Friday, December 25, 2015

Things to Celebrate, Like Dreams of Flying Cars


In Star Wars, Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon did the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs; in real life, all the Falcon 9 has done so far is land at Cape Canaveral without falling over or exploding. Yet I, like many nerds, was thrilled by that achievement, in part because it reinforced my growing optimism about the direction technology seems to be taking — a direction that may end up saving the world.

O.K., if you have no idea what I’m talking about, the Falcon 9 is Elon Musk’s reusable rocket, which is supposed to boost a payload into space, then return to where it can be launched again. If the concept works, it could drastically reduce the cost of putting stuff into orbit. And that successful landing was a milestone. We’re still a very long way from space colonies and zero-gravity hotels, let alone galactic empires. But space technology is moving forward after decades of stagnation.

And to my amateur eye, this seems to be part of a broader trend, which is making me more hopeful for the future than I’ve been in a while.
You see, I got my Ph.D. in 1977, the year of the first Star Wars movie, which means that I have basically spent my whole professional life in an era of technological disappointment.
Until the 1970s, almost everyone believed that advancing technology would do in the future what it had done in the past: produce rapid, unmistakable improvement in just about every aspect of life. But it didn’t. And while social factors — above all, soaring inequality — have played an important role in that disappointment, it’s also true that in most respects technology has fallen short of expectations.
The most obvious example is travel, where cars and planes are no faster than they were when I was a student, and actual travel times have gone up thanks to congestion and security lines. More generally, there has just been less progress in our command over the physical world — our ability to produce and deliver things — than almost anyone expected.
Now, there has been striking progress in our ability to process and transmit information. But while I like cat and concert videos as much as anyone, we’re still talking about a limited slice of life: We are still living in a material world, and pushing information around can do only so much. The famous gibe by the investor Peter Thiel (“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”) is unfair, but contains a large kernel of truth.
Over the past five or six years, however — or at least this is how it seems to me — technology has been getting physical again; once again, we’re making progress in the world of things, not just information. And that’s important.
Progress in rocketry is fun to watch, but the really big news is on energy, a field of truly immense disappointment until recently. For decades, unconventional energy technologies kept falling short of expectations, and it seemed as if nothing could end our dependence on oil and coal — bad news in the short run because of the prominence it gave to the Middle East; worse news in the long run because of global warming.

But now we’re witnessing a revolution on multiple fronts. The biggest effects so far have come from fracking, which has ended fears about peak oil and could, if properly regulated, be some help on climate change: Fracked gas is still fossil fuel, but burning it generates a lot less greenhouse emissions than burning coal. The bigger revolution looking forward, however, is in renewable energy, where costs of wind and especially solar have dropped incredibly fast.

Why does this matter? Everyone who isn’t ignorant or a Republican realizes that climate change is by far the biggest threat humanity faces. But how much will we have to sacrifice to meet that threat?

Well, you still hear claims, mostly from the right but also from a few people on the left, that we can’t take effective action on climate without bringing an end to economic growth. Marco Rubio, for example, insists that trying to control emissions would “destroy our economy.” This was never reasonable, but those of us asserting that protecting the environment was consistent with growth used to be somewhat vague about the details, simply asserting that given the right incentives the private sector would find a way.

But now we can see the shape of a sustainable, low-emission future quite clearly — basically an electrified economy with, yes, nuclear power playing some role, but sun and wind front and center. Of course, it doesn’t have to happen. But if it doesn’t, the problem will be politics, not technology.

True, I’m still waiting for flying cars, not to mention hyperdrive. But we have made enough progress in the technology of things that saving the world has suddenly become much more plausible. And that’s reason to celebrate.

NYT

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