Dec 28, 2011
My occasional game of speculation about how best to fund the future
I've played this game before--and I will again. I find it clears the mind wonderfully to wonder what you'd do for the world if you had a billion dollars to spend. Build a secret volcanic island lair? Check. Cure necrotizing phlombosis? Check. Oh, there's all kinds of stuff you could do.
--There's one rule, though: whatever you spend your billion on, it has to be something nobody else is doing--and something that's worthwhile in a completely game-changing way.
After all, in today's market a billion dollars will get you a few miles of subway, or a new sports stadium. Yay. But it can get you so much more, as Elon Musk has demonstrated with his reinvention of the space launch business (and he hasn't spent more than a fifth of a billion on that). In fact, a billion is enough to solve more than one problem, if it's properly distributed.
I play this game regularly because the world keeps changing, and what's important keeps changing. Some items remain from previous lists; some are new. Here's today's list:
- $200 million to studying and developing new systems of governance. --No, I don't mean e-voting, or even e-democracy. I'm talking about a systematic study of how humans govern themselves, and how our cognitive biases and interactions at different scales scuttle effective problem-solving among groups. Think this is fringe science? I happen to think it's the most important problem in the world, the only one that counts. Because if we reinvented governance (on the level of individual self-control and choice, on the level of small-group interactions, and all the way up to how millions of people make collective decisions) then every other problem facing us now would become tractable. So I'd be exploring cognitive science, promise theory, structured dialogic design and a lot else besides. $200 is really far too little to spend on this, but it's a start.
- $200 million to develop efficient and economical carbon air capture and sequestration. Carbon air capture is the only potentially feasible method of returning Earth's atmospheric CO2 balance to pre-industrial levels in less than a hundred years. Emissions controls won't do it, neither will renewable energy, or even the complete disappearance of human civilization. The CO2's there. It has to actually be removed from the atmosphere. Currently, far less than $1 million is spent per year on how to do this. And that's just crazy.
- $200 million to develop a microwave space launch system. --Again, this sounds wacky. But the physical resources of the solar system are effectively infinite; and the world looks like a very different place if you play the game of imagining that access to space was really cheap. All sorts of currently impossible problems fall like dominoes if it costs as little to get to space as it does to fly across the Atlantic. And, in space development, there is only one problem, and that's the cost of going the first 100 miles. Literally every other issue becomes tractable if you solve that one. So let's stop dicking around with incredibly expensive launch systems and solve it. (Why microwave launch and not laser launch? Because microwaves are more energy efficient, and can be done now; and because I think laser launch is a political non-starter, because accidental or deliberate straying of a laser launch beam could blind or fry anything in the sky, including airliners or other nations' satellites.)
- $200 million to finally realize the dream of nuclear fusion energy. We are that close. Most of the money would be divided up between the chronically-underfunded research projects that are getting close: IEC fusion, magnetized-target fusion, and several others. I'd fund General Fusion's steampunk pneumatic-fusion system, for instance. But I'd also fund one method that nobody's trying right now, but may be the best of all: levitating dipole fusion.
- $200 million to prototype the business models, supply chains and build a first-generation Vertical Farm. Because sane governance, free energy, a solution to global warming and unlimited material resources aren't enough if half the planet's starving, which will be the case in forty years if we don't act now. This one seems like a no-brainer, if it can be properly optimized.
An odd set of priorities? But, what if they all worked? Simultaneous breakthroughs in energy, resource access including food, removal of the threat of global warming, remediation of the natural environment destroyed by intensive agrivulture and, most importantly, a Renaissance in collective problem-solving would literally mean the world to us.
The point of all this should be clear. Even in a global recession, money's not the scarce commodity. Audacity is.
What can you do with a billion dollars?
You can build a new sports stadium.
Or, maybe, you can save the world.
Feb 16, 2010
Courtesy of Michael Johnson
Here's the panel that Vernor Vinge, Charlie Stross, Aleister Reynolds, and I did at Boskone 47 on "The Technological Singularity: an Assessment." We critiqued the idea itself, its effect on science fiction writing, and its influence on our own works. You can watch it below; enjoy!
Sep 26, 2009
Peter Jones, one of my teachers at OCAD, alerted us today to a new innovation strategy just announced for the U.S. by President Obama. From the press release:
The mission of the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship is to unleash and maximize the economic potential of new ideas by removing barriers to entrepreneurship and the development of high-growth and innovation-based businesses. The office will report directly to Locke and focus specifically on identifying issues and programs most important to entrepreneurs. Working closely with the White House and other federal agencies, this new office will drive policies that help entrepreneurs translate new ideas, products and services into economic growth. The office will focus on the following areas:
* Encouraging Entrepreneurs through Education, Training, and Mentoring
* Improving Access to Capital
* Accelerating Technology Commercialization of Federal R&D
* Strengthening Interagency Collaboration and Coordination
* Providing Data, Research, and Technical Resources for Entrepreneurs
* Exploring Policy Incentives to Support Entrepreneurs and Investors
Not very many years ago, Canada's federal government was funding foresight exercises into subjects such as the future of health care and national security. Under the conservatives, these initiatives have dried up (along with so much else). Where's Canada in the new economy of the 21st century?
Sep 21, 2009
It's a number well within our reach
A poisonous meme has been spreading lately--well, not lately; this has been building now for many years. It's most recently appeared in this New York Times op-ed piece by Lawrence Krauss. Krauss floats the idea of sending astronauts on a one-way trip to Mars, because as we all know, the radiation bath of space is just too toxic to contemplate a two-way trip.
Of course, this "deadly radiation bath" stuff is nonsense.
The meme that has taken over our society's perception of space travel is that it is incredibly hard, and incredibly dangerous. This despite the fact that twelve men walked on the moon, forty years ago, using 1960s technology.
The objections all sound reasonable: too much radiation! Too far away! Zero gravity is too debilitating! Too expensive!
All of these objections are true, while at the same time they're all wildly wrong, and largely for the same reasons. In fact they're all true only if getting from Earth to orbit remains as expensive as it is now.
Consider the seemingly insurmountable problem of radiation that Krauss complains of in his piece. What's the solution to radiation? Shielding. Is shielding a spacecraft impossible, or even difficult? No, actually it's easy. Two meters of water around the crew cabin are enough to solve the problem of radiation in the inner solar system. The problem is not the shielding; it's the cost of shipping the water up to orbit that is the problem.
Ditto for, oh, let's say zero gravity. No astronaut should ever have to put up with zero gravity for more than a day or two at a time; the simple solution to the debilitating effects of freefall is to spin the spacecraft. To do it in a manner comfortable to to the astronauts, you need a long boom arm, which might be heavy and awkward to lift from Earth. The point is, the solution is easy.
Too far away? If a space voyage is going to take months or years, there are two simple solutions: send the ship faster, by using more propellant; or bring along more supplies. Both of these solutions are primarily constrained by the cost of bringing stuff up from Earth.
The list goes on. The fact is, there is only one problem worth speaking about in space development, and that is the problem of cost-to-orbit. It currently costs around $10,000/kg to launch anything at all.
That price will never come down as long as chemical rockets are the only technology we use. Compare the above cost to Alexander Bolonkin's Magnetic Space Launcher, where the price for launching acceleration-hardened non-living objects into space is calculated to be $6/kg. In 2004's NIAC report Modular Laser Launch Architecture: Analysis and Beam Module Design by Jordin T. Kare, thoroughly investigates the cost to launch a human being into orbit using a laser launcher, and comes to a figure of $200/kg. (Both of these systems use electricity and would not themselves pollute at all.)
Even Kare's fancier (and more thoroughly researched) laser launcher provides a cost-to-orbit figure that's 50 times less than current systems. The cost to develop and test his system is also orders of magnitude less than NASA is proposing to spend on the (chemically-driven) Ares launch system.
So where's the radiation problem when you can launch 50 times as much mass into orbit for the same price? Where's the supply problem? Or the velocity problem when you can launch 2000 times as much fuel and hardware using Bolonkin's launcher?
Space is only a costly and dangerous destination if you insist on using 1960s technology to reach it. Once NASA--or more likely the private sector--finally abandons that route, what was impossible will become easy. --I only fear that the meme of space's inaccessibility will prevent us from ever building the launch infrastructure that will prove it wrong; at this point, the meme looks like it's turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
After all, when I was ten years old it was obvious that Mars would be humanity's next destination. And that was thirty-seven years ago.
Sep 20, 2009
...In a big way
While our attention was elsewhere, a truly earth-shattering change has been in the wind--a development most experts have dismissed as impossible, but which now increasingly looks like it is going to happen.
According to Lyle Dennis over at the AllCarsElectric blog, EEStor has applied for certification from the Underwriter's Laboratories for its ultracapacitor technology. If this is true, then the secretive company may really have succeeded in creating the ultimate in electricity-storage technology: a device capable of running your car for hundreds of miles on one charge, and of recharging in under five minutes. A device that is not a battery, and hence never wears out. A technology that would make intermittent power generation sources such as windmills directly competitive with baseload generation sources such as coal.
Canadian electric car company Zenn Motors has licensed EEStor's technology for a soon-to-be-built fully electric sedan. Zenn is betting the farm on EEStor, and they seem remarkably confident. Naturally, we hear outrageous claims about new technologies nearly every day; and many industry watchers have been skeptically tracking EEStor for years. The expectation has been that any day now, the company would disappear, and its executives would later be found living high off the land in Ecuador or somewhere. That hasn't happened, and now the company appears poised to release an actual product--according to Zenn, by the end of the year.
If it happens, this will be a truly disruptive change. It would be nothing less than the first nail in the coffin of the fossil fuel age.
And here's more on the developing story, from Zenn's point of view.
Jul 29, 2009
We've spent decades studying the effects of zero-gravity on the human body, when we should have been studying something else
As the Shuttle age draws to a close, there seems to be revived discussion in the media about where manned spaceflight is headed next. The short answer is, of course, "nowhere," but we still see enthusiastic articles about returning to the moon, or visiting Mars. The problem is, if you look at budgets and research programs, it quickly becomes clear that nobody's really interested in either of those objectives.
For instance, if NASA were actually interested in putting people on, say, Mars, for extended periods--or on the moon or indeed anywhere but low Earth orbit--they would logically have long ago embarked on a research program to learn what the biological effects of Martian or lunar gravity are. Instead, they've invested decades and billions into learning how humans react to zero gravity--an almost useless scientific endeavor, because the clear lesson from the start of that program was that living in freefall is a bad idea. Conclusion: whenever people are going to spend more than a few weeks in orbit, provide them with artificial gravity in the form of a rotating spacecraft. There's no reason not to; the technology involved in spinning things around is not actually rocket science.
No amount of data about how the human body reacts to zero-G is going to answer the important question, which is: how does the human body react to extended periods under fractional gravity--like the moon's 1/6 G or Mars's .38 G? If there's a potential show-stopper to colonizing other worlds, it's going to be how our physiology responds to fractional gravity, not zero gravity.
At what gravitational level does osteoporosis start in human bones? What's the minimum level for maintenance of cardiovascular health? At what level do embryonic and infant development begin to suffer? Maybe these questions can be tentatively answered from studies in zero-G, but any conclusions reached that way need to be empirically confirmed. In other words, what manned spaceflight needs as its next step is a variable-gravity research station. The ISS is useless for learning what we really need to know; what's needed is a very simple, rotating station whose gravity can be tuned up or down to simulate life on worlds ranging from Mercury to the moon to Mars, or Ganymede or Titan.
It's pretty clear that NASA's not interested in doing such research. There is an opportunity here, however, for the private sector to step in. Once Robert Bigelow's inflatable space stations come onto the market, someone could attach one to a spent booster stage and rotate the ensemble. They could then do the necessary experiments and sell the results to NASA or, say, the Chinese, who are sure to be interested.
I'm going to add this item to my list of things to do if I had a billion dollars. But as long as the world's space agencies lack a variable-gravity station, you can be sure they're not actually serious about establishing a human presence on our neighboring worlds.