly goes very wrong. This story raises a critical question: should we be allowed to upload consciousness into limited bodies? Even more, if we are to upload our minds into “the cloud,” at what point do we lose our individuality to become one collective being?
These questions can form the basis of hours of debate, but we’re just getting started. There are no right or wrong answers with many of these moral dilemmas, but we need to start having such discussions.
The Downside of Dystopian Sci-Fi
Like last season’s San Junipero, one episode of the series, Hang the DJ, had an uplifting ending. Yet the overwhelming majority of the stories in Black Mirror continue to focus on the darkest side of human nature, feeding into the pre-existing paranoia of the general public. There is certainly some value in this; it’s important to be aware of the dangers of technology. After all, what better way to explore these dangers before they occur than through speculative fiction?
A big takeaway from every tale told in the series is that the greatest threat to humanity does not come from technology, but from ourselves. Technology itself is not inherently good or evil; it all comes down to how we choose to use it as a society. So for those of you who are techno-paranoid, beware, for it’s not the technology you should fear, but the humans who get their hands on it.
While we can paint negative visions for the future, though, it is also important to paint positive ones. The kind of visions we set for ourselves have the power to inspire and motivate generations. Many people are inherently pessimistic when thinking about the future, and that pessimism in turn can shape their contributions to humanity.
While utopia may not exist, the future of our species could and should be one of solving global challenges, abundance, prosperity, liberation, and cosmic transcendence. Now that would be a thrilling episode to watch.
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