Friday, March 4, 2022

20 Things which will change the world by 2040

Here are 20 things in no particular order which I think will totally change the world over the next 20 years.


 Wind costs are falling by 5-10% per annum, solar by 10% to 20% and batteries by 15% plus.  Wind's cost declines will prolly slow over the next 10 years—it's a mature technology.  But the cost declines in solar are likely to continue, and in batteries, there's a real chance they'll accelerate.  If these trends continue (and why won't they?), in 10 years electricity will cost 25% of what it does now.  If the trend decline then halves to, say 7% a year, then in 20 years, electricity will cost just 10% of what it does now.  Cheap energy supercharges economic growth.  The low oil price from 1945 to 1973 helped drive rapid and sustained growth in the world economy.  Cheap renewables will do the same over the next 20 years and beyond.

2.  EVS

They're going to be cheaper than ICEVs (internal combustion vehicles) to buy, and much cheaper to run.  They'll be replacing ICEVs  so the shifts in society might not seem dramatic.  But with AIs running them, transport as a service will become common.  You'll summon a car using your phone, and it will drive itself to where you are and then to where you want to go.  Because EVs will last much longer than ICEVs and will be significantly cheaper to run, "transport as a service" will be a popular way for people to get around.  Car sales are likely to decline by 50% plus, as TAAS takes off.  Air pollution in cities will end.  By 2040, most of the world's vehicle fleet will be electric.  Maybe hydrogen fuel-cell, but I doubt it.  The cost of building a hydrogen refuelling network will be much more costly than just attaching your car to an already existing network, the electric grid.  And the energy efficiency of the hydrogen cycle is much lower than batteries.

3.  AI

I don't think we'll have true AI, as in sentient robots.  But we will have very sophisticated computerised control systems, such as those which will allow for self-driving cars and self-landing rockets.  This has been made possible by the 5 or 6 orders of magnitude decline in the costs of and size of super computers, as Tony Seba points out.  SpaceX's ability to land and re-use its rockets would not have been possible without the advances in computing power.  These advances and changes all interact.


This cuts the cost of manufacturing metal things by at least half, because there's much less scrap.  It also reduces the stock of parts you have to keep on hand.  And allows you to make more complicated things, like SpaceX's extraordinary new Raptor rocket engines.  On the ISS, there is a 3-D printer to make spare parts.  On Mars, and the Moon, 3-D printers will be used to build habitats; to make things which would take too long or are too expensive to get from Earth; and to make things which have short production runs or are experimental.


Cheap energy will change agriculture.  Right now, 20% of Australia's tomatoes come from a factory in the semi-desert in the north of the State of South Australia, using desalinated sea water and growing the tomatoes in greenhouses.  This undertaking uses no fossil fuel at all.  Animal rearing  uses vast areas of land, is highly polluting, and contributes 20% to global CO₂ emissions.  Vat meats and fish are already starting to take off.  Their costs are declining year by year.  By 2040, they will become the norm.  

There won't be "real" meat on Mars or on the Moon or in Space Stations .  There just aren't the resources to grow it.  If vat meat, fish and milk taste like the real thing, cost about the same or less, are environmentally kinder, and involve no animal suffering, why wouldn't you switch?  This will reduce emissions by 20% while allowing the rewilding of unused fields and grasslands.


Cheap access to space will change everything.  To settle Mars, we'll need to rapidly improve a whole range of technologies, like vat meat production, genuine air conditioning (meaning far more than just heating and cooling), hydroponics, water purification, extracting CO₂ from the atmosphere, genetic modification, medicine, and so on.

By the time SpaceX's Starship is running, SpaceX will have cut the cost of launching a kilogram to LEO (Low Earth Orbit) from $22,000 to ~$20.  Whenever you have a 10-fold decrease in costs you get disruption, as new technolgies take off.   This will be a 1000-fold decrease in cost.  We're already seeing the consequences of cheaper launches in the roll-out of SpaceX's Starlink super fast internet.  The development of a space-faring civilisation will spawn new technologies we haven't even thought of.  Who would have thought 20 years ago that we would carry computers in our pockets millions of times more powerful than the first IBM computer, computers which connect us to a massive knowledge network as well as news, videos, maps, Wikipedia?   None of that was predicted.  Yet think of the businesses which have developed because of those twin inventions, the smart phone and the internet (Apple, Google, Uber, Air BnB ....).  And think also how the explosive growth of smart phone sales also drove down li-ion battery prices,  allowing EVs and grid energy storage to happen.


With cheap access to space also comes asteroid mining.  Because the asteroids aren't in deep gravity wells like the Earth or Mars, nudging them into orbits which intersect Earth's or Mars's will be cheap.  The resources of a single medium-sized  asteroid, for example for rare earth metals, will more than equal all the rare earth metals that have ever been mined on Earth.   We will prolly stop stripping the Earth to produce metals and minerals and instead start disassembling asteroids to do that.  The world's major resource companies will be asteroid miners.

But some of these will be used in space manufacturing.  Why take stuff into the gravity well when you can build it in LEO?  Asteroid mining will be even more important on Mars, as asteroids will likely provide the volatiles needed to give Mars an atmosphere dense enough for humans to work in without needing to wear pressurised space suits. 


Our first colony will be Mars.  Read  the Red Mars trilogy to see how colonising Mars will change Earth too.  Not just in technological advances but also in social advances.  Looking down on Mars and Earth from space will change mankind's perception of itself.  As Robert Zubrin says, knowing that there is no shortage of resources because we have unlimited resources in space means that most of the causes of war on Earth will disappear.  Of course, no matter how technologically advanced and prosperous humans become, there is no reason to suppose we will ever be more intelligent, less venal, less greedy, and less petty. 

After we colonise Mars, we'll start on Venus.  That'll be much harder.  But by then we will also have colonies in the asteroid belt and large inhabited space stations in orbit round the Earth and Mars.  We will truly be a multi-planetary species.  And that will change everything.


SpaceX's Starlink has kicked off a revolution in high-speed internet.  Starlink's network will be truly global, available in the Arctic and Antarctic,  the Sahara and across the world's oceans.  In countries where wired internet is only available in cities, such as most of Africa, Starlink will provide links to remote villages and towns.  It'll be expensive ($100 per month), but villages could club together to pay for it.  Those same villages are off the electric grid, too, and small solar panels and batteries will change that.  Children who do their homework by candlelight will now be able to do it by LED light, and access the internet, connecting to the ginormous encyclopedia which is the interweb.  20 years ago we didn't have Wikipedia.  Today, even if your village doesn't have a library, even if you  can't afford to buy a book, you'll still be able to study science, maths, languages, technologies.    


The current fall in emissions isn't rapid enough to prevent a rise of more than 1.5 degrees C, maybe even 2 degrees C,  in global temperatures.   We will need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  One way would be to cover desert and semi-desert areas with forests.  To do this would require desalination plants, powered by solar, which will get cheaper and cheaper over the next 2 decades.  It would be a mammoth undertaking, almost beyond our imagination.  But it will prolly be necessary.  Given the scale of the problem, any de-carbonisation method will have to be massive.  But something will have to be done to remove CO2 from our atmosphere.  Changing a planet's climate to make it more livable is called terraforming.  You might also call it geo-engineering.  Whatever; we will prolly have started to do it by 2040.  We will have no choice.


The colonisation of Mars and the growth of space travel will accelerate the development of gene therapy, because radiation on Mars and in space will cause genetic damage.   Treating that will become imperative, and as technology often responds to extreme need, it will likely be developed, because it has to be.  Gene therapy will provides cures for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and inherited genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis. 

Creating plants which will grow in our domes on Mars and on space stations to provide us with food will be important to the pioneers.   Dwarf wheat, larger tomatoes, low-rise almond/fruit trees, and so on and so on.  The need for these advances will drive rapid change.  But the advances themselves will drive down the cost of food back here on Earth.  


Africa is the second-largest continent, in population and size, compared to Asia.  For decades, Africa has been an economic laggard.  But solar favours countries near the equator.   Seasonal storage needs are much less than in high latitudes further from the equator.  8 hours of storage will be enough for most places within 30 degrees north and south of the equator.  Cheap electricity will be even cheaper in Africa.  In addition, Africa's population is young, it speaks English as a first or second language, and it's so far behind the production possibility frontier that high speed internet and distributed solar power will be transforming.    

Until recently, Africa has lagged the world economy, but access to electricity and information will change everything.  Africa will be the new China, with high growth rates, falling poverty and  rapid development, and with that will come greater political power.  China has recognised this reality; the rest of the world has not.  That needs to change.


Neo-liberalism has been tried for 40 years.  It has resulted in greater economic and financial instability, and vastly increased inequality of income and wealth (especially in those mostly Anglophone countries which have most enthusiastically embraced it), as well as a lower growth rate.   The rising inequality has also led to increased political extremism.  Economists like to pretend that economics is separate from politics.  But the consequences of increased inequality and greater uncertainty have shown that there is a non-economic price for neo-liberalism: the rise of far right parties and policies. The dogma of small government, low taxes, and deregulation is becoming tarnished.  The Covid crisis has conclusively shown that there are some things government does better than the private sector.  Unlike the neo-liberal dogma, the private sector doesn't inevitably do things better and more cheaply than the public sector, especially when second order effects are considered.  Privatisations of state-owned enterprises have mostly failed: costs are higher, services no better, corruption worse.

Expect a gradual retreat from the extreme tenets of neo-liberalism towards a more measured and pragmatic process.  Big(ger) government is back.  The big borrowings government took up under Covid are not going to be repaid.  Instead, governments will start running deficits again.  The post WW2 pragmatic neo-Keynesian synthesis will once again modify red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism.  


Technological advances will cause major disruptions to job markets.  So will shifts in economic growth and development.  In the past, dire poverty among the old was reduced by the introduction of a universal basic income or social wage for old people, otherwise known as the old age pension.  A UBI in developed countries, for everyone, has so far been seen as a step too far.  But opinion is changing.  If we are truly to drain the poison of the extreme right, we will need to address the insecurity and poverty of the precariat, which will likely be worsened by the technological and economic changes I think will happen.   A UBI would do that.


SpaceX would like to use Starship to run suborbital long-distance flights.  Musk has said that over long distances, suborbital flights will have a lower cost than conventional jet travel.  At 20 times the speed.  Anybody want to bet it won't happen?


Musk is afraid that a real AI (as opposed to very clever software) would end up ruling the world and humanity would end up being no more than pets of the machines.  If we even survive.  His response to that is to develop brain-machine interfaces.  This would make us as clever as our AI overlords.  We would have chips in our brain, like a permanently embedded smartphone.  It might never get to that, but if an interface can enable a blind person to see again, or a disabled person to walk, then that would be huge.  And having a small device in your head which allows one to communicate directly with the interweb would be revolutionary.  Not sure I like the security implications of that, though.


We will soon see the introduction of electric planes which will allow short flights (up to 400 km) at 1/20th the cost of jet or jet-prop aircraft of today.  They will be used to connect outlying regions to the spaceports where suborbital ultrasonic flights will depart from and arrive at.  The long-term outlook for conventional airliners isn't good at all.  What these two developments mean together is that one will be able to fly from a small town in the bush to another small town on the other side of the world in a few hours.  A hundred years ago, it took 3 weeks for a ship to sail from Australia to Europe.  Currently, it takes 24 hours to fly that distance.  With suborbital hypersonic rockets, the journey time will be down to just an hour.


Nuclear fusion is the opposite of nuclear fission, where large atoms, e.g., uranium, are split into smaller atoms, releasing massive amount of energy.  Fusion is what happens inside stars like our sun, where the lightest atoms, hydrogen, are blasted together under intense heat and presure to produce heavier atoms.  And therein lies the difficulty--it's very hard to create those conditions outside the fiery heart of a star.   For 70 years, the joke goes, nuclear fusion has always been 30 years away. But maybe that's changed.  Fusion is likely to make much faster progress now that private firms and individuals are bankrolling research than it has under the aegis of giant bureaucracies, so I think we'll prolly have fusion by 2040.  We will need nuclear fusion on Mars, and to mine the asteroids.  And it will be enormously useful on Erarth, too.


Winston Churchill said that democracy was the worst system, apart from all the others.  People have pointed to the Chinese and Russian dictatorships as exemplars of how to run politico-economic systems.   Yet both countries have declining growth rates.  This is particularly interesting in the case of China, which is far from being a wealthy country, and where you would expect growth to remain higher than it is, given where it is in the typical development pathway.  For all America's faults, and despite the out-and out dementia of the Right and the Republican Party, the technological developments there are breathtaking.  Perhaps people need freedom if they are to innovate.  Just a thought.  

If we drain the pus of divisiveness and far-right toxins from our democracies by reducing inequality, and again giving ordinary people hope that their lives and the lives of their children will be better, I believe that the autocratic political/social/ economic alternatives of China and Russia will be seen as what they are: relative failures.


All these changes will interact, just as smartphones and internet did, the one driving the development of the other.  And the interactions will spiral out of control unforecastably. changing the world in ways which will surprise and shock us.  And some of the consequences will be adverse.  But it's going to be a most interesting ride.

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