While the mood music of 2020 has been pretty grim, in future I believe we will see this as a staggering year for human progress.
Despite the challenges, humankind has pushed on to do awe-inspiring things this year, and It's this sense of vim and possibility that I hope we all take forward into the challenges that face us in 2021.
It's worth reading the Guardian piece [linked below] for all the details but, in short, thanks to the vision of a Brit, Demis Hassabis, and his ingenious company, DeepMind, one of the most important and difficult problems in health research has been solved by a new algorithm, AlphaFold.
Once this fundamental research is refined and finds its way into products and medicines, it has the potential to change the lives of every person who lives on planet earth in the future - it really could be that big.
It's all to do with a knotty challenge that scientists have been trying to solve for five decades, "protein folding".
Many processes in the human body are driven by proteins; proteins and receptors fit together like a plug and a socket - the protein’s shape literally determines its function.
For many years we have been able to see what proteins are in, for instance, a disease; but the number of ways these proteins can be made into 3D shapes is absurdly massive - so much so it is hard to put into words.
I'll give it a shot.
If each potential 3D shape for the proteins we find in a given disease was a single drop of water, there would be enough to flood the entire planet, the solar system, our galaxy and all 100 billion+ galaxies we know about, and all the space in between - and there would still be at least two more universes of water left over.
Among these seemingly infinite possibilities, AlphaFold can determine the shape of a protein from a list of its parts with up to 97% accuracy, and it's still improving.
This quote from Venki Ramakrishnan, the president of the Royal Society (someone not inclined to hyperbole) captures the sentiment; “a stunning advance” that had occurred “decades before many people in the field would have predicted”.
As a communications person, what I also found interesting is how thoughtfully the message was communicated through different stakeholders.
The geeks among us were treated to a video of the scientists sharing their feelings about this process and discovery, the journal 'Nature' broke the story with an almost sensationalist headline, the world's media paid attention, and it was left to the company itself to provide some balance and humility to the story.
How does this story make one feel about DeepMind, its owner Google, and AI in general? Did it change your opinion a little on the value of having companies as rich and powerful as Google? Could a smaller company fund this work? Would a drug company?
Brand communications are about what you do and also about what you say. The AlphaFold team made did one of the hardest things in science, and made it accessible to everyman. Kudos.
This year we landed on the far side of the moon, we're planning exploration missions to Mars, the first electric car transportation company made it onto the top companies list, we created a new vaccine in the fastest time ever, and we even managed to get a woman into the White House. Despite the Covid-19 crisis, I suspect that this is what will endure from 2020.
If we can do that in the midst of a pandemic for 2020, imagine what we can achieve in 2021! It is a time for the brave of heart to get out there and make a ruckus.
Who's with me?
DeepMind has cracked a serious scientific problem that has stumped researchers for half a century. With its latest AI program, AlphaFold, the company and research laboratory showed it can predict how proteins fold into 3D shapes, a fiendishly complex process that is fundamental to understanding the biological machinery of life. Independent scientists said the breakthrough would help researchers tease apart the mechanisms that drive some diseases and pave the way for designer medicines, more nutritious crops and “green enzymes” that can break down plastic pollution. DeepMind said it had started work with a handful of scientific groups and would focus initially on malaria, sleeping sickness and leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease.