Discounting Technology

Posted by Peter Cochrane on February 4, 2004

Peter Cochrane ConceptLabs CA

I can recall living without electricity, central heating, television and computers. As a child my home was not exceptional in having a single prize possession - the radio. This was powered by batteries that had to be (expensively) charged at the local shop on a weekly basis, and was used very sparingly. Fast forward 55 years and my daughters (aged 29 and 30) can remember black and white TV, whilst my youngest son(16 years) can only remember having everything. He asks me - did you used to play this game (and he's referring to Doom), when you were my age Dad? And when I tell him that we didn't have computers his response is an incredulous - what did you do? It is beyond his reckoning that you could live without all of this technology - and he is right!

If we took one step backwards from our technological frontier it would be a terrible cost to human life. We are now critically dependent on technology for the provision of heat, light, power, clothing, food and everything else. Without technology this planet could not sustain the >6Bn human inhabitants. We are fundamentally unable to manufacture computer chips, cars, machines, computers, wristwatches or indeed much else. Our machines have realised a much greater precision than us, and so machines now make the machines. We now only employ people in the manufacturing process when they are cheaper than the robots that increasingly dominate the goods and food production process. What is happening?

Looking back we can see one raft of technology after another standing on the shoulders of previous generations to create a continuous exponential climb in ability. Starting with the throwing of rocks, the invention of the spear, followed by the bow and arrow, we rapidly migrated to crude lathes powered by twine and a bent willow sticks. Who could have guessed that this would have developed into a watchmaker's lathe, the precision milling machine, and ultimately the robots that now make all our hi-tech equipment.

2003 we will see more new mobile phones introduced each week than all the electronic products introduced into the market in1950. The power of the exponential should not be underestimated! I like to think of it as compound interest on steroids - you know, that stuff we pay on our mortgages and credit cards, only much bigger. It goes something like this; if we invest $1 for 10 years at 10%, we ultimately recoup $2.59. But if we could get 100% interest, then in 10 years, our $1 investment would become $1,024; and after 20 years $1M; and in 30 years $1B. Well this is what is also happening to our technological ability. Since 1959 we have sustained a doubling of computing power year on year, a progression of around 1,000 fold every decade. And we can now hold in our hands, carry under our arms, or sit in front of - mere appliances providing more computing power than anyone even dreamt of back in 1950.

Even as a scientist, engineer and technologist I still find it astonishing that there is no end in sight for our technological advance. True we may be coming to the end of the silicon road around 2015/20 when we reach the physical limits of our current technology. But this will not see an end to the doubling in computing power every 12 months. Beyond silicon we have a plethora of new technologies that are truly astounding from nano technology with self replicating machines and structures, through to photonic computing, transistors smaller than an atom, and interesting mergers with biological wet ware. We can only try to imagine the progress we are about to witness in the next 50 years. A pragmatic approach says that human existence will be enhanced; our ability to communicate, control and have dominion over our environment will accelerate, and our overall well being improved, but only if we use this power wisely.

Today thousands enjoy the benefit of cochlea implants - artificial ear implants. Million survive through implanted artificial hearts, pacemakers, respiratory stimulators, or some other element of embedded electronics. For sure the Cyborgs are with us, they are alive and well, and their population is growing. Over the coming decades we can anticipate people being hybridized to be a mix of flesh and bone, metal and raw computing power - enhanced humans, beyond the norm of biological evolution - not unlike cosmetic surgery today!

We currently have ~15% of the world's population enjoying ~85% of its wealth, a situation that cannot be sustained in the long term. Of immediate issue is the generation and distribution of energy. Continuing to destroy our meager supplies of hydrocarbons is unwise and unsustainable. Around 1kW/m2 of sunlight falls on this planet everyday - all we have to do is harness this free power effectively and we could head off the looming oil crisis is looming. In 2003 - 06, it is reckoned that oil production on this planet peeks, thereafter it will go into decline and we have to look for new sources of energy to power our existing and future lifestyles. Investing in the right technologies will therefore be crucial!

We devote the vast majority of our energy consumption to physical transportation, and whilst we have been effective in raising our efficiency of manufacture and food production, in logistics we are still grossly inefficient. Beyond the creation of sustainable energy resources, which may start with hybrid vehicles using a mix of oil and hydrogen, we can expect a technology focus on active tagging and tracking. Replacing all those bar codes by radio addressable electronic tags to reveal the origin as raw materials, assembly into a product, shipping to market, right through sales to the customer, and full maintenance records are almost with us. The average load fill of trucks in the EEC is only around 12% and in the United States 17%. If only the trucks knew where the boxes were and the boxes knew where the trucks were we could aggregate loads and take 50 - 90% trucks off the road, reliving congestion and reducing energy consumption.

Curiously, wireless units in things that we purchase will lead to new forms of network and intelligence. In military circles this is known as smart dust - sensors sprinkled across a war zone to detect the presence of humans and machines, their numbers, direction of travel and efficacy as a target. Whilst not very powerful, such units can communicate one to another over 10's of metres to find a path back to base. Well this is now starting to happen with Wireless LANs that allow signals to hop 100-300m Computer/PDA/Device to Computer/PDA/Device to create mesh networks of independently owned wireless stations. On my last trip to the USA for example I never had to connect to the Internet using a fixed or mobile phone. Everywhere I went I could find free network access at rates in excess of 3 to 10 fold that of the so-called broadband services in Europe.

Where will this end? No one knows, but in terms of physical transport you might reflect on the the technological advancement of our vehicles. We no longer look under the hood to admire the engine, we get excited by the hifi, aircon and GPS. Engines always work, and we no longer see them as technology! In reality we are all enjoying standards of design, manufacture, and assembly that outstrip Rolls Royce. Engines are now designed and built by machines!

There are now almost as many computers in our vehicles as there are electric motors - chips abound, and so does performance. And the next step? Soon you will pull in for gas to receive an automatic download of the very latest control system upgrade and highway information including road repairs and traffic flow changes. And how about buying music that downloads direct to the on board hard drive! But should your children's eyes stray to the large TV screen on the delivery pump, they may see Toy Story 7 on sale at just $5 - if you'd like to download it right now Dad! Of course if you don't want to download it for $5 you could be in for another 150 miles of grief - so you might just want to reconsider!

I always feel that technology is that stuff that doesn't quite work properly yet, but when it does work, as in the case of the automobile, it suddenly becomes discounted and devalued as a possession and unlike 25 years ago, where cars were incredibly unreliable and you wouldn't let anyone use them, they are now so reliable that we don't care anymore. Very soon that computer you carry under your arm will be accelerated to the same status as a discounted and devalued technology. In fact it won't be technology anymore it will be like your mobile phone, just there for anyone to use.

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