This is actually a better future than we were promised

30 Jul

On future’s mysterious ways…

Just type ”They promised us” in your search window, and you will get automatic completion suggestions like “Mars colonies”, jetpacks and of course flying cars. And instead we got Facebook, or in the famous words of Peter Thiel, just 140 characters (referring to the Twitter character limit). The suggestion here is that instead of the grand technological hopes of yesterday, we get little “real” technological progress, only trinkets that make us dumb.

Jetson-flying-car[1]Did you really take it as a promise? Source:

 This is as wrong as it can be. Apart from the fact that we may get flying cars soon, this trivializes the current and potential results of the IT and other technological revolutions. Technological progress took a different direction than most people expected a few decades ago, but it is no failure. Indeed I will argue that this is the better direction than the one expected.

But first it is interesting to examine what exactly happened. One possible interpretation of the above sentiment is that we got far more progress (in terms of price decline) in computing power than in energy. To establish Mars colonies or fly to the Moon for the weekend, you need plenty of energy. Saturn V, which carried 3 people to the Moon and back at a time, used 2.5 million kilograms of fuel and oxidizer. Let’s assume this propellant was equivalent to oil in cost, which is a huge underestimation. Then it is equivalent to about 18 thousand barrels of oil. In terms of the average wage, one hour work in the USA bought almost exactly one barrel of oil in 1969, but less than half a barrel today. So the energy cost proxy is about 19 thousand wage hours in 1969 and 43 thousand hours today. That is about 9 working years and 21 working years, respectively – not your average weekend trip costs.

More email, less jetpack than imaginedMore email, less jet-pack. Picture source:

Computing power in the meantime – well, you probably can guess. In terms of memory prices, costs are roughly 130 million times less now than in 1970 – in nominal dollars. You had to work roughly 22 years at average wages to buy the 150 thousand dollar computer on board the Moon mission – today, using the above benchmark, you would have to work the totality of about 0.2 seconds. Also note that the computer on the Moon mission cost more than the equivalent energy (in terms of oil) cost of the trip – although of course the costs estimates of one-off equipment are highly uncertain.


Costs a million dollar in today’s prices, and a Google search would not finish in 11 years. Picture:

With this staggering decline in costs, we use hugely more computing power. Your average Google search uses more computing power than all the computing (including on the ground) of the entire Apollo program during its 11 years. Inevitably, some of this use may seem frivolous, especially for someone who was brought up with the idea that computing power is expensive and you have to use it sparingly. If energy costs declined in the same way, we would use it in a way that would look frivolous today. Probably we would not have light switches and home insulation – wait, probably some people would air-condition entire continents. And the fuel consumption of your (flying) car would be of no interest.

I personally prefer the current path of development, with cheap computing power, to an imagined alternative path with cheap energy and relatively expensive computer power. I would any day choose having the Internet over weekend trips to the Moon. Intelligent computers instead of turning around rivers.

And if your aim is space exploration and not glorified tourism, it is stupid to send people on a space mission. You need to carry heavy and bulky life support systems, and in space, weight still equals cost. The only thing human space flight is good for is PR. Otherwise robotic probes are far better. Or soon will be, for any task. Also, they can be far smaller. Imagine a future when thousands of micro probes –maybe smaller than a smartphone – are launched each year to explore the solar system. This is already beginning to happen – and soon the cost can be so low that it is suddenly affordable for private individuals to have their own missions. In the original vision, space was also somehow a government territory, centralized and elitist – just watch the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was 3 – I guess partly because of the elitist hero stuff. Now I think it is far better if in a few years I can have my own satellite.

Eventually the descendants of humans will need to leave Earth – or adapt to living inside the Sun. But that may happen as a form of uploaded personalities in the form of computer code in a micro-satellite, for all we know. Or more likely in a way that we cannot even understand now. The future has mysterious ways, and that is far more exciting than just exactly fulfilling boyhood fantasies.

In the meantime, the (broadly defined) IT revolution made it possible to know a lot more about the universe, including the stars. Even if energy costs nothing, we could not travel faster than light, at least on our current knowledge. But with computers and sensitive electronic light sensors, we can do statistical analysis of distant galaxies and discover planets. And we know a lot more about our DNA, can model how proteins fold, have better weather forecasts and a million other things which would be impossible without cheap computing power.

People may have very different reasons why they like (or don’t like) more sophisticated technology, but the fact that it gives us more freedom is often mentioned on the positive side. I think a “cheap computing” world gives us a lot more opportunity to be free, to cooperate, to create and to learn than a “cheap energy” world.

But of course you can ask why we cannot have both cheap computing and cheap energy at the same time? It is probably more difficult to develop new technologies in energy than in IT: experimentation is fewer, more expensive and more dangerous –and therefore more regulated. We produce billions of computer chips (integrated circuits) each year, which allows for experimentation. It does not cots much to try a new chip design and see if it works, and it costs even less to try a new software. That cannot be said of nuclear power plants, for example. Technology has its natural direction.

In the end, we nevertheless may get cheap (and more importantly, not polluting) energy – via cheap computing. This will allow us to build detailed computer models of, say, nuclear reactors and we do not need to build the real thing for experimentation. Solar energy is already getting a lot cheaper, and there is no obvious limit to why this cannot continue – but again, it would have been be impossible to develop and manufacture inexpensive solar panels without cheap computers to begin with.

So in the end we may get our “promised” flying cars – but it is more likely than not that it will be driven by a computer…


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