The Three Revolutions of Our Age (things to be thankful for this year)

Those of us who had our adolescence peppered with the invention of the x86 processor, who gamed away our grade-school years on the Atari 2600 and watched Nintendo become the new heavy-weight champ of the console world with the invention of the original NES – we have spent the majority of our teen and young adult lives in the middle of the Information Revolution. To be able to look up something on Wikipedia on our phones while on a plane gives me pause, and makes me think back to my parents investment of a not insignificant amount of cash in to a set of World Book Encyclopedias so that we could have “information at our fingertips.” It’s impossible to control, and we can only sit back and watch in wonder as the course of humanity is changed right in front of us.

Scientific Revolution by ~pod-tanwen on deviantART

In terms of economic impact, the Information Revolution makes the Industrial Revolution look like child’s play. The political machines of individual nations are still trying to grasp the full force of the barely-regulated globalization impact of the Information Revolution. (It may be this barely-there-regulation that has gotten us so far so quickly.) All of this, and the Information Revolution is likely still in the early stages of what future generations will look back upon as our awakening.

Update: Video of me giving a talk on this post at Ignite Philly 9 after the jump. (Thanks to Technically Philly!)

But it’s not alone. We get to live through two more revolutions as well – slower starters, but that may have a bigger impact on humanity than the Information Revolution will ever have. (Granted, we will see that none of these three are mutually exclusive – nonetheless, for the purposes of this essay, we’ll define them individually.)

The Energy Revolution

Unlike the Information Revolution, which very few were able to foresee, and therefore try to stifle, the Energy Revolution is well within sight. It will fight an uphill battle against entrenched global energy corporations, but progress can only be slowed – it cannot be stopped. The Energy Revolution is interestingly quiet in its first stages, but so was the Information Revolution. Here is the future that awaits us.

There is a tectonic shift in the very fabric of energy production. We currently produce most of our energy at great cost to the environment which surrounds us – either by burning the finite resources of fossil fuels and coal, or by creating highly radioactive waste that can melt down and have a murderous impact that lasts generations. The future will harness the seemingly limitless energy provided to us on a constant and ongoing basis by nature itself. Instead of fighting against nature, we will embrace it.

I will skip wind energy in this conversation. Despite it being more efficient than nuclear and fossil fuel generators (not to mention cheaper), it will be relegated to small tasks in the future. It will always have a place (think of a wind turbine on top of a sailboat) but its place will be small.

The future is in solar energy. We are just tapping the well of this almost limitless power. Solar energy is already cheaper (PDF warning) than nuclear energy, and will be cheaper than coal-fired plants in under 10 years. If you take in to account the economic impact of the pollution and health issues caused by burning coal, solar energy is already cheaper.

Here are some quick numbers according to Scientific America: the Sun hits the earth with 89 petawatts of power every day. That’s 6,000 times more energy than all of civilization uses. Enough energy hits the Earth in 14 seconds to power the entire world for a day. In 88 minutes, as much as the world consumes in a full year. “In 112 hours – less than five days – it provides 36 zettajoules of energy – as much energy as is contained in all proven reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas on this planet. If humanity could capture one tenth of one percent of the solar energy striking the earth – one part in one thousand – we would have access to six times as much energy as we consume in all forms today, with almost no greenhouse gas emissions.”

Scientific America went ahead and did the math and discovered that the cost of solar power collection is following Moore’s Law – and has been for over 31 years. By 2030, solar energy production will cost half of coal production – with virtually zero carbon emissions. We currently emit 35 gigatons of carbon emissions each year by burning fossil fuels for energy – by one study, that’s enough to fill the balloons of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade over 2 billion times. With solar costing half of what fossil fuels do, we’ll be able to eliminate a huge chunk of that 35 gigatons of annual carbon pollution.

Of course the biggest factor sitting between us and energy independence is not solar technology, but battery technology. It takes a long time to charge batteries, and they have limited capacity. They’re also toxic to produce. Never fear – insane strides are being made to battery technology too. For now, it’s Lithium-ion. Northwestern University just discovered that a small change in the way we produce Lithium-ion batteries – basically drilling holes in-between the layers – increases the storage capacity of a battery by a factor of 10, and decreases the charge time again by a factor of 10. They expect the production changes to take at most 5 years to reach market, which means our iPhones will take 5 minutes to charge and last for 5-10 days of constant use. To put it another way, this simple change makes electric cars 100% viable. A Nissan Leaf would take 3 minutes to charge on a Level 3 charger, and have a range of 730 miles. What comes after the Lithium-ion is anyone’s guess, but at least we know smart people are working on it.

The potential of Northwestern’s Lithium-ion breakthrough is huge. Aside from electric cars, it means home-based batteries that store solar-collected energy could withstand a few days of low sunlight. It means that even a small break in a huge storm-system could mean fully-recharged batteries. This is huge, as solar cells only collect energy during the day, and only if it’s sunny out. Better batteries mean less direct sunlight is required. Solar power on every building starts to become viable.

But hey – just in case you still think this direct-sunlight thing is a huge detractor of solar cells, fear not. Idaho National Labs have created a thin solar film that actually holds nano-coils that vibrate at the natural frequency of a type of radiation that floods the Earth from the Sun both day and night, sunny or cloudy. To boot, they’re 80% efficient (as opposed to current cells that are 40% efficient). Solar cells that can collect energy efficiently both night and day? It’s not a pipe-dream. It’s the future.

As Moore’s Law continues to act on the price of collecting energy from the Sun that hits the Earth whether we use it or not, we mathematically head towards a point where the cost of producing energy nears zero. Since energy is nine-tenths of production, the ability to produce food and goods opens up to even the poorest among us. Where desalination is currently inefficient and energy-hungry, near-limitless near-free energy would make desalination (in current technology) affordable to those who desperately need it. Limitless cheap energy and worldwide access to clean water changes not “the game”, but “every game.”

The best part is, we will be alive to witness its birth.

The Medical Revolution

The third in our series of revolutions is medicine. What we take for medical technology now will look antiquated and even barbaric within our lifetimes. Mapping the human genome was more important than any of us could have imagined. Still in its infancy, understanding what the 25-40,000 genes in our bodies do is just starting to emerge. The human body has about 3-4 billion base pairs in its DNA, but only around 4 percent of those effect gene function, which is where the future of medicine lies.

Viruses and bacterial infections are basically epic battles between genes. Right now we flail in the dark trying to combat viruses, and our ability to beat back a bacterial infection results in mutated, drug-resistant bacteria capable of withstanding the best of the fight we have. But if we can understand the actual battle happening between our genes and those of viruses and bacteria, we can build targeted weapons against disease that nothing can combat.

Let’s start with genetic mapping. When we started mapping the human genome in 2001, we thought it would take 30 years and cost more money than we could imagine. The initial costs were astronomical – the cost of mapping one Megabase (one million base pairs) was over $10,000. But unlike the cost of solar energy which is following Moore’s Law, the cost of genetic sequencing and mapping has fallen far, far faster. The big change happened in 2008, and by July of 2011, the cost per Megabase had fallen to $0.10. The cost of mapping a Megabase of DNA has dropped by 100,000%. The cost of mapping an entire genome? It’s down from $100,000,000 to well below $30,000.

Of course, in order to truly understand a genome, you have to understand patterns in genetic sequences. That requires a lot of data. Some genetic banks have stores of DNA samples in the hundreds of thousands but more will be required. Still, this hasn’t stopped science, and genetic pattern matching has already begun.

But lets back up for a second. Imagine the cost of mapping a genome persists on the same path. The cost of mapping a genome would drop to 30 cents in 3 years. It’s likely to not continue on this trend, but the price will drop significantly, and in the near future it will become cost effective to map everyone’s DNA. Sample sizes will increase to the millions if not billions, and pattern matching will be able to pinpoint the exact genetic sequences of everything from cancer to the common cold. Several companies are already working on mapping the genetic profiles of cancers. What this means is targeted therapies that replace nuclear options like chemotherapy. Not only will such mapping lead doctors to be able to tell what drugs a cancer might be resistant to and which would be incredibly effective, but will even eventually lead to custom-made, custom-tailored drugs that are specific to not a kind of cancer, but to a particular cancer in a particular individual. Tailor-made drugs with DNA-specific targeting mechanisms mean cancer and other diseases become a nuisance rather than a death sentence – if we just don’t prevent them in the first place.

Then there’s the insanely cool and barely understood stem cell. Much speculation has been made of its potential, but the debate has been bogged down in the politics of abortion. Not to fear, we’ve already moved past embryonic stem cells in many therapies. Not only can we use your own stem cells now, but we can use pig cells too, why not?

Recently the Pentagon has been dabbing in regenerating muscle lost by soldiers to IEDs and other battlefield injuries. They’ve been testing regenerative muscle replacement on soldiers suffering “massive loss” of tissue – defined by a 25% tissue loss (but including up to 90% loss) – preventing the need for amputation and giving soldiers 25% or more improvement in physical function. This isn’t the future – it’s happening now. A mere 4 years after a company was able to regenerate a fingertip in an experiment, the first trials are happening on soldiers. Certain proteins and cells from a pig’s bladder can create the scaffolding that will cause your own stem cells to flood a particular area and start regenerating lost tissue. It only takes a single surgery and some fairly intense physical therapy to strengthen the newly regenerated muscle cells, but the procedure has already been a success on 4 soldiers. The trial wraps up in less than 2 years, and baring any unforeseen circumstances (none of which have raised their heads since this began in 2007) this will become the standard treatment for traumatic loss. Consider the consequences: 50% of battlefield injuries in Iraq and Afganistan are these types of “massive loss” injuries. Amputations could become a thing of the past. Bring that technology in to the civilian world and amputations from car accidents to diabetes will all but go away.

But enough about muscles. What about the rest of your body? Got you covered there too. In what can only be described as a blurring of the lines between traditionally held beliefs about the fabric of life itself, we can now use your own stem cells to regrow replacement body parts. The basics are this – create a scaffold, dip it in some stem cells, program it to be a thing (your choice – a heart? bladder? How about a urethra, windpipe, kidney…?) and then once it’s grown in a lab, transplant it back in to your body. Your second, growing heart will actually start to beat before it is ever implanted in your body.

The benefits are obvious. First there is the enormous shortage of donated organs – and in order to receive one, often someone else has to die. Transplanted organs require a lifetime of massive drug therapy to keep you from rejecting the implanted organs. Even with drugs, many transplants fail, and the patient ends up dying anyway. Now take an organ built with your own stem cells – it’s yours, free and clear. Science already has the ability to build your own replacement organs, which will one day do away with the need for organ donors. Your stem cells will become life-regenerating factories, capable of regrowing anything broken. Born blind? New eyes. Heart failure? New heart. And for one guy who had throat cancer, a new windpipe. The best part is that since the body part is grown of your own body, it will never be rejected – no post-transplant drugs, just a whole new part that’s fresh and ready to take on the role of its previous, failing brother-in-arms.

This isn’t the future. It’s now. Within a decade, it will be common-place. Within 25 years, we may no longer have a need for a donor registry at all.

So whether you get a genetically hand-tailored drug to destroy the cancer in your kidney, or you simply replace a kidney that’s beyond repair… you can see how mind-bending the near-future of medicine is – and only imagine what the not-too-distant future will hold.

Besides, it will be nice to be able to grab some replacement body parts, even if we may have already found a way to slow aging drastically. 300 years is a long time to live with all the same organs.

What a time to be alive!

We get to live through not one, but three concurrent revolutions, each of which will have a more changing effect on humanity over the course of a few decades than the rest of human history put together. This is an insane time to be alive. At 33 years of age, I imagine what the scientific landscape will look like when I’m 60 is almost impossible to imagine. While there is still political and religious strife, extreme poverty, starvation, war, and genocide, each will be impacted positively by the three revolutions. When the world has access to information, energy, and medical breakthroughs beyond comprehension, the landscape of humanity will change forever – for the better. I guarantee it.