Sunday, November 30, 2008

Future of energy

There is a lot of discussion and ideation regarding the future of energy. The only thing everyone generally agrees upon is the quantitative underpinnings: that current worldwide energy demand is 15 TW (terawatt) hours per year and is expected to double by 2030 to 30 TW hours per year. It is clear that fossil fuel alternatives are necessary. No matter how low the price of oil may return (light crude is $50 per barrel at present in November 2008, down from $145 per barrel four months ago in July 2008), fossil fuel emissions, growth in worldwide energy demand and the oil independence interests of some nationstates warrant alternatives.

Different technologies have different proponents. A comprehensive strategic plan with consideration for installed base technologies, improvements thereto and incorporation of new technologies is lacking. There are many unanswered questions about how the constellation of possibilities should fit together and how trade-off decisions should be made. For example, should resources be devoted to the redevelopment and retrofitting of the 500 oldertech PCC (pulverized-coal combustion) coal plants in the U.S. fleet with nanofilters to better collect CO2 and other emissions from the flue gas, or instead use the resources to install the newertech IGCC (integrated gasification combined cycle) coal plants? Should coal plants be scrapped altogether in favor of solar, nuclear, wind, wave, geothermal and other renewable sources?

Is solar power, photovoltaics or thermal, terrestrial or space-based, point or line, dish or tower, trough or linear fresnel, the way to go? Is nuclear fission or fusion, traditional or pebble bed, the way to go? Is the fuel cell an unrealizable dream or a potential answer? Are batteries too toxic and developed from increasingly scarce materials or are nanoalloys, interleaved materials layers and nanocoatings making them viable?

Proposal #1: Presidential think-tank to develop comprehensive U.S. Energy Strategy Energy, like agriculture, is a special-interest politics game. It would be helpful to have a presidentially-appointed think-tank of diverse members without political background or agenda to develop a comprehensive strategic long-term Energy plan for the U.S.

Proposal #2: Key U.S. states to generate and sell energy
So far the thinking has been small, Nevada and Arizona have undertaken renewable energy initiatives for their own power needs but with their solar and land resources, they could potentially join California as one of the world’s ten largest economies by generating and transmitting energy to other states. Regional and eventually a national powergrid would need to be developed. This could work for Texas too, oil field land could be redeployed for solar power; oil derricks replaced by linear fresnel towers.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Advanced technology and social divisiveness

What would the world look like with even more dramatic technological change? What if accelerating change in technology not only continues but also heightens in depth and magnitude? One dramatic change, for example, would be having a 100x or 1,000x improvement in human capability (thought, memory, learning, lifespan, healthspan, etc.). The definition of what it is to be human may evolve as the transhuman and posthuman concepts explore. There have not yet been “different kinds of humans” or “different kinds of intelligences” co-existing in civilization.

These dramatic changes are distinct from the more general quality of life and more minor capacity improvements delivered by technology so far (the Internet, cell phone, medical transplant technologies, electricity, steam engine, immunization, etc.).

One possible future could be the organization of society into voluntary social groupings based on outlook and adoption or non-adoption of technology; some obvious dividing line technologies could be human genetic engineering and brain-computer interfaces.

A simple societal lens that can be applied at present is technology adopters and non-adopters.

Luddites are different from Those Who Don’t Use Cell Phones
Some portion of non-adopters are doing so deliberately and out of principle: Luddites, Amish and other religions, etc. The other portion of non-adopters has just not had the access (practical, technical, financial or otherwise), willingness or perception of value (e.g.; a killer app) required to adopt. So far in democracies, both types of non-adopters have been accommodated into society, and are generally able to continue their behaviors, for example, the practice of some religions of complete medical non-intervention.

Peaceful coexistence of adopters and non-adopters
Participatory political regimes will tend to avoid paternalism in technology adoption while economic and social incentives and universal access will tend to trigger adoption (example: the cell phone). Simultaneously, mature societies tend to accept and accommodate non-adopters. Two main dynamics that could challenge the peaceful coexistence of adopters and non-adopters would be first, the perceived threat of new technology particularly by those that can control its adoption and second, times of economic scarcity and pronounced competition for resources.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Economics taboo in life sciences

It is considered impolite at best to ask life sciences companies about their cost structure and pricing strategies. Life sciences executives can often appear naive, incognizant and uncaring about the basic economics of their industry. They appear to exclusively and superficially target profit maximization and wholly propriety IP development and protection; ironic given the greater goals of healthcare. Life sciences as an industry seems to be at least twenty years behind the high tech industries such as computing and communications in terms of understanding and delivering economic value to a wide audience of end consumers, and in terms of openness and collaboration.

Fixed and variable costs, pricing strategies and quantitative aspects of customer demand are much more known and openly shared and discussed by companies in the high tech industries. That critical piece of entrepreneurialism, understanding the specific economic value of a product or service to the end consumer is absent in life sciences. The problem of course is the “third party pays” dynamic in life sciences where a third party, insurers, pays for services consumed by patients. If patients knew, or perhaps were even paying, prices, their behavior would likely be much more rational, and so too would health services offering have to be much more rational. Price is not discussed and is rarely even available at the doctor’s office.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Your double

If you had a double, would you hang out with him or her? A double here is defined as an identical copy of yourself. The format could be interesting. Presumably an identical physical copy of yourself would be a bit stranger than a digital copy, advising you or conversing with you from the discretion of a computer screen. With yourself as a friend, some people might not bother to interact with others at all anymore. Others might prefer zero interaction with their double.

Theoretically, there would be no reason to stop at two instances of yourself. What about more, either digital or physical? If the doubles are caught up in their own goals and objectives, they might not be able to be the objective advisors that could be nice when someone knows you so well, but their insights and activities could be quite interesting.

Some good SciFi examples that examine the idea of having one or more doubles are John C. Wright’s Golden Age, David Brin’s Kiln People and Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon.

There would be several aspects to be sorted. Would experience be linked, shared, merged or kept separate? If integrated into a composite, a really good 3D merge and difference finder program would be needed. What about legal agreements with your double and security/privacy concerns and etiquette? The People’s Court of the future could feature cases between multiple instances of the same person!

If experience could not be merged and shared, it could still be interesting to have one or more doubles even if those people would be continually diverging from you due to having their own experiences. It might be like having additional close - really close - family members. The others would be people of their own with the legal rights, economic needs, dreams, goals and activities of any other individuals.

There could be interesting tests to pass to demonstrate the impact of initiating a double in the physical world and its contribution vs. draw down of resources; although, this analysis is generally absent from the deliberation of current-day parents.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Examining tool complexity

Tools and the science findings they enable evolve in lock-step. Many tools have been quietly transforming into complex entities of their own over the last several years. Exemplar contemporary tools on the landscape include many forms of the microscope, mass spectrometer, chromatograph, flow cytometer, and telescope.

The complex tools of today involve a hardware component together with many layers of software
for operating, enumerating and analyzing. The analytics software layer has become critical as mathematical modeling, simulation, automation, statistical computation and informatics are expected features. For example, the new biology extends traditional enumeration and experimentation with the additional steps of mathematical modeling and software simulation, and building test biological machines in the lab.

The increasing complexity of tools means that it is not possible to just wait for hardware speedups anymore, software is the weakest link (open source collaboration helps but only modestly), mathematical advances have been figuring most prominently and the cultural divide between hard science professionals and computer science, mathematics and statistical experts inhibits progress.