As a general rule-of-thumb, you should never take news of a “scientific breakthrough” at face value. It’s not that the science is flawed or that the media reporting it are uninformed or misguided. It’s just incomplete. The rhetoric rarely matches the results, nor does it fully grasp the implications.
To some extent, that’s unavoidable. People who actually do science rarely use terms like “breakthrough” or “revolutionary.” Despite what popular media might depict, science doesn’t make giant leaps like that. It usually makes gradual steps full of small, but meaningful advances. It rarely makes for attention-grabbing headlines, but that’s how most scientific progress is made. It’s like building a house brick-by-brick. One brick alone is not a breakthrough. It’s the totality of the structure that garner’s the most vlaue.
When it comes to any news on nuclear fusion, it helps to be even more restrained. I’ve been following tech news for most of my life. During that time, I’ve seen plenty of articles and news releases from mainstream sources claiming some major breakthrough. Some give the impression that we’re just a few years away from using fusion to power starships to Mars. That’s a very flawed, very uniformed perspective.
In that same mold, I’ve also seen plenty of news articles saying nuclear fusion is an impossible dream that nobody will see in their lifetime. There’s a common refrain among these skeptics. They’ll often say something along the lines of “Nuclear fusion is 30 years away and always will be.” It’s a very cynical, very narrow-minded understanding of the issue. It also paints a flawed perspective of where we actually are in the science.
With those two perspectives in mind, how do we make sense of the latest news purporting a fusion breakthrough? In case you haven’t heard, the news came courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is not some fringe company or organization. This is something they’ve been working on for decades and this was a big moment for them, according to the Financial Times.
FT: Fusion energy breakthrough by US scientists boosts clean power hopes
US government scientists have made a breakthrough in the pursuit of limitless, zero-carbon power by achieving a net energy gain in a fusion reaction for the first time, according to three people with knowledge of preliminary results from a recent experiment.
Physicists have since the 1950s sought to harness the fusion reaction that powers the sun, but no group had been able to produce more energy from the reaction than it consumes — a milestone known as net energy gain or target gain, which would help prove the process could provide a reliable, abundant alternative to fossil fuels and conventional nuclear energy.
The federal Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, which uses a process called inertial confinement fusion that involves bombarding a tiny pellet of hydrogen plasma with the world’s biggest laser, had achieved net energy gain in a fusion experiment in the past two weeks, the people said.
Although many scientists believe fusion power stations are still decades away, the technology’s potential is hard to ignore. Fusion reactions emit no carbon, produce no long-lived radioactive waste and a small cup of the hydrogen fuel could theoretically power a house for hundreds of years.
The US breakthrough comes as the world wrestles with high energy prices and the need to rapidly move away from burning fossil fuels to stop average global temperatures reaching dangerous levels.
Now, compared to other news about “breakthroughs” from mainstream media, this is fairly balanced in that it doesn’t make too many bold claims. It makes clear that commercial fusion power stations are still decades away. But that was never the point of this experiment, nor is it the purpose of the article.
The most important detail from this news is the results the scientists produced. For the first time, a nuclear fusion reactor achieved a net energy gain. That means the generator put out more energy than was put into it. Specifically, the experiment produced an excess of 1.37 megajoules of energy, which amounted to approximately 70 percent more than the energy that was put into the reactor.
That is major news.
That is an achievement worth celebrating.
Because to date, plenty of laboratories throughout the world had achieved fusion. That’s not some act of scientific magic on par with anti-gravity or perpetual motion. The issue with fusion has never been about the physics. It has always been an engineering and logistic challenge, more so than fission ever was.
Creating fusion only requires a few ingredients. You need lots of heat, some hydrogen, and a way to confine it all in a structure. The big challenge that has been taking so many years has been to do all this in a way that generates more power than what goes into it. That’s something no other reactor has achieved until this experiment.
Now, it has been done.
We now know it’s possible to create a nuclear fusion reaction that generates more energy than what goes into it.
This is akin to the first ever cell phone call, which occurred in 1973. And it wasn’t until 1983, a full decade later, that the first commercial cell phone went on the market. That first phone was not very good and nowhere near as efficient as the cheapest phone you can get today. But it did work and it did get the ball rolling on the market.
That’s not to say that fusion will follow a similar timeline, but that comparison helps give perspective to where we’re at right now. Just getting a new technology to work is one thing. Making it a commercial product on some level takes time because the technology requires greater refinement, investment, and engineering.
But that process can only start after someone proves that it is technically possible. Fusion did not have that until this news. On top of that, investment in nuclear fusion has never been very high, compared to other technologies. In fact, it has only been in the past couple of years that more public and private investment has flowed in to developing nuclear fusion. So, that old joke about fusion always being 30 years away was missing a key detail. Any technology is going to develop slowly if there isn’t sufficient investment.
Now that one lab has succeeded in showing that a net energy gain is possible with fusion, others can follow. Hopefully, it inspires even more investment. With those investments will come more refinements and efficiencies. If those efforts are sustained, fusion doesn’t just become possible. It becomes inevitable.
The past couple decades have seen one too many price spikes in oil and other fossil fuels. Recent geopolitical conflicts have only shown just how vital it is for us to get off fossil fuels as quickly as possible. And our energy demands are only going to keep going up in the coming years. Add on top of that all the environmental concerns surrounding fossil fuels and the urgency for nuclear fusion has never been greater.
We’re still not going to see fusion plants popping up tomorrow, next year, or the year after that. But with this news, we’ve taken a critical first step. And many of those reading this will likely live to see the day when fusion energy powers their homes. That’s something worth looking forward to.
An Artificial Intelligence That Can Debate: The Promise And The Perils
Even in an era as divided and chaotic as this, there’s still a place for reasonable debate on important issues.
Yes, I understand it’s hard to say that with a straight face these days.
Yes, I’ve been to comments sections, Reddit, and 4chan.
Yes, I know how ugly the discourse is right now, but that’s exactly why I’m bringing this up.
In general, people are curious. Even though they cling to cherished beliefs and refuse to change their minds when confronted with evidence, we’re still curious about things that are different. It’s not always honest, but it’s a powerful feeling. Even if you despise those on the other side of the debate, a part of you will still wonder why they hold the opinions they have.
That’s why debate is such a powerful tool. Humans are such a social species by nature. We’re hard-wired to interact, connect, and discuss things with one another, even when we don’t agree. It may frustrate us to no end, as anyone who has debated a creationist can attest. However, the fact we keep doing it is proof, in my opinion, that there’s still value in the process.
Regardless of how you feel about the merit and value of debating, the whole process might become more complicated in the near future. That’s because IBM, the same company behind Watson, the Jeopardy playing computer, just created an artificial intelligence that can debate at the same level as a skilled human debater.
Here’s an excerpt from a piece in TechXplore on this new system. It’s not as scary as some of the things we’ve seen from Boston Dynamics lately, but it’s still intriguing.
TechXplore: IBM’s AI debating system able to compete with expert human debaters
Now, before you get too nervous, it’s worth noting that this AI is far from the kind of advanced artificial intelligence systems I’ve mentioned before. This is not the kind of AI that will become Skynet or Hal 9000, no more so than Watson or AlphaGo. This is a system is very much a narrow AI, as in it’s made to excel at a specific task.
We have AI’s that can beat world class chess players and Jeopardy champions. This AI just happens to excel at debate. However, that has implications that go beyond simply outclassing the best human debaters in the world at the moment. In fact, this is one form of AI that might not need human-level intelligence to incur a major impact.
Take a moment to think about how erratic and inconsistent most debates are. No matter how intelligent or informed you are, it tends to get messy fast. That’s why so many comments sections and Reddit threads devolve into shouting matches and personal attacks. The end result is people becoming more angry and unreasonable, which can have major real-world consequences.
However, what would happen if every debate on any issue included someone who was better than the best debater on the planet? Even if the two people on each side of the debate were dumb and inept, such a presence would have a major impact on the discourse.
That’s because winning a debate has little to do with how well someone knows a particular subject. It also has little to do with how forcefully and clearly someone explains a topic. Again, people who debate creationists know this all too well. Winning a debate doesn’t mean proving your expertise. It means proving the merit of your argument.
An AI that can do that may not convince someone that they’re wrong about something. However, losing a debate tends to have a lasting impact. Just ask any aspiring politician. It can also lead people to question their beliefs, even if they still cling to them. That, alone, can be powerful.
For proof, look no further than the story of Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the infamously hateful and dogmatic Westboro Baptist Church. She was as locked into her beliefs as anyone could possibly be. She was raised by religious zealots and indoctrinated into strict religious dogma from the time she was a child. She’s not someone whose mind is prone to change.
Then, she got into a discussion with someone on Twitter of all places. That person began a conversation. It started as a nasty debate, but it evolved into something that led her to question her beliefs. Ultimately, she left that hateful and bigoted environment. She’s now an activist against the same religiously motivated hate that she once fostered.
It’s a powerful story, but one that couldn’t have happened without a debate. To date, people have only been able to have those debates with other people. Not everyone is equally skilled. In fact, I would argue most people are woefully unskilled at debating anything and I include myself in that category. I am not good at it, either. I freely admit that.
Now, there’s an AI system that can theoretically win any debate the same way other systems can defeat any chess player. That does hold promise if it can be used to temper the heated rhetoric that has caused real-life hostilities. At the same time, there are reasons for concern.
What side would this system be on?
Moreover, who decides what position these AI systems take?
If no one decides, then how does the AI determine which side on a debate it takes?
These are relevant questions because if you have an AI that can win any debate, then the side it takes really matters. That can be used for good when countering dangerous disinformation, like those from the antivaxx crowd or hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church. Like any tool, though, it can be weaponized for ill.
I can easily imagine political organizations getting a hold of these systems and trying to use them to benefit their agenda. I can also see some trying to use it to spam message boards, social media, and Reddit threads to derail certain movements or arguments. That’s a powerful tool and we can’t be certain that those using it will use it responsibly. That’s the dilemma with all technology. It can be used for good and for evil. With technology like artificial intelligence, the stakes are a lot higher, as are the perils. This technology may not be as dangerous as a more advanced AI, but it could be a precursor to just how disruptive this technology can be.
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