Reasons for optimism in 2023

As 2022 draws to a close amid stubborn inflation, a “triple epidemic,” a climate crisis and a brutal war with no end in sight, it can be hard to remember that good things happened this year, too.

Vaccines against the coronavirus became available for children as young as 6 months, a relief for parents as much of the world returned to a new normal. Rich countries agreed to do more to help poor nations deal with climate disasters. And major scientific breakthroughs brought us a little closer to long-standing ambitions like nuclear fusion power and curing cancer.

While the world faces many challenges, there are reasons for hope in 2023 and beyond. In our final Saturday newsletter of 2022, we’ve decided to continue DealBook’s tradition of highlighting the year’s most promising developments.

We are a little closer to a new source of clean energy. After a breakthrough in nuclear fusion this month, investors are pouring money into companies that want to harness the kind of energy that powers the sun and stars. Fusion, if it could be deployed on a large scale, would offer an almost limitless source of pollution-free energy. But until this year, scientists had never created a fusion reaction that produced more energy than it consumed. Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California finally reached that milestone this month. While it could still be decades before fusion becomes a practical energy source, the achievement is a big step toward that goal.

Wall Street and venture capitalists are also optimistic about green technology. In his year-end letter, Bill Gates notes that climate-related R&D has grown by nearly a third since the Paris accords of 2015. Private equity investment in the sector is also on the rise, with $70 billion spent over the past two years. From this, new technologies continue to emerge to address climate issues. At the DealBook Summit in November, Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, predicted that venture funding would go more to startups that use hard science to tackle the planet’s biggest problems. “I think we’re going to see a transformation of where the money is going,” Fink said. “It’s not going to go to all these things that provided us with a good utility to get food faster or find a cab sooner.”

Robots probably won’t take your job and could make it easier. Fears of technology replacing human workers are as old as technology itself, and were raised once again in November when a company called OpenAI released ChatGPT, an automated typing program. But AI experts have long insisted that these technologies have limitations that prevent them from fully replacing humans. What robots can do well is make grunt work easier. An example that went viral shortly after ChatGPT was released: A Palm Beach doctor posted a video of himself dictating a letter to an insurance company.

Real progress is being made in the fight against child poverty. The number of U.S. children living below the poverty line has plummeted 59 percent since 1993. As Jason DeParle of The Times reported in September, “Child poverty is down in every state , and to about the same degree among children who are white, black, Hispanic, and Asian, living with one or two parents, and in native-born or immigrant households.” The improvements coincide with more generous state and federal subsidies for working families and changes to welfare laws that make it easier for struggling households to apply for assistance programs.

We are getting closer to cancer vaccines. Researchers have long thought it was possible to immunize people at high risk of cancer, or even cure cancer in those who already showed signs of it. Until recently, they had made little progress, but now promising results from preliminary studies are giving some doctors new hope. Moderna said this month that a skin cancer vaccine worked well amid trials. Moderna and others are working on dozens of other vaccines to treat various other cancers.

New ways of working are becoming commonplace. Hybrid arrangements are well established in many companies (although some CEOs are having success getting staff back into the office more regularly). But another experiment is gaining traction: None of the 33 companies that piloted a four-day work week for six months as part of a large-scale study this year said they would return to a standard schedule. The companies, which together have more than 900 employees, also reported higher revenue and employee productivity. The nonprofit advocacy group that coordinated the pilot programs, called 4 Day Week Global, has signed up dozens of companies to participate in the studies next year.

Here are some more innovations and milestones, some long in the making, that happened this year:

  • The James Webb Space Telescope showed distant, ancient galaxies for the first time, and oh, what a sight!

  • The era of electric aviation came a little closer.

  • Mycotexture, the growing field of making things with mycelium (a material derived from the root structure of mushrooms), continued to grow and grow. A start-up called MycroWorks specializes in fungus-based leather. Hermès designers for sale.

  • Wooden skyscrapers and 3D-printed houses went up in cities across Europe and North America. Both types of structures are faster and cheaper to build and produce less construction waste and fewer emissions.

  • This giant fan is sucking tons of carbon dioxide out of the sky in Iceland. The Department of Energy and a group of investors are racing to bring the technology, called direct air capture, to other parts of the world.

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