Sunday, March 21, 2010

Welcome To The Future

Welcome To The Future

By John Mauldin | 6 March 2010

We are in an era of accelerating change, moving toward a future that will be profoundly different from the past we grew up in. But what will the nature of that change be? What will the future look like? For the last 7 days I have been in an executive program designed by Singularity University to give some insight into that complex question. We looked at a number of technological fields, lectured by experts assembled to give us some idea as to where current research is and to where it is going. We visited some of the cutting-edge companies here in Silicon Valley.

I think the positive surprise takeaway (for me at least) was how far we have advanced in artificial intelligence and especially robotics. Artificial intelligence has been promised to us for decades, and has been a disappointment for so long that I have consigned it to the dustbin of my research. Ditto for robots. I mean, seriously, if the Roomba (a glorified vacuum cleaner) is the best we can do after decades of work, how are AI and robots going to change the world? This is hardly the world that I grew up reading about in Isaac Asimov's brilliant I, Robot sci-fi series some 40 years ago.

It is all well and good for a single-purpose robot to be designed to make a spot weld on a car, but a general-purpose robot seemed a long way off. As far as AI goes, I am reminded of the old joke about a young geek who specializes in AI sitting at a bar, and this gorgeous blond comes up to him and they begin to talk. One thing leads to another and they end up in her room, where he proceeds to spend the entire night telling her how good things are going to be. AI has been a lot of talk for decades, and as with our geek, not much more.

The robotic sessions were led by Dan Barry, a three-time astronaut and veteran of many space station adventures (as well as appearing on Survivor!). What I saw onscreen and heard about has made me rethink my doubts about robotics. There are significant strides being made in mobility and utility in robotics. I saw robots walking on four feet through very difficult terrain, on ice, and up stairs. Robot "hands" are a lot further along than I had thought. Mobile robots on wheels, and walking balanced on two feet, are working today.

The ability of robots to recognize their surroundings, to differentiate between a table and a glass on the table (which is a very difficult thing to program), to pick up the glass, etc. is advancing at a fairly good pace. Dan is an enthusiastic advocate, and it was easy to get infected with his vision, but I can see a robotics industry in the 2020s actually having some significance in the US and world economy. [[John is seriously behind the times; robotics has already had a profound effect on the US and world economy. It is a mainstay of the Japanese economy. Whole factories have been automated. It is not jobs migrating overseas that is the threat to jobs— even a superficial analysis will readily reveal that it is the steady encroachment of automation on even so-called "skilled" and "intellectual" jobs that is— and has been for the past half century— the real threat!: normxxx]]. We explored all manner of potential uses for robots, some with more economic potential than others. I am often asked where the jobs of the future will come from. It may be in robotics.

I was particularly drawn to the personal assistant robot. It is actually plausible to design a robot to be the "maid" in a home, to be able to purchase groceries, to assist the elderly, etc. These are the repeatable types of tasks that can be programmed and learned. We may only be ten years away from a nascent and powerful new industry.

Now, this is not the robot of I, Robot. It will not have intellectual conversations with you. But it will respond to voice commands and clean up, put away toys, etc. Cooking, however, other than microwave foods, is a LOT harder. You will have to make your own omelets for a few decades.

Ralph Merkle regaled us with the promise of nanotechnology to make anything and everything. Very tiny molecular machines would assemble all manner of things, from roads and homes to furniture to computers. The problem is that this was pretty much the same speech he was giving ten years ago. [[But many of these machines already do exist, if only in the laboratory. The major problem here is economics and, perhaps, failure of imagination, not technology. We have a solution seeking a problem.: normxxx]] Not much progress has been made in the ensuing decade. This was perhaps the most disappointing note at the conference for me.

Let me differentiate between nanotech and nanoscale. Nanotech is the ability of very small machines to build useful objects [[or do other useful work, such as repair, : normxxx]] one atom and molecule at a time. Nanoscale is the technology that creates very small objects to do useful things. An example would be carbon nanotubes, which are proving to have all sorts of useful properties.

There is very little money being put into actual nanotech research. [[In the US, perhaps, but not in other countries such as China, India, Japan, and even tiny Scotland.: normxxx]] We are at least two decades and hundreds of billions away from Merkle's (and Freitas' and others') vision, if even then. It is still in the arena of pure research, far from any potential commercial application. And there does not seem to be a lot of research in the field.

Nanoscale, however, is a different story. Batteries made from carbon nanotubes hold tremendous promise for better storage (by 400 times less weight per watt output). Filtering of seawater to produce fresh water, increased computer speed and power - there is a long and rapidly growing list of nanoscale advances. [[Most recently, even in the field of no noxious emission, more than cost competitive direct conversion of coal into gasoline.: normxxx]] If we ever do get actual molecular nanotech, it may look more like biotech, as we slip in on nanotech from the side. After all, combine a few cells and you eventually get a human being [[or, alter a few, and repair a genetic defect or create a "superman".: normxxx]]. For some, this is the path to robust nanotech.

Water, Water Everywhere, Nor Any Drop To Drink

And speaking of water (above), I was hoping to hear that we were further along with the cheap purification of water. I queried several venture capitalists, who see literally thousands and thousands of business proposals. While lots of people are working on it, they are aware of nothing on the near horizon. Water may be my #1 concern about the future. It is an intractable problem and one that must be solved.

There is Microsoft- or Google-type wealth awaiting the team that creates an inexpensive way to purify water [[another problem to be solved by nanotech, probably using reverse osmosis.: normxxx]]. Water management will be a major issue in the future. There are those who think we will go to war over oil or energy in the future. I rather doubt it. Water rights are going to be the issue that will divide nations and peoples unless we can find new technologies to create cheap supplies of fresh water and move it to where it is needed.

The Promise Of Biotech

Ok, I am on record of late with my view that biotech is going to be a bubble in the latter part of this decade. I am actually starting to invest in smaller-cap biotech companies that hold what I think is significant potential intellectual property. In conversations with my fellow attendees, I think the consensus is that biotech holds the most immediate promise for transforming our lives.

A little background. The human genome project was launched in 1990. It cost $3 billion. At the time, detractors said it was a waste of time, as it would take a thousand years - and they were right, if you assumed then-current technology. It actually took only 11 years (to 2001), as new technologies were constantly invented. Craig Venter started Celera in 1998 and finished in a dead heat with the government for a fraction of the cost, at around $300 million. [[Hint! Hint! Something like the human genome project is likely to produce like benefits for nanotech.: normxxx]]

Where are we now? Ray McCauley of Illumina told us of a machine they make that can do the entire human genome in one week. The cost of the machine is $750,000. He predicts that by 2013 the cost of doing your [entire] personal genome will be around $100, and in the future the cost will be as little as $1. [[We can already process several thousand genomic sites for less than $1000.: normxxx]]

A prize has been offered for the first team to sequence 100 human genomes for $10,000 each in ten days or less. The $10 million USD prize, donated by diamond prospector Steward Blusson, will be claimable until the deadline of 4 October 2013. Many scientists around the world think it is highly likely the prize will be claimed before the deadline, probably substantially before.

Moore's Law says computing power is doubling every few years? That's so slow and old hat by biotech standards. Genome "power" is doubling every six months. It will be routine for you to get your own human template in a few years.

Those expensive toys that do your genome? Jun Wang (for some firm) in China bought 128 of them. That is the equivalent of being able to process the entire NCBI genome databank every 15 minutes. Although Ray would not say, I got the impression the Chinese simply opened their checkbook and said "How many will you sell us?"

Put this into context. Arguably one of the true US experts on stem cells, Mike West of Biotime, is also going to China to do a joint venture with the leading stem cell researcher there. They will be in human trials soon. (It's the same story with International Stem Cell Research, which is going to Russia.) Mike lamented to me over dinner that he could not get the trial speed he needs here in the US.

There are a lot of other areas of research that are going offshore, too. Biotech is an area where the US has a clear lead today. We are in danger of losing that. Someone at the FDA needs to start a program that can keep up with the warp speed of change in the biotech world, or watch our lead go to the rest of the world, which is quite willing to leapfrog us. For all the talk about jobs, you would think someone would pay attention here.

Greg Papadopoulos, who is the Chief Technology Officer of Sun Microsystems, gave us his thoughts on the breakthroughs that are likely to happen and will change the world as we know it. New approaches to energy efficiency are on the horizon in 5-10 years. We will see a major breakthrough in memory, which will make the ability to remember (store) things really cheap.

He speculated that there will be a new energy technology that will come out of left field to completely change the energy equation. By the way, this prediction showed up several times, from a variety of speakers. (I must admit that is also my personal prediction as well.) Greg thinks we will have silicon photonics by 2020 (think faster, more powerful computers). Quantum computing is way out there, but biocomputing may be here in the mid to late 2020s.

Steve Jurvetson, the #1 most influential geek (according to Wired, I think) simply blew us away. I would like to tie him to a chair for five hours and find out why he invested the billions of dollars in the scores of companies he has helped launch. He is focusing on clean tech, as is a lot of Silicon Valley. He sees 5,000 business plans a year. He talks about how we are soon in for Perpetual Future Shock.

There are 6 x 10 to the 21 microbes in the ocean. There are microbes that only exist in certain parts of the ocean. We have only begun to explore the world. It is going to take a long time to switch to renewables. Maybe by 2030. He is blown away by how many incredible ideas there are. This is a guy who did his EE major at Stanford in 2.5 years and was #1 in his class. Intimidatingly smart.

As an aside, someone mentioned that at the TED Talks a few weeks ago, Bill Gates made a major commitment to nuclear energy. Did you know that the nuclear waste we already have could power the US for centuries? The technology exists to use it, as France has done for a long time. If someone truly thinks the US should be energy independent from foreign oil, this is the path. And it is green!

Why not government-guaranteed loans for nuclear power and a requirement that every state or locality find a place to put a nuclear plant in their area. Pick a locale. If you choose not to put one "in your backyard" then you pay double for your power, which makes the power for the areas that choose to have nuclear plants free! That would attract some voters for nuclear plants. We need to stop sending money to the rest of the world for oil. Now that is stimulus you can believe in! (OK, off my soapbox.)

Another speaker saw potential game changers in low-cost photovoltaics and a smart grid. (Let's hope he's right!) He also speculated and laid out the technology to use CO2 as a source for fuel. Basically, you take CO2-emitting sources and use them to feed biofuel farms. Seems plausible. [[Or, directly convert it into gasoline!: normxxx]]

Christopher deCharms, CEO of Omneuron, blew me away. Seems they can recognize patterns in your brain when you see certain (simple) objects. And they are teaching patients to control certain regions of their brains that have to do with pain. They are having some success, although he stressed that it was early and the tests were rudimentary. That aside, that we are even potentially in that world is amazing.

Jason Bobe from the Personal Genome Project at the Harvard Medical School talked about how they intend to first publish (publicly) 100 personal genomes and then go on to 100,000 in order to create a database for researchers to use to find correlations between certain genes and diseases. I plan to volunteer to be part of that initial 100, if they will take me. I really don't care who knows my genome, and if it will help move the science forward I am more than ready.

They are also moving beyond the human genome. They can now "sample" your blood to see what kind of exposure to certain diseases, metals, cancers, etc. you have had and then relate that to your genes. That is going to produce some very powerful and controversial results. But what we learn is going to give us clues to how to fight all sorts of diseases.

Jason noted that people who participate have no guarantee of being anonymous. It seems some young man a few years ago, upon hearing that he was the offspring of an anonymous sperm donor, did some research and found out who his father was. "Surprise! I'm your anonymous son!"

In the future, the world will get turned on its head. Instead of 15 minutes of fame, you will only get 15 minutes of anonymity. The day before something is seen as a breakthrough, it is a crazy idea.

One guy was asking for dollar bills and other small foreign currency. They are doing DNA samples to see where and how many people have touched a particular dollar bill. In the not too distant future, you'd better be careful who you pay with cash if you don't want to be traced.
[ Normxxx Here:  Moreover, it seems that we each support a universe of micro fauna and flora that is more distinctive than fingerprints! Sampling the DNA of such "colonies" is likely to prove easier, quicker, and more definitive in identifying "who this way passed…"  ]

Dr. James Canton gave a very interesting talk on the future of the internet. He predicts that within 3-5 years we will live in a blended reality. Everything will be connected. The internet will become self-assembling.

In the near future, information will find you rather than the other way around. [[Think RSS.: normxxx]] Future networks will mimic living ecosystems. Web 3.0 will be the Collaborative Web. Not human to human, but human to machine to avatar to network. I am not sure what that means exactly, but he was quite convincing. [[FWIW, think of the avatar as a software representation of you that you can launch onto the net (in virtually unlimited copies) to find whatever info you want, then channel it back to you, or do some other useful work with it.: normxxx]]

Information that finds you? Will there even be a need for me in the future? He too thought the really big surprise in the future would be a new source of energy, not to mention a new search topology with more predictive analytic search. There is a lot more, and if I can get a link to his speech I will.



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