Can artificial intelligence create the next wonder material?

Illustration by NIK Spencer/Nature It’s a strong contender for the geekiest video ever made: a close-up of a smartphone with line upon line of numbers and symbols scrolling down the screen. But when visitors stop by Nicola Marzari’s office, which overlooks Lake Geneva, he can hardly wait to show it off. “It’s from 2010,” he says, “and this is my cellphone calculating the electronic structure of silicon in real time!” Even back then, explains Marzari, a physicist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, his now-ancient handset took just 40 seconds to carry out quantum-mechanical calculations that once took many hours on a supercomputer — a feat that not only shows how far such computational methods have come in the past decade or so, but also…

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