Not Young Vs. Old or Referendum Vs. Choice

National Journal

By the time Paul Ryan arrived in the U.S. House in 1999, Sen. Joe Biden had been a member of the World’s Greatest Deliberative body for 25 years. Biden had already run for president and chaired the Judiciary Committee during two pivotal moments in American history—the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominees Robert Bork (1987) and Clarence Thomas (1991).

That quarter-century difference in Washington experience has been rattling around my brain all week as the Biden and Ryan debate has drawn closer. It fits within the fascinating continuum of an exceptional book called Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. The authors seek to understand how technology will cure myriad world ailments—everything from poverty to infectious disease, diminishing fossil fuels to food shortages, and traffic mayhem to an aging planet.

The 25-year span of time is particularly important in the context of potential global abundance. Why? Many of the technologies that will transform all the theoretically hopeless problems mentioned above are here now. They will grow exponentially in the years to come.

Consider: According to the authors of Abundance, the whiz-bang computer in 1982 was the Osbourne Executive Portable, a marvel of a device that weighed 28 pounds and retailed for $2,500. Twenty-five years later, Apple introduced the original iPhone. That device, a shadow of the version we’re snapping up now, had these advantages over the Osbourne Executive Portable: It weighed 1/100th as much; it cost 1/10th as much; and it had 150 times the processing speed, held 100 times the memory, and packed 150,000 times as much function per price.

The world went from a costly and cumbersome device to one most could carry and afford—with computing power (say it with me, Joe) literally unimaginable when the Osbourne hit the market.

One other thing. The iPhone accelerated the process of “dematerialization,” where technology is erased or largely replaced by another. The iPhone—or its Android or Microsoft competitors—eliminates or diminishes the need for the following “technologies”: radios, stereos, cameras, flashlights, maps, video games, TVs, photo albums, video editing equipment, desktop PCs, address books, notepads, tape recorders, photocopiers, newspapers, books, and libraries.

All in 25 years.

And think about this: According to Abundance, the average computer today that retails for $1,000 performs 100 billion calculations per second. The human brain performs 10 million billion calculations per second. In 15 years, based on the exponential growth we have seen in computing power since the old Osbourne, the average $1,000 computer will match the computing power of the human brain. In 15 years, Ryan will be 57 years old—13 years younger than Biden is now. In 25 years, when Ryan is 67, the off-the-shelf $1,000 computer will be able to perform calculations equal to 10 to the 26th power per second. That will equal the computing power of every brain on Earth.

Undoubtedly, Ryan’s and Biden’s brains will be firing at top speed to keep up with one another on Thursday night. But if their debate is anything like last week’s Romney-Obama tilt, it will be depressingly aloof to—and stubbornly unaware of—technological changes all around us.

Take energy, for example. Mitt Romney wants to expand the use of coal, nuclear, natural gas, and oil. In his own way, so does President Obama. Fine. Romney abused Obama for the $535 million bankruptcy of Solyndra, and Obama said Romney was addicted to subsidies for oil and natural gas. Fine.

Here’s something more interesting about the future. Exxon Mobil is investing $600 million right now in algae research. Yes. Fuel from algae, seaweed, and pond scum. It’s not fanciful or phony. It can power cars and factories with almost no greenhouse-gas emissions. Chevron and Shell have their own research projects. Algae could generate 30 times the energy of traditional biofuels like ethanol, a genuine Washington boondoggle.

Algae grows in any standing water, fresh or salt, and converts sunlight to sugar; in the process, it produces burnable fatty molecules similar to vegetable oils. In addition to Exxon’s investment, the Energy Department just awarded a $15 million grant to an experimental algae farm in Arizona. A private algae farm already exists in San Diego, where work is under way to engineer algae that can produce 10,000 gallons of fuel per acre (ethanol produces just 18 gallons, palm oil 625 gallons).

If successful and leveraged, the experiments could lead to a fuel capacity that could power the 250 million-car American fleet (average 25 mpg) on 18,750 square miles of land. That equals 0.49 percent of America’s land mass. Texas A&M University and universities in Hawaii, California, Georgia, and Ohio are chasing lower-cost algae fuel production. The U.S. Navy just devoted $500 million to producing algae-based fuel for helicopters.   

Remember those numbers on the exponential growth of computing power? Those advances are already inside self-driving cars (recently legalized in California, the most important place for cars in America) and will soon power nimble and deft personal home robots that can and eventually will care for the sick and aged at lower cost and with fewer mistakes. It will happen.

You can bet that Biden and Ryan will square off on the shopworn issues of tax rates and debt, Medicare and Medicaid, defense spending and Big Bird. Points will be made, and the theater critics will parse pauses, body language, and rhetorical jousts. But the future is moving at great speed. Governments and the private sector have an obligation to speak to these changes.

I can just hear the guffaws now. Right, have a vice presidential candidate or a presidential candidate or president talk about algae replacing crude oil or robots dispensing flu shots or laptop computers outthinking a senator.

Yes. Talk about the future. Understand its implications. Ease anxieties. Chart a course. See beyond the actuarial tables that assume everything—prices, productivity, costs, energy efficiencies—remain more or less the same. Yes, some of life is arithmetic. But the arithmetic that matters most is about the vast velocity and scope of change that lie ahead—not the drab and misleading gradualism of stasis.

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