17 questions to ask about that gee-whiz tech development

Science-fiction author David Brin explains his method of examining the future:

“The top method is simply to stay keenly attuned to trends in the laboratories and research centres around the world, taking note of even things that seem impractical or useless,” says Brin. “You then ask yourself: ‘What if they found a way to do that thing ten thousand times as quickly/powerfully/well? What if someone weaponised it? Monopolised it? Or commercialised it, enabling millions of people to do this new thing, routinely? What would society look like, if everybody took this new thing for granted?'”

Those are good questions, as far as they go. My methodology for examining new developments (especially technologies) is to ask additional questions, some with a decidedly negative slant:

  • What if it runs into legal or political problems?
  • What if it can be used by criminals?
  • What if it raises ethical or religious objections?
  • What if people prefer doing it the “old way”?
  • What if a cheaper alternative overtakes it?
  • What if it’s too expensive to make or distribute (in volume)?
  • What if it lacks the necessary ecosystem or support infrastructure?
  • What if it runs smack into a counter-trend?
  • What if entrenched interests squelch it?
  • What if it has unintended consequences?
  • What if the roll-out is botched, glitchy, underfunded, embarrassing?

And, when will it emerge from the Hype Cycle‘s “peak of inflated expectations” and “trough of disillusionment”?

Future shocks: Killer robots, hyperaging, space tourism, intelligent cars, resource wars

The Washington Post Outlook section (4 January 2009) is full of articles under the label “future shocks.” A sampling:

The world won’t be aging gracefully. “For the world’s wealthy nations, the 2020s are set to be a decade of hyperaging and population decline. Many countries will experience fiscal crisis, economic stagnation and ugly political battles over entitlements and immigration. Meanwhile, poor countries will be buffeted by their own demographic storms. Some will be overwhelmed by massive age waves that they can’t afford, while others will be whipsawed by new explosions of youth whose aspirations they cannot satisfy. The risk of social and political upheaval and military aggression will grow throughout the developing world — even as the developed world’s capacity to deal with these threats weakens. The rich countries have been aging for decades, due to falling birthrates and rising life spans. But in the 2020s, this aging will get an extra kick as large postwar baby boom generations move into retirement.” — Neil Howe and Richard Jackson are researchers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and co-authors of “The Graying of the Great Powers: Demography and Geopolitics in the 21st Century.”

Coming to the battlefield: Stone-cold robot killers.Armed robots will all be snipers. Stone-cold killers, every one of them. They will aim with inhuman precision and fire without human hesitation. They will not need bonuses to enlist or housing for their families or expensive training ranges or retirement payments.” — John Pike is the director of the military information Web site GlobalSecurity.org.

The next big things:

  • Space tourism in 2012 (+/- 2 years) >>>>

    Spaceship for space tourism
    Spaceship for space tourism
  • Intelligent cars in 2014 (+/- 4 years)
  • Telemedicine in 2015 (+/- 4 years)
  • Thought power (brain signals controlling systems) in 2020 (+/- 9 years)
  • Artificial intelligence in 2021 (+/- 7 years)
  • Smart robots in 2022 (+/- 7 years)
  • Alternative energy in 2022 (+/- 9 years)
  • Cancer cure in 2024 (+/- 8 years)

William E. Halal, president of TechCast LLC

Global warming could lead to warfare over scarce resources (e.g., arable land and fresh water); mass migrations; and territorial disputes over newly available energy resources (e.g. Arctic oil). — James R. Lee runs American University’s Inventory of Conflict and Environment project. He’s at work on a book on climate change and conflict.

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Related:

The president-elect will face big problems, threats

It’ll be a short honeymoon. The next U.S. president will face high expectations (which may be impossible to fulfill), a recessionary economy and huge budget deficits. And that’s just domestically. Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, gave a speech this week that lays out the broader threats. As The Washington Post reported:

The next U.S. president will govern in an era of increasing international instability, including a heightened risk of terrorist attacks in the near future, long-term prospects of regional conflicts and diminished U.S. dominance across the globe, the nation’s top intelligence officer said Thursday.

Competition for energy, water and food will drive conflicts between nations to a degree not seen in decades, and climate change and global economic upheaval will amplify the effects, [McConnell said].

“After the new president-elect’s excitement subsides after winning the election, it is going to be dampened somewhat when he begins to focus on the realities of the myriad of changes and challenges,” he said.

Of course, besides the predictable conflicts and threats, “there is always surprise,” McConnell said. (Futurists call ’em wild cards.)

Continue reading “The president-elect will face big problems, threats”

Pentagon studying space-based solar power platforms to prevent energy wars

Space-based solar power has been studied since the 1970s but the U.S. Department of Defense is giving it a new look, according to an article at Space.com (19 September 2007).

The deployment of space platforms that capture sunlight for beaming down electrical power to Earth is under review by the Pentagon, as a way to offer global energy and security benefits – including the prospect of short-circuiting future resource wars between increasingly energy-starved nations.

A proposal is being vetted by U.S. military space strategists that 10% of the U.S. baseload of energy by 2050, perhaps sooner, could be produced by space-based solar power (SBSP). Furthermore, a demonstration of the concept is being eyed to occur within the next five to seven years.

A demo of the technology is a critical first step (to prove it can be done and to identify the remaining challenges), says the director of the SBSP study, Col. (Select) Michael “Coyote” Smith, chief of the Future Concepts Branch in the National Security Space Office. (Smith’s shop is known as the “Dream Works” of the National Security Space Office.)

Smith says he sees the Defense Department as a customer of the resulting clean energy — not as the deep-pocketed financial backer of the project.

The U.S. Department of Defense has an “absolute urgent need for energy,” Smith said, underscoring the concern that major powers around the world – not just the United States – could end up in a major war of attrition in the 21st century. “We’ve got to make sure that we alleviate the energy concerns around the globe,” he said.

Proponents of the technology are looking at this scenario:

[B]y 2050 the goal is to have forty or so concentrator-photovoltaic space-based solar power (SBSP) satellites in geostationary orbit, each broadcasting via microwave between 2-5 gigawatts of power to terrestrial electrical power grids, with 1-to-5 broadcast antennas that can beam power to as many locations.

Gigawatts! Reminds me of the great movie Back to the Future (1985), where wacky scientist Dr. Emmett Brown discovers — back in 1955 — that he needs 1.21 gigawatts to ignite his Flux Capacitor for time travel.

Brown: “1.21 gigawatts? 1.21 gigawatts? Great Scott!”
Marty McFly: “What the hell is a gigawatt?”

According to the movie, it requires either nuclear energy (via plutonium) or a bolt of lightning.

But I digress. Back to the future of solar power satellites…

On the positive side, there have been technical advances in “micro- and nano-electronics, lightweight inflatable composite structures, ultra-small power management devices, as well as laboratory demonstration of photovoltaic arrays that are close to 68% conversion efficiency.”

But, of course, there’s no shortage of challenges, such as:

  • extreme complexity and scalability issues
  • a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars
  • the need for a long-term political commitment (i.e., budget)
  • the need for technology breakthroughs, such as “wireless power beaming”
  • the need to manufacture the satellites in space using lunar materials
  • legal issues
  • and did I mention the need to scrounge for hundreds of billions of dollars?

By the way, as one proponent acknowledged, “the microwave beams will heat the atmosphere slightly and the frequency must be chosen to avoid cooking birds.”

Personally, I put solar power satellites in the same category as the space elevator: Fascinating, ambitious, but ultimately so gigantic and expensive and fraught with complexity that it’s hard to imagine it really happening.

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Related:
The Space Frontier Foundation’s discussion blog on Space Solar Power