In this video from the Wall Street Journal, a car factory robot at the US National Institute of Health performs 12 million drug tests per week, to find treatments for the 6500 disease for which we currently have none. To do the same work by hand would require 600 humans. This illustrates the acceleration of medical research, as well as the displacement of human jobs by robotics.
This Fast Company article addresses the very important topic of our growing waste problem and is worth reading. The next couple of decades will see unprecedented levels of garbage, especially in developing economies. However, any article that attempts to forecast current trends many decades into the future deserves scrutiny. The author will often fail to consider new trends and technologies that will affect or solve the problems they describe. Recycling technologies, 3D printing and dematerialization will lead to an eventual decline in waste, but not before we have destroyed many more vast swathes of our planet with toxic landfill. In a few decades we may have intelligent microrobots that will be able to recycle landfill waste and restore the environment, but in the meantime we need to rethink our habits.
This article from the New York Times describes the success of solar power in Europe, which is largely due to help from forward thinking governments, who are now seeing their efforts pay off. Sadly, North America is far behind, but as prices fall, solar will continue to slowly grow here too, until a tipping point is reached in the next few years and solar becomes cheaper than most other sources. Then solar panels will be more common than smart phones.
Our future is largely determined by a relatively small group of people. Think of Karl Benz, the inventor of the automobile, Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, or Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine. Without their contributions, our lives would be very different. Of course it is likely that someone else would have invented the car and the phone, and maybe the vaccine, but the point is that the work of a few individuals can have huge implications for our future.
Elon Musk is such an individual. In the 1990s he created an online business directory company which he sold to Compaq $300 million. Then he founded PayPal, which enabled strangers to transact online with their credit cards without either party having to know the other’s card number. He sold PayPal to eBay and formed Tesla, the electric car company, which is changing transportation by bringing the electric car to the mainstream, and with it, a shift in the way we produce and manage energy. After having trouble finding enough batteries for their electric cars, Tesla just announced that it is building the world’s largest lithium-ion battery factory, with a goal to double the global production of Li-Ion batteries. In other words, this factory will make as many batteries as all of the world’s battery factories do today.
Mr. Musk is also the chairman of Solar City, whose website claims that they are “the leading residential solar provider in the U.S”. Solar City sells battery packs made by Tesla for residential energy storage, protecting homeowners in case of a blackout. When solar panel efficiency increases enough to enable typical households to meet all of their energy needs, this storage will enable them to go “off the grid”. This will play a major role in the adoption of sustainable household energy, and the decentralization of the energy industry.
In addition to Tesla, Musk founded Space X, the first private space company to be hired by NASA to transport payloads to the International Space Station. Space X will also provide transport to the first private space station, being built by Bigelow Aerospace, which was founded by hotel magnate Robert Bigelow. Bigelow’s original goal appeared to be a space hotel, but they now appear to be focusing on a commercial space station. Tickets to the station will start at about $25 million, but I would expect this business to lead to a more affordable space tourism in a decade or two.
Elon Musk has also been promoting an idea for a high speed transport system between Los Angeles and San Francisco called the Hyperloop. It consists of a tube containing sealed capsules that carry groups of 28 reclined passengers at a top speed of over 1200 kilometers per hour. At only 1.35m wide and 1.1m tall, I can’t see these capsules ever being accepted by the general public, but then the same would have been said about a jet a century ago. Musk is not developing the technology, but reportedly created the concept with engineers from Space X and Tesla. Other groups are investigating the feasibility of building the system. Many similar concepts have been proposed for decades, but with Musk attaching his name to the idea, it is suddenly generating much debate, which will likely spark more ideas and influence future transportation solutions.
In some cases, the future is easy to see when you monitor those who are creating it.