Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Interesting timing

In my last post I laid out some of my thoughts on the vision needed to move us forward. Interestingly enough, today there were some additional hints that new ideas and technology for creating this vision are taking shape. First, Eric Schmidt gave an insightful talk on energy policy. There was also a good On Point story on NPR that I called in for (listen for me around the last 5 minutes) on education reform. The last nugget is a demonstration by Plastic Logic of a new e-reader that demonstrates the power digital mediums just on the horizon. Check out the video below:

Monday, September 08, 2008

What we have to do in the next 5 years

We are on the cusp of what some have called the event horizon or singularity. It is a reference to the edge of a black hole. Where not even light can escape, and beyond which all of our understanding of physics breaks down. Unlike a black hole however, our event horizon isn't the end of existence, but rather just a point that we can't currently see beyond. While there is a chance we could fall into a dark collapse, I believe that we finally have both the knowledge and spirit to take us to the other side.

It is a scary time for us. There is a lot of chaos and disorder. There are many that choose to add to that disorder, because they fear what is on the other side and would rather see us collapse back to some more simplistic time. But it is against our very own spirit. That spirit that drives us to seek answers and to use those answers to bring our dreams to life and an end to our nightmares.

So most of us fight against that fear that would have us bring it all down. The trouble is that we aren't doing nearly enough. We don't yet realize our own potential and how quickly we must be able to move.

There are hints out there however. This week the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will circulate its first beam. If you don't know what the LHC is, you simply have to read about its incredible history. It is the most complex machine mankind has ever built and it is eventually going to be able to recreate the conditions that existed just an instant after all time began for our universe. This machine is a testament to our potential to reach to the farthest depths of existence to understand what makes our world as it is. If we can build such a machine and learn from the experiments it will run, then what else can we do?

There is Tesla Motors and its Roadster. The Roadster is the first no kidding, all electric car whose first production models should be delivered this month. Getting 220 miles per charge, 256 mile per gallon equivalent, making it cost less than 2 cents per mile. Oh yeah, it's more fun to drive than a Porsche. Sure it is a 100K car, but they are using the rich to pay for the technology and should be able to have more affordable cars in only a few years. GM on the other hand has spent millions, perhaps billions and still has yet to produce a single production electric vehicle.

There is the smart highway. Imagine getting in your car and simply driving to the nearest smart highway where an optimized central control takes over and not only gets you where you need to go, but does it in a manner that is safer, more efficient, and faster.

There is the OLPC, which despite its difficulties, engenders a whole new way of thinking about education. Why do we have thousands of different math, science, history, and language books? Especially those covering the fundamentals? Can't we as a society develop an incredible digital interactive collection that will cater to different learning styles, yet reduce the waste of rehashing the same old information? Imagine now a medium that learns about its user over time, suggesting the explanations that it thinks a person will understand best given his or her own learning style. Why do we keep using paper books? Isn't the world changing faster than we can possibly print them? Why waste the paper and let our efforts be scattered across so many different areas, unconnected and unfocused?

First there is so much to be done for efficiency. There are LED lights that not only last over thirty years, but also use a tenth of the electricity. In addition to the changes in cars, we must ask, do we really need everyone to drive to work? And if so, does it really need to be every day? So many jobs could be easily done from home, but to be truly efficient we need the next generation Internet backbone. We need to be able to have instantaneous file transfers, high-definition video conferencing and ubiquitous access. Think of all the call center jobs that are getting shipped to India. Do you really mean to tell me that there aren't people in the US that would be willing to work from home for a low enough wage and that could at least speak and understand English clearly?

Beyond efficiency there is the distributed grid. In this grid, each home, car, office can dynamically change between a consumer, producer, or storage unit. You have technologies like nanosoloar which can allow solar energy to be harnessed almost anywhere. You have advances from MIT on electrolysis that will make the creation of the hydrogen and oxygen needed for fuel cell storage far more efficient.

Nuclear energy, despite the potential hazards can also be incredibly clean and efficient. The vitrification process used in the UK, France, Russia, and hopefully eventually in Hanford, WA and elsewhere in the US, can safely and nearly indefinitely trap nuclear waste so that it has no chance to be dispersed into the environment.

I could go on and on, but alas, sleep is important, and nobody really reads this anyway. My point is that we are right on the brink of our true potential. So many things are changing so quickly, and yet it is all too disorganized and unfocused. We need vision, and we need it now.

I'm so very concerned that we don't realize that right now the way that we affect this world is very much like piloting a giant freighter that takes 20 mile just to turn around if we needed it to. We also have about twenty captains providing course corrections, so that we never really have any true bearing. Most of these captains are also pouring more fuel onto the fire, accelerating our ship into murky waters. What we need now is to transform our ship into an agile craft that has a high tech navigation system that allows us to move ever faster while avoiding catastrophic obstacles.

Some may read this as just more doom and gloom, but to me it is really about hope. Hope that despite my fear for the worst we will somehow awaken and take the helm that we have been gifted with as stewards of this earth.