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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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Some people are afraid that heavily armed artificially intelligent robots might take over the world, enslaving humanity—or perhaps exterminating us. These people, including tech-industry billionaire Elon Musk and eminent physicist Stephen Hawking, say artificial intelligence technology needs to be regulated to manage the risks. But Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg disagree, saying the technology is not nearly advanced enough for those worries to be realistic.
As someone who researches how AI works in robotic decision-making, drones and self-driving vehicles, I’ve seen how beneficial it can be. I’ve developed AI software that lets robots working in teams make individual decisions as part of collective efforts to explore and solve problems. Researchers are already subject to existing rules, regulations and laws designed to protect public safety. Imposing further limitations risks reducing the potential for innovation with AI systems.
How is AI regulated now?
While the term “artificial intelligence” may conjure fantastical images of human-like robots, most people have encountered AI before. It helps us find similar products while shopping, offers movie and TV recommendations, and helps us search for websites. It grades student writing, provides personalized tutoring, and even recognizes objects carried through airport scanners.
In each case, the AI makes things easier for humans. For example, the AI software I developed could be used to plan and execute a search of a field for a plant or animal as part of a science experiment. But even as the AI frees people from doing this work, it is still basing its actions on human decisions and goals about where to search and what to look for.
In areas like these and many others, AI has the potential to do far more good than harm—if used properly. But I don’t believe additional regulations are currently needed. There are already laws on the books of nations, states, and towns governing civil and criminal liabilities for harmful actions. Our drones, for example, must obey FAA regulations, while the self-driving car AI must obey regular traffic laws to operate on public roadways.
Existing laws also cover what happens if a robot injures or kills a person, even if the injury is accidental and the robot’s programmer or operator isn’t criminally responsible. While lawmakers and regulators may need to refine responsibility for AI systems’ actions as technology advances, creating regulations beyond those that already exist could prohibit or slow the development of capabilities that would be overwhelmingly beneficial.
Potential risks from artificial intelligence
It may seem reasonable to worry about researchers developing very advanced artificial intelligence systems that can operate entirely outside human control. A common thought experiment deals with a self-driving car forced to make a decision about whether to run over a child who just stepped into the road or veer off into a guardrail, injuring the car’s occupants and perhaps even those in another vehicle.
Musk and Hawking, among others, worry that a hyper-capable AI system, no longer limited to a single set of tasks like controlling a self-driving car, might decide it doesn’t need humans anymore. It might even look at human stewardship of the planet, the interpersonal conflicts, theft, fraud, and frequent wars, and decide that the world would be better without people.
Science fiction author Isaac Asimov tried to address this potential by proposing three laws limiting robot decision-making: Robots cannot injure humans or allow them “to come to harm.” They must also obey humans—unless this would harm humans—and protect themselves, as long as this doesn’t harm humans or ignore an order.
But Asimov himself knew the three laws were not enough. And they don’t reflect the complexity of human values. What constitutes “harm” is an example: Should a robot protect humanity from suffering related to overpopulation, or should it protect individuals’ freedoms to make personal reproductive decisions?
We humans have already wrestled with these questions in our own, non-artificial intelligences. Researchers have proposed restrictions on human freedoms, including reducing reproduction, to control people’s behavior, population growth, and environmental damage. In general, society has decided against using those methods, even if their goals seem reasonable. Similarly, rather than regulating what AI systems can and can’t do, in my view it would be better to teach them human ethics and values—like parents do with human children.
Artificial intelligence benefits
People already benefit from AI every day—but this is just the beginning. AI-controlled robots could assist law enforcement in responding to human gunmen. Current police efforts must focus on preventing officers from being injured, but robots could step into harm’s way, potentially changing the outcomes of cases like the recent shooting of an armed college student at Georgia Tech and an unarmed high school student in Austin.
Intelligent robots can help humans in other ways, too. They can perform repetitive tasks, like processing sensor data, where human boredom may cause mistakes. They can limit human exposure to dangerous materials and dangerous situations, such as when decontaminating a nuclear reactor, working in areas humans can’t go. In general, AI robots can provide humans with more time to pursue whatever they define as happiness by freeing them from having to do other work.
Achieving most of these benefits will require a lot more research and development. Regulations that make it more expensive to develop AIs or prevent certain uses may delay or forestall those efforts. This is particularly true for small businesses and individuals—key drivers of new technologies—who are not as well equipped to deal with regulation compliance as larger companies. In fact, the biggest beneficiary of AI regulation may be large companies that are used to dealing with it, because startups will have a harder time competing in a regulated environment.
The need for innovation
Humanity faced a similar set of issues in the early days of the internet. But the United States actively avoided regulating the internet to avoid stunting its early growth. Musk’s PayPal and numerous other businesses helped build the modern online world while subject only to regular human-scale rules, like those preventing theft and fraud.
Artificial intelligence systems have the potential to change how humans do just about everything. Scientists, engineers, programmers, and entrepreneurs need time to develop the technologies—and deliver their benefits. Their work should be free from concern that some AIs might be banned, and from the delays and costs associated with new AI-specific regulations.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
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