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Amateur Futurism | Wired Cola

Amateur Futurism

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Thanks to my availability and willingness to identify as a futurist, I was invited to be on Technotopia, Episode 5.

First, I'd like to thank John Biggs and Stefan Etienne for having me on as a guest. To be clear, the sound problems were all mine: I should have checked my audio better before showtime, and using a setup where you have no local audio feedback is a rookie mistake. Technotopia is a fun podcast, and I'm a subscriber now. If they're willing to have me, I'll do it again.

About the content: I regret everything. No, not really.

I hope my sincere love for William Gibson came through. It was fun to mock The Jackpot, and I don't think we're on a path to anything much like the Burning Chrome or Neuromancer worlds, but I love his writing, and I don't discount that if we're on a path to the Neuromancer world, it might just not have manifest yet. But he has been writing near-future dystopias for nearly 40 years, and yet the world isn't so bad.

As for space travel, I stand by what I said: the future looks stagnant, with tourism being the most likely future expansion I see. Rockets aren't cheap, and I don't think there's any important cost savings coming on rocket-based exits from our gravity well. I do think if we build a space elevator of some sort (launch loop, space fountain, skyhook...any of the non-rocket schemes) there's a chance to greatly improve the cost to orbit (and hopefully the safety), and that might open up new uses. I really hope something like a launch loop or space elevator gets built, but I don't expect it to.

On energy, the more I think about my answers here, the more I feel like the sun and batteries will beat fusion. The key problem is ITER, the hoped-for first energy-producing Tokamak fusion reactor, is scheduled to generate power in 2027 (competing fusion projects are even more speculative than ITER). Meanwhile, the price of solar panels is kinda-sorta grid-competitive right now, and there's reason to believe costs will continue to drop. There are several interesting technologies for power storage (everything from molten salt, a very large-scale tech aimed at solar power towers, to various battery technologies), and I have a feeling that by 2027, solar and some sort of storage system will be viable in a large number of places as a major component of grid power.

So I see the future of grid power as moving towards renewables: much more solar and somewhat more wind. I think most of the places on the planet with good access to hydroelectric power have already exploited that. Power generation is not totally a local affair, but transmission losses are real, so there are parts of the world where renewables will supplemented by burning fossil fuels. I expect that for various reasons, the future of those plants is much less coal and much more natural gas (take any position you want on atmospheric CO2: smog kills people right now. Bonus prediction: we've seen peak diesel cars more or less right now).

I don't mention nuclear fission power here, because I think many current designs have surprising cost problems. The US especially doesn't make nuclear power very cheaply (though South Korea, interestingly, does). There are many interesting new fission reactor designs out there, but I think they're competing with a solar option that is economically promising and less politically complicated.

For non-grid power, the answers are more interesting.

I expect electric cars to become ubiquitous surprisingly fast. In a decade, I think they'll be the default new-car choice. Commercial aviation will likely be the ultimate holdout for fossil fuels: we're nowhere near a competitive alternative, though at some point maybe hydrogen-fuelled jet turbines look like the right answer. Not soon. Commercial shipping is tricky: there aren't enough batteries, solar and wind don't really work, and I can imagine a general conversion from diesel to natural gas (or again, in the long term, hydrogen). On the other hand, if we ever get a small, safe, trustworthy nuclear reactor (I'm thinking fission, but as long as we're making things up, fusion too), commercial shipping could be its killer application.

I think in many of my answers, I let myself be guided by costs. This is a good instinct. There are many things within the technical grasp of humanity right now: if we wanted to, we could land people on Mars; there are no insurmountable technical obstacles. We could mine asteroids; we could establish a moon colony; we could make nothing but electric cars from now on, we could shut down every coal-burning power plant on the planet in short order.

What stops us is mostly the costs. Mining the asteroid belt would be so expensive, I doubt it would be worth it to recover an asteroid-sized flawless diamond. Flying to Mars would cost a lot of money, and force people to forgo doing other things here on earth. (Of the technologies I've mentioned above, I regard only fusion power as technologically gated: we could test our ideas about fusion sooner if we spent more money, but we haven't yet built a fusion reactor that produces more power than it consumes, and it's not clear to me which fusion technology is the most likely route to that end).

On the other hand, solar power became viable because the cost of solar panels (or more precisely, the cost per kilowatt-hour of solar-generated power) fell dramatically due to some technology improvements and economies of scale in production. That has pushed solar power ahead of many other technologies as a promising means of generating power, storage problems notwithstanding. Similarly, the enormous demand for great batteries, first pushed by laptops and mobile phones, has improved batteries (and lowered costs) to the point that electric cars look feasible today, especially in the large chunk of the world that pays more for gasoline than the US does (my favorite example is taxis: in Vancouver, they were early adopters of the Toyota Prius. The cost proposition was commercially compelling, and the vehicle fit their needs. The taxi drivers haven't adopted electric cars yet, because none of them can meet the brutal range requirements of a taxi.)

RIP Dr Tomorrow

I briefly mention Frank Ogden, aka Dr Tomorrow in this podcast, and I did some better googling after. As I guessed, he has indeed died, but in late 2012, aged 92. Here's a biography of him at age 75, and his undated bio on his personal website. I mocked futurists in general, but I was an avid reader of his column. I can't say he inspired me to take up my amateur-futurist lifestyle (I was already deeply in the thrall of science fiction) but his work was a major avenue by which I kept up with the news of the future in the pre-Web era.

Final Thoughts

I share the hosts' philosophically optimistic attitude about the future.

If I get any further chances to engage in amateur futurism, I'd suggest two other topics: dark clouds that might disrupt our future (aka filters, great and small), and the idea that the post-scarcity future has already arrived (but, per William Gibson, it's just not very evenly distributed).