Reasons for Optimism in 2023

As 2022 comes to an end amid stubborn inflation, a “tripledemic,” a climate crisis and a brutal war with no end in sight, it can be difficult to remember that good things happened this year, too.

Coronavirus vaccines became available for children as young as 6 months old, a relief to parents as much of the world returned to a new normal. Rich countries agreed to do more to help poor nations cope with climate disasters. And major scientific breakthroughs brought us a tad closer to long-held ambitious like nuclear fusion power and curing cancer.

Even as the world faces many challenges, there are reasons to be hopeful about 2023 and beyond. In our last Saturday newsletter of 2022, we’ve decided to continue the DealBook tradition of highlighting the most promising developments of the year.

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

Wall Street and venture capitalists are bullish on green tech, too. In his year-end letter, Bill Gates notes that climate-related R. & D. has grown nearly a third since the 2015 Paris accords. Private capital investment in the sector is on the upswing too, with $70 billion spent over the past two years. From that, new technologies to address climate issues are continuing to emerge. At the DealBook Summit in November, Larry Fink, C.E.O. of BlackRock, predicted that venture funding would flow more into start-ups using hard science to tackle the planet’s biggest problems. “I believe we will be seeing a transformation of where the money goes,” Fink said. “It’s not going to go to all this stuff that provided us good utility to get food quicker or find a taxi sooner.”

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

Real progress is being made in tackling child poverty. The number of children in America living below the poverty line has plummeted by 59 percent since 1993. As The Times’s Jason DeParle reported in September, “child poverty has fallen in every state, and it has fallen by about the same degree among children who are white, Black, Hispanic and Asian, living with one parent or two, and in native 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’re getting closer to cancer vaccines. Researchers have long thought that it was possible to immunize individuals at high risk of cancer, or even cure cancer in those who were already showing 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 performed well in midstage 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 at many companies (even as some C.E.O.s are finding success getting staff back to the office more regularly). But another experiment is gaining traction: Not one of 33 companies that piloted a four-day workweek for six months as part of a large-scale study this year said they would return to a standard schedule. The firms, 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 studies next year.

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

  • The James Webb Space Telescope brought distant and ancient galaxies into view for the first time — and, oh, what a view!

  • The age of electric-powered aviation got a little bit closer.

  • Mycotecture, the growing field of making things out of mycelium (a material derived from the root structure of mushrooms), kept growing and growing. One start-up called MycroWorks specializes in fungi-based leather. Designers at Hermès are sold.

  • Wooden skyscrapers and 3-D-printed homes went up in cities across Europe and North America. Both types of structures are quicker and cheaper to build and produce less building 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 bevy of investors are racing to bring the technology, called direct air capture, to other parts of the world.

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