The ancient Chinese phrase “may you live in interesting times” was meant as a curse. Unexpected events, for most of history, have been unwelcome. They inevitably brought war, famine and poverty. Today, we have our problems and some of them are pretty bad, like terrorism, global warming and hunger. The big difference is that we have learned how to innovate our way out of trouble. When you start looking at what’s coming up, you can’t help but be optimistic. The power of information technology is that it advances at an exponential pace. Once scarce commodities like storage and processing power are now abundant and that is making possible novel solutions to old problems. New industries like nanotech, robotics and genomics are creating things that would have been science fiction a decade ago.
1. Synthetic Life
In May 2010 Craig Venter and his lab created the first synthetic life form. Starting from scratch, they engineered the DNA (complete with watermarks containing the address to their website), inserted it into a cell and got it to replicate. So what’s the point? Why fool around with the machinery of life? Well, for one thing, it can help solve our energy problems. Algae has a lot of advantages as a biofuel. It can grow in salt water, so it won’t cause the agricultural problems more traditional approaches do. It’s carbon neutral, so is easier on the environment and yields 30 times more energy per acre than traditional biofuels. Exxon has agreed to invest $600 million in Venter’s approach and the US Department of Energy is funding a host of others. As hybrid electric cars and natural gas exploration continue to advance, we might be finished importing oil in a few decades.
2. Private Robots
Robotics have been in the background of everyday life for decades. They build products, sort inventory and search for bombs in the battlefield. However, we scarcely see or interact with them, except maybe for when one goes on a killing spree in the movies. That’s about to change. There are a slew of companies developing robots for personal use. One company, Willow Garage, has developed an open source platform for their PR2 robot that can do things like tidy up the house, go to the fridge and grab the beer of your choice and even play pool. Take a look: President Obama recently created the National Robotics Initiative, which is intended to help fund, coordinate and promote robotics efforts. So we can expect the technology to accelerate quickly.
3. Instant Diagnostics
Imagine you’re on a trip halfway across the world. After a few days, you’re feeling absolutely horrible and you go the a doctor. You walk in, he pricks your finger, diagnoses what’s wrong with you and then prescribes medicine that is suited to your genetic makeup. This all happens in a few minutes. Even before you leave, the incident has been uploaded to both your own digital records so that your doctor at home will be aware of both the disease and the treatment and (without your personal details) it goes to a global database so that it can be compared to other outbreaks in the area. If an epidemic is brewing, preventative measures can be taken. That’s the promise of the Lab on a Chip concept and it’s progressed far enough to even have its own journal. There is also a heavy effort going on to harness t-ray technology to make real life tricorders that can instantly analyze tissues. It might sound like science fiction, but Qualcomm recently funded an X-Prize for it. Technology has brought down costs everywhere else, why not health care?
4. Vertical Farms
In his book, Collapse, scientist Jared Diamond meticulously documented that the failure to provide food and water has been the major cause of the failure of past civilizations. As the world population grows and people increasingly live in cities (estimated 80% by 2050) sustainable agriculture is a growing challenge. One solution to the problem might be vertical farming, an approach championed by Dickson Despommier of Columbia University. The basic idea is to build farms in skyscrapers using hydroponic, aeroponic and aquaponic technology. There are a lot of advantages to vertical farms. They are up to 30 times more productive than ordinary farms and one 30 story farm could feed approximately 50,000 people. They don’t need pesticides, almost eliminate transportation costs (a major source of energy consumption) and, if paired with Venter’s fuel producing microbes, can be entirely energy self sufficient. For sure, there are still kinks to be worked out, but pilot projects developed by organizations like Plantagon are already underway, so vertical farms might be the norm in as little as a decade or two.
5. Backyard Nukes
Over the past generation, nuclear power has gotten a bad name. First, there was a close call at 3-mile Island, then a genuine disaster at Chernobyl (near where I used to live) and, most recently, a major meltdown at Fukushima. No wonder that the specter of nuclear power makes people nervous. However, it’s important to remember that the technology in those reactors (generation II) is almost half a century old. The new technology coming online (generation IV) is far cleaner because it can burn its own waste (and that of older reactors), has been shown to be impervious to meltdowns and also produces 100-300 times more power. One of the most exciting ideas is backyard nukes, which are small, self regulating units that can be buried underground. They will last for decades and can power tens of thousands of homes carbon free, even in the most remote locations. Established firms like Westinghouse and Toshiba have already developed early versions and new companies like Gen4 Energy and Nathan Myhrvold’s startup TerraPower are working on more advanced designs. Tech Pioneers Bill Gates and Vinod Khosla are also investing heavily in the technology.
A World of Abundance
For all of the problems we have today, it is important to remember two things. First, they are not nearly as bad as what we faced a half century ago; an energy crisis, the cold war and the Club of Rome’s dystopian vision of massive overpopulation and food shortages. Since then, population has doubled, while war and poverty have plummeted. We live longer, are less likely to die a violent death and have an astounding array of products and services that we couldn’t even imagine back then. Second, we have the power to not only solve our problems, but to live in a vastly improved planet in the coming decades. As X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis argues in his new book Abundance (from which I took many of the examples in this post), we can conceivably end scarcity. While you wouldn’t know it from the “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy that drives the news we see, things are getting better, not worse. Every generation has more, lives longer, healthier lives and is less likely to experience war and famine. That really is super cool.
Greg Satell a consultant who concentrates on media, marketing and innovation. Check out at his site, Digital Tonto and follow him on twitter @digitaltonto