Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chris's Crystal Ball

What might the near future look like? I’ve just come back from a few greenhouse gas mitigation and alternative energy conferences with my head buzzing, so here is at least my glimpse of part of it. . .

Well, the pressure is certainly on the energy infrastructure. Latest international Energy Agency forecasts show that to achieve an energy mix that might stabilize CO2 emissions there needs to be an increasing use of both renewables – particularly bioenergy – and nuclear power (even if renewables and nuclear grew exponentially, they will still remain a minor part of the overall energy mix because of the fossil thirst of countries like China and India – at least for this century). Research is powering ahead, and the number of patents is stacking up. The summary of how many of these plants needs to be built every year is a little bit frightening. The next twenty years will see the increasingly rapid implementation of this new generation of energy installations, from the small local scale right up to the big regional plants.

No matter how advanced electric vehicles become, there will still be a huge requirement for liquid transport fuels – there is no such thing as an electric plane or electric spaceship (or electric super-tanker for that matter). And in any case, unless electricity supply becomes much more efficient, then electric vehicles will never be as efficient as hybrids in terms of the whole emissions life cycle (coal based electricity into an electric car emits more CO2 than petroleum).

A LOT more of the Earth will be converted into cropland, further accelerating a steepening conversion of natural systems to agriculture that has been happening for a few centuries now. Much of this will be grown for energy production.

Third generation biosystems such as algae will expand rapidly over the next fifty years, converting sunlight into fuels without necessarily displacing arable land or competing with food crops – and there will be heaps of this. Hundreds of thousands of hectares, yielding everything from high-protein cattle feeds to bio-derived transport fuels. A drive through the countryside will feature not only the almost ubiquitous wind-turbines, but also the vivid green of broad-scale algae ponds or bioreactors marching into the distance. These will almost certainly be sited on marginal land – there will be too much need to preserve the highly productive land for other uses.

Building codes will tighten considerably as regulators realize the massive gains from building energy efficiency, and how much money they can save by reducing energy consumption rather than building new energy infrastructure. I suspect that as designs are optimized for energy efficiency, the tall buildings of the future are going to start looking a little the same – the way all modern cars follow the same optimized wind-tunnel designs.

This is just one slice of crystal-gazing – the part related to energy. I would be disappointed if I wasn’t wrong – after all, I’m still waiting for the aliens to give us viable fusion technology:)

Anyone else got any interesting crystal gazing? How about some punts on the coming revolution in medical technology? Cloning? Robotics? Artificial Intelligence? Is it really possible to replicate human sentience? Or is our grey-matter quantum computer and emotion vortex a one-of-a-kind natural achievement?


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Awww, Chris. Are you going to make us work?

I'd like to see an efficient, alternative source of energy.

Anonymous said...

Energy-wise, I think we'll start seeing a lot of dispersed systems, solar panels on roofs and so forth. Especially in the hot parts of the world where the highest demands for electricity coincide with the longest days.

For liquid fuels, I'll bet we start seeing conversion from coal and or methane.

If the AGW theory craters, we'll see more coal fired plants in the First World – we'll see them in the Third World no matter what. Nuclear power plants will be built, no matter what objections the environmentalists have. If the AGW theory stands the test of time, say another two solar cycles, we'll need to build lots of them.

Medical-wise, I'm pessimistic in the very short term, the next five to ten years. I think the financial incentives needed to support research are going to sag badly. Once the government comes to term (again) with letting the companies recoup the cost of failed lines of research through the high prices and or extended patent terms on the successful drugs we'll see a new flood of products on the market.

Major breakthroughs, nanotech and genetic engineering, for instance, are harder to time, as they may depend on bursts of invention, rather than gradual 'engineering' design improvements. Ditto, AI. My short story and the novel-that-is-almost-done makes the distinction between artificial intelligence and artificial personalities. Because just fast computing doesn't a human equivalent make. I think we're missing a crucial 'trick' of the wiring that will bring in self-awareness and free will.

Robotics is down to engineering, IMO. No great breakthroughs needed. Mind you, FTL communications, so we could do Real Time remote exploration of hazardous environments would be cool. Drive your buggy around Mars, explore the sub-surface oceans of the ice moons in your submarine . . . But that's not near term. Unless the Singularity is closer than I think.

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, Rowena - you mean this stuff isn't fun:)

My old boss used to quip - "We do have cheap solar cells - they are about 1% efficient and grown on trees. They are called leaves."

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. I have been waiting for a big leap in medicine - like a sudden breakthrough in the understanding of the brain, or being able to heal the spinal chord. But things seem to be slow there.

Whether anyone actually proves the global warming theory or not, no one can argue we are not forcing the climate through increased CO2. So I think the stresses to what is a very complex system will have their own impacts anyway - i.e. more severe storms and climate variability.

I agree on the liquid transport fuels. We are going to see a lot of liquifaction processes such as coal to liquids and shale to liquids (the world has enormous reserves of both coal and shale oil).

Some sort of enhanced communication system would be brilliant. If you look at the scale of space and think about how even controlling a buggy on Mars is problematic because of the time delay lag - a 'real time' system would be an enormous leap.

How cool would that be? Being able to pilot your own little spaceship through the methane clouds of Titan in real time?

I wouldn't be surprised if we see a slow-down in genetic engineering. I think there are more processes at work than people realise. Ditto for AI. My punt is also that there is indeed some major 'missing ingredients'.

Interesting distiction between Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Personality, by the way.

Kate said...

Personally, I want cars that can burn your own body fat. That would be a never-ending source of renewable energy: all you'd need to do would be eat some extra donuts.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I'm beginning to think we won't make the breakthrough to something that's FTL, so we'll never reach the other solar systems.

And I'm even beginning to wonder if we have the maturity as a race to cope with global warming.

Don't worry about me. I'm having a bad day. Convince me I'm wrong.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think there's considerable room to doubt climate forcing. CO2 has pretty much sopped up all the light at the frequencies it absorbs, and was never more than a minor part of the "natural" warming. When models start handling water in all it's phases and feedback semi-accurately, the models will remain excellent tools for studying the climate, but not having much to do with the real world.

Other things, the Sun and Volcanoes, will probably remain outside our ability to predict for the near term. Check the number of times predictions for the ramp up of Cycle 24 have been pushed back.

I'd discount the current CRU flap if it had occurred in isolation. But with the trashing of the Hockey stick graph, Hansen having to adjust the NASA data, and still not releasing the raw data nor how he normalized it, and then the extreme cherry picking of the tree ring data . . .

It's time to admit, _not_ that AGW isn't happening, _not_ that the world is cooling, BUT that we haven't a clue what the climate is doing because there has been so much bias in the handling of the basic data that it is all unreliable.

In this field, I feel progress has been retrograde.

Sorry, Hobby horse. Or possibly beating a dead one.

Acts of Genius. Sudden leaps in tech. Impossible to predict the timing, although a gradual rise in knowledge can prime the world for the next step up. So many leaps are made by several people around the world at roughly the same time, but we only see that in retrospect. We don't see the priming before the explosion.

We may yet be surprised.

Chris McMahon said...

I like it Kate.

I would love even more a series of devices that ran on worry - I could power my TV and refrigerator on all the thoughts circling my brain and relieve my psyche as the same time!

Chris McMahon said...

Don't worry, Rowena. Remember the food crises? Never happened.

No - wait. We were all going to die because of the hole in the ozone layer - Oh, hold on. We fixed that.

We do make some positive strides, but no one seems to sing about the good stuff.

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, matapam. It took almost a hundred years to generate our current energy infrastructure. If we can manage to change it significantly in a couple of generations, I think that is something quite remarkable.

Anonymous said...

Okay, Chris, you just gave away your youth.

Do you realize how short a hundred years is? Less than twice my age, I regret to say. I grew up with black and white TV, four stations. My grandparents grew up without electricity, without cars. My Great Grandfather drilled for oil, to refine into kerosene for lanterns.

Our energy infrastructure sprang up like mushrooms, then stagnated.

I just hope it gets moving again.

Well, it will eventually, the World being finite and liquid petroleum more so. We'll even run out of coal, eventually.

I think it's a race, to leap to the next plateau, before the oil runs out and we fall off the current plateau.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. I think there were surges in growth, but I think a lot of the existing infrastructure has been built gradually.

Its the acceleration in energy use that scares me the most. I think we do have energy - we have hundreds of years of coal (maybe not the best stuff, but its there), and enormous global reserves of non-traditional oil sources such as oil shale (a lot of which is in the US) - but its the impact of its development that is question.

The need for the energy quickly will make it harder to look for options.