Friday, May 4, 2012

Some new trends in "Abundance"

We're discussing Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Thinkby Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler.

The authors talk in impressive detail about a whole series of impressive technologies. Not all of them may work out, of course, but collectively they are almost certainly transformative. And it is seldom you see so many striking trends brought together at book-length, with evidence to back it up.

One potential game-changer, for example, is algae which can photosynthezise fuel. One of leading names trying to develop the field is Craig Venter of human genome fame:

The efficiencies are considerable. “When compared to conventional biofuels,” says Venter, “corn produces 18 gallons per acre per year and palm oil about 625 gallons per acre per year. With these modified algae, our goal is to get to 10,000 gallons per acre per year, and to get it to work robustly, at the level of a two-square-mile facility.”
Of course, companies have been working on cultivating algae for energy for decades. It's not easy to do it on an industrial scale. But it is possible that we are close to major breakthroughs which could alter the oil markets and the geopolitical balance.

Energy production could also be transformed by liquid metal batteries which provide huge amounts of scalable storage, as well as new generations of nuclear technology which could produce safe "backyard nukes" - tiny powerplants which could work for decades.

And even much maligned solar energy, where so many companies like Solyndra have found themselves on the bleeding edge, is steadily falling in price. Indeed, that is why there is so much carnage in the industry.

According to Travis Bradford, chief operating officer of the Carbon War Room and president of the Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development, solar prices are falling 5 percent to 6 percent annually, and capacity is growing at a rate of 30 percent per year. So when critics point out that solar currently accounts for 1 percent of our energy, that’s linear thinking in an exponential world. Expanding today’s 1 percent penetration at an annual growth of 30 percent puts us eighteen years away from meeting 100 percent of our energy needs with solar.
They give a well-sourced tour through other potential transformative technologies. Other examples include the "internet of things" which will create enormous new efficiencies in the physical world by embedding cheap sensors everywhere. Inventories and storage costs will plunge. And 3-D printing of manufactured goods is advancing. It is one small step, they say, towards a Star-trek type "replicator" which can download schematics and "print" physical goods in your own house.

Healthcare may be on the brink of massive change as well. For example, new cell-phone size blood-testing and diagnostic devices are being developed that can not only perform a medical check on the spot, but upload aggregate information in real time so that health trends and diseases can be monitored globallly. In fact, a combination of technologies will transform healthcare, they say.

In total, creating a world of health care abundance appears to be a very tall order—except that almost every component of medicine is now an information technology and therefore on an exponential trajectory. And this, my friends, makes it a whole new ball game.

Computing could be transformed once again:

IBM recently unveiled two new chip technologies that move us in this direction. The first integrates electrical and optical devices on the same piece of silicon. These chips communicate with light. Electrical signals require electrons, which generate heat, which limits the amount of work a chip can perform and requires a lot of power for cooling. Light has neither limitation. If IBM’s estimations are correct, over the next eight years, its new chip design will accelerate supercomputer performance a thousandfold, taking us from our current 2.6 petaflops to an exaflop (that’s 10 to the 18th, or a quintillion operations per second)—or one hundred times faster than the human brain.
New technologies could transform use of water and save vast quantities of wasted food:

Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the Water Innovations Alliance, believes a smart grid could save the United States 30 percent to 50 percent of its total water use. IBM believes that the smart grid for water will be worth over $20 billion in the next five years, and the company is determined to get in on the ground floor.

And that is before the potential for new agricultural techniques and "vertical farms" in urban areas:

Hydroponics is 70 percent more efficient than traditional agriculture. Aeroponics, meanwhile, is 70 percent more efficient than hydroponics. Thus, if we used aeroponics for agriculture, we could drop water use from 70 percent to 6 percent—quite the savings.

And economic growth increasingly does not rely on natural resources.

Furthermore, for most of the twentieth century, pulling oneself out of poverty demanded having a job that—one way or another—relied on these same natural resources, but today’s greatest commodities aren’t physical objects, they’re ideas. Economists use the terms rival goods and nonrival goods to explain the difference.

We've talked about the huge significance of the shift to nonrival goods before. It means that traditional markets don't work as well, at least without elaborately defined property rights over ideas. And intellectual property law is a mess.

The book also emphasises the massive leap in scale of the global economy which is in prospect. Three billion people will be linked into the global economy of ideas and innovation for the first time as mobile telephones and computing spread in developing countries. And those billions of new people and new needs and exepriences will likely mean a surge of innovation.

And we haven't even talked about the potential impact of artificial intelligence or potential transformations to education.

So here's the takeaway: the global economy may feel like it is stalled right now, with talk of crisis and austerity and cuts. Beneath the surface, however, change is actually speeding up. If even a few of the big transformative technologies the book talks about are realized, it will have immense consequences in the next twenty years, moving us much closer towards a world in which the problems of material provision and abundance have been solved.

What then? What then?


No comments:

Post a Comment