Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Zombification of Innovation?

We are clever. I'll grant us that. If you don't' think so, look at this coverage of technical exploits from 2012.

Yet some people complain about the pace of innovation, saying we've reached a plateau and there's not much new under the sun. They are wrong, but it's not their fault. They just can't help themselves. Don't blame lead in the water or genetically modified food or too much television. 

True, it's not a target-rich environment for innovation anymore. The days of Marconi, Edison and Tesla are gone. We know about the electromagnetic spectrum and we've seen the light on nuclear forces. We get telephony morphed into cellular communications. We're nano knowledgeable now. We can turn explosions into torque, grow babies from scratch and see the far reaches of the universe.

One could argue that now it is simply a matter of finesse. Cell phones were a done deal. It took someone like Steve Jobs to do it with such verve and panache that it transformed society. Rockets? Hahahaha! So old school. So why did it take Elon Musk to teach NASA how to get into space for less than $500 per pound.

Electric cars were the future until Ford came along. Once again, kudos to Mr. Musk for taking a mundane form of transportation that's been around over a century and turning it into Motor Trend's 2013 Car of the Year. He's just biding his time with steam cars.

We've mastered the production and distribution of electricity. We posses the miracle of antibiotics, have indoor plumbing, enjoy the magic carpets of airplanes and cars, can talk to anyone on the planet or instantly access the knowledge of the world: What is there left to do? Our productivity per person over the past 200 years has climbed from nearly zero to peak at 3% in the middle of the last century. It has now fallen to 1.33% despite now having a car that drives itself and computers that we can have conversations with. Why can't we invent something to get things going again instead of just tweaking what we've got? It's an illusion.

The reason it seems innovation has stagnated is because the torrid pace of innovation for the last 150 years has set a standard that will never be seen again. It is simply by comparison that we think innovation has flatlined. Mankind has come from animal-fat torches to electric lights in the blink of an eye, historically speaking. We are immersed in it. We can't step outside and look back in objectively at the timeline and say, "My that WAS quick." We have been inoculated against perceiving innovation. That's why when I tell you there is a now a company that can do 3D printing of solid stainless steel, you go "meh." 

We are only being less innovative compared to a blistering pace that can never be matched again unless there occurs some sort of singularity moment. Yes, there are exciting advances being made in 3D printing, driverless vehicles, and gesture-based computing; but we are losing sight of what is really important. Despite the fact that innovation is alive and well, there is a void that has left us lacking. There are three critical technology goals that need to be addressed to get past this period of "stagnation" and provide mankind a comfortable, safe, productive future: vast amounts of cheap energy, inexpensive access to space, and lengthening the human lifespan. One of these three turns out to be yet another reason we think our collective cogency has been compromised.


It's energy. Energy is the choke point, the stricture, the bottle get the idea. Except for steampunk, energy technology and its implementation has been woefully inadequate to keep up with current and future demands. Quoting from the bigthink article Bits Versus Stuff: Peter Thiel Asks Why Has Innovation Stalled "'we're no longer moving faster,' literally. And part of the reason we don't have things like supersonic commercial jet planes, he says, 'is due to the failure of energy innovation.'" He made this remark at a festival of ideas, The Nantucket Project held in October of 2012, after stating that pessimism has "started to seep into our system." Peter hasn't snapped to the "pessimism"  actually being a society-wide perceptual problem but, hopefully, people will listen to him because energy is a problem that needs to be addressed. Remember the Concorde!
All of our technologies depend on energy. Transportation, data processing, manufacturing, heating and cooling; you would be hard-pressed to come up with something that doesn't use energy. Even pressing the button on that remote takes energy. Our lifestyles are a reflection of that energy availability and cost. We can look at the gas pump and see that things aren't like they used to be. Three dollar gas in the U.S. is a symptom of the beginning of, dare I say it, peak oil. Calm down. It's here. Gotta deal with it. Even with less driving and more efficient cars, we will soon max out on what can be economically extracted. This will become a serious buzzkill for the global economy. 

Convenience and low cost of fossil fuels have driven our economy up to now. They are so part and parcel that talk of cutting back or replacing them is an invitation for rabid and irrational response. This is despite the increasing awareness that they are intrinsically connected to climate change. We don't just need research here. We need the fossil fuel industry to get on board with going renewable.

The first solar cell was made in 1883. There's enough U-238 for breeder reactors to last 5 billion years. Solar energy hitting the Earth is 20,000 times what humanity currently uses. But we are still building coal plants and still don't have nuclear fusion! The largest solar energy projects in the world are being built in Saudi Arabia. What does that tell you, Exxon? We need cheap, pollution-free energy and lots of it. I hear thinking caps being drug out of cardboard boxes in the attic and dusted off…aaaahchooo. It's a good thing. I'll take some Benadryl. Another recent miracle? 1943.


Yes, there may be 20,000 times the energy currently needed hitting the Earth in the form of sunshine but, believe it or not, we'll outgrow that, as well we should. Are you going to put some limit on our future growth? I thought not. It's all out there. A whole star's worth of sunshine for energy, hydrocarbons for plastic, and water for…well, it's pretty handy. Space = future.

But there is a darker reason we need to get into space. 

The first human broadcasts that  made it into space were Hitler's broadcast of the 1936 Olympics 77 years ago. We are at the center of a 144 light year diameter bubble filled with our electromagnetic babble. There are less than 500 "G" type stars, those similar to our sun, within this sphere. Chances are slim for E.T. to be on one of them. But as time goes on, that boundary expands. The reason we should be concerned about "others" is what we are capable of doing ourselves, and most of us have never thought of it. 

We now have the capability, with off-the-shelf technology, to destroy a planet in another planetary system light years away with relativistic missiles. No, I am not writing this from a padded cell. Combine several NASA HiPEP ion thrusters with a TOPAZ style nuclear reactor, a computer, and a few tons of xenon (all properly armored against cosmic radiation); and you have a weapon that travels for light years and arrives at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. The Death Star would be envious of this weapon's kinetic punch. What it doesn't destroy, it buries in meters of ash. I've done the math. Hint: force = acceleration x mass; velocity = acceleration x time.

Image of Defense Department employee's id.

Image courtesy of DannoGerbil @
What does that have to do with humans in space? Well, let me ask another question. How paranoid do you think our defense department really is? Yeah, me too. Maybe I'm projecting, but it wouldn't be a stretch to think some Romulan/Borg type race might come up with this type of weapon as well. The question of whether or not we push into space permanently is like the climate change question. Maybe it is a coincidence that carbon dioxide levels started to spike with the advent of the industrial age and maybe not. If we ignore it and it was a coincidence, we continue our merry existence. If we ignore it and it wasn't a coincidence, we've made a grave error - perhaps fatal. Hopefully, you won't have to make excuses to your grandchildren about your F-650 pickup truck

The human race, as we physically look now, has been around about 100,000 years. In another 100,000 years "I Love Lucy" will be galaxy-wide. The cat's out of the bag. The can of worm's has been opened. There's cat fur covered worms crawling everywhere and we cannot clean that mess up. If we are going to last another 100,000 years, I suggest we get into space. We will develop new technologies and will not have all our eggs in one basket. Am I preaching to the choir? Sheesh, I'm all out of cliches. Alien kinetic bomb sound far-fetched? Then substitute your favorite disaster: asteroid strike, super volcano, antibiotic-resistant plague, resource wars, kudzu, irradiation by cosmic rays, or settling philosophical differences with nuclear weapons.

Obviously, I'm not talking about a trip to Mars and back. I'm talking about permanent digs. That means an even cheaper means of space travel than what Elon has in mind. Something on the order of a space elevator. Not only would that make space inexpensive, it would provide a stable focus point (the counterbalance in geostationary orbit) and conduit to move power from collectors in orbit down to Earth. Mass goes up, power comes down. More how-to about living in space in a later post.


Come on, admit it. If you thought you'd be around for another few hundred years, you'd pay a little more focused attention to what's happening to the environment and your 401k, wouldn't you? Not to mention take a little better care of yourself. That is exactly why research into extending human life is so important. This quarter by quarter planning has to change. Three months does not a future make. If it's not abstract, if we have a physical stake in the future, we will make sure the future is a better place. If you live to 300, who are you shortchanging if you harm the environment or waste precious resources? Uh huh.

Average life expectancy in the U.S. has gone from 47 in 1900 to 78 today. Dramatic, but it is not enough. Science needs to find out why Methuselah could live 969 years and most of us now barely make it to 80. Of course it could be just a Biblical accounting error, but it is still a worthy goal. Long-term planning would become a necessity, a living art form. Profligation would be an aberration rather than a norm. People could have true multiple careers, becoming masters of many areas of expertise - Da Vincis by design rather than accident. Our descendants will ignore prescribed boundaries of erudition, cross-pollinating knowledge bases and multiplying our wisdom in ways we've never dreamed of.

They will do it after they are retired from their 9th career at 637 while jetting around the Solar System planning an "intervention" of the aliens that tried to exterminate us in the year 2432 A.D. with a relativistic kinetic missile.

Thank you,

Glen Hendrix

author Transmat World

Check out the solution to the water crisis.

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