Dec 12, 2020Liked by Noah Smith

Futurists need to be patient. The "Jetsons" will get here sooner or later. In the meantime some perspective is in order. 200 years ago people used garderobes, if they were lucky, to relieve themseives or chamber pots if they were not.

When my mother was born in rural Cardston, Alberta, Canada, in 1912, because they did not have a car they used a horse and buggy to get into town. Oil lamps or candles provided light. In the 1930s mom was quite daring going up in a barnstormer's biplane aircraft. When she was 57 we put a man on the moon. This was after the world put its economy on hold for the Great Depression of the 30s and World War 2.

When I went to work after graduate school as a management analyst working for Clark County, Nevada, in 1974, my main tool for helping do the county budget was an electromechanical adding machine, which through a set of electrically driven gears could be compelled to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, although it could take some seconds to get a result if you wanted to multiply or divide. My machine showed an inventory price of $995 when it was purchased new in 1965.

The reason why a "Jetson's" style future did not arrive in the 1970s or 1980s is that certain necessary predicates did not exist. Although much progress had been made, and we had abundent power, we did not have the capability to produce viable robotics that could do the complicated tasks that futurists predicted. The "bit" revolution was a necessary predicate to all future advances. Otherwise, we would still be using my electromechanical calculator. In fact the "bit" revolution has been absolutely necessary for the solar revolution this article predicts. (Which I do so hopefully look forward to, although it is not certain to happen in my lifetime.)

My mom had a saying she kept on her desk at work. "All things come to he who waiteth so long as he who waiteth worketh like hell while he waiteth." When all the nessary predicates are fulfilled the futurist's future will be upon us, but not a moment before.

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Dec 12, 2020Liked by Noah Smith

I wonder why the electricity is so high in Ca, though. Oregon has much lower rates and Ca uses more renewables. Is there a sort of transition we need to go through to get there?

Reading this and what you posted previously on twitter, the one chart you have showing reduced solar and wind prices, have got me thinking about getting an electric car. If it had a long enough range and I could easily recharge it on a long trip I would.

It just kinda feels like we have a big hump to get over somehow.

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I agree with you on the overall analysis, but now you've gotten me thinking about flying cars. Imagine the year is 1971 and you want to build a flying car. I was an undergraduate at MIT back then, so, odds are, I would have gone to the Undergraduate Research office and filled out a form to get funding, but what technologies would I have had to develop?

To start with, a flying car is not an airplane. It is more like a helicopter. You don't want long runways for takeoffs and landings. I'd have needed a helicopter grade engine. Helicopter grade engines existed, but they were heavy and expensive. I'd have needed to create a lighter, more powerful engine. I'd have also had to do something about the blades. Regulation or no regulation, helicopter blades are dangerous, so a flying car would have to have some kind of light weight cowling. Experimental hovercraft of the day were large, heavy, noisy and awkward. A flying car would need a new engine design and new air frame design.

Luckily, there were people working on this at MIT in 1971, but they were working on human powered flight, developing efficient drive mechanisms and lighter aircraft. The bicycle paved the way for the automobile, literally in fact, so perhaps those flying bicycles could pave a way, figuratively, for flying cars.

Also, a flying car had to be relatively easy to fly. Airplanes are much harder to fly than cars, and flying moving wing aircraft is harder than flying fixed wing. A pilot is expected to understand the physics of the craft and reason about it. Once things start rotating and moving in 3D instead of 2D, intuition stops being useful. A flying car needs a more advanced control system so it can operate intuitively even as it reasons about the complex physics involved.

In 1971, automotive computing was just in development. I remember seeing early test documents for digital engine controllers, but in my robotics class, I quickly realized that 1970s era microprocessors were quick enough for simple balancing tasks but not much more. It wouldn't be until the 1990s that they could control even a simple toy helicopter or quadcopter.

In some ways, the control situation was like the move from rail to automobile. Railroad engineers really were engineers. They had to reason about steam power plants, traction and moments of inertia. I remember reading an article from the 1890s about reviving the Erie Canal as a commercial route, but steam power, which would have been necessary, would have required an expensive trained workforce. Lenoir and Otto's work had yet to seep into the mainstream.

In 1971, one could imagine a flying car built using carbon fiber, new rip stop fabrics, a highly tuned internal combustion motor and some kind of cowled propulsion system perhaps using computer controlled blades. Electric motors would have been lighter and allowed better control without complex gearing, but battery technology - lead acid or NiCad - was not up to the job.

OPEC did not kill the flying car and solar power alone will not revive it. There were a lot of technological obstacles. Carbon fiber, for example, was a likely weight saving material, but in 1971 carbon fiber was hard to work with, poorly understood and not ready for prime time. For example, it could tear like a pair of much washed bell bottom jeans. It would take the better part of a decade before carbon fiber was common in everyday items like tennis rackets.

Things look a lot more promising as we approach 2021, 50 on. We have a huge basket of incredibly strong, light weight materials to work with. We can use finite element analysis, originally developed for offshore oil platforms, to design and build complex structures optimized for performance and safety. Electric motors and the semiconductors to control them have vastly improved. We have batteries that are just at the edge of powering flight, and battery technology is rapidly improving. We have computers and sensors that can turn a complex aerodynamic control task into something almost intuitive, though the problems with 737 MAX should give one pause. Maybe all that money spent on self driving cars will turn out to be well spent after all.

One can still see a lot of gaps, but in 1971, just about every corridor seemed at least infinite. (That's an MIT joke.) In 2021, there are still some long corridors, but one can imagine flying cars in some form in the next 10-20 years.

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The real measures of how well we're doing are leisure time, space (both private square footage and access to open spaces), ability to travel, the health of the environment around us, and resistance to short-term shocks like COVID and long-developing crises like climate change and normalized disinformation, ability to educate the next generation. Love to hear optimism about improving these things - it's in short supply.

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One other big thing that makes me very optimistic about solar and batteries (and also some other technologies like drones and 3D-printing) is their scalability. To some extent I think we've taken the connection between prosperity and functional institutions for granted because so many of the transformative technologies of the first industrial revolution required large scale coordination for successful deployment. With these new technologies however, you can deploy them in a much more distributed way - promising prosperity even to those regions in the world where institutions are lacking.

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Awesome work and future insights

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John is absolutely right about the need for control systems. Look at the difference something as simple as a bimetallic thermostat controlling an electric motor. In the 19th century, coking ovens would run until they clogged. Then they had to be shut down, cooled for weeks, cleaned out and then warmed up again, a process that could take more than a month. With a thermostat, the temperature could be controlled and coking ovens could be run continuously. Something you could pick up for maybe $50 at a hardware store could revolutionize an industry.

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Noah, I was sent this by a family member (I know I know it’s Prager but I can’t just say “it’s Prager!”) and was wondering if you could help me refute it? What are some of the obvious wrong points here? I think I spotted several but other points they make I’m not so sure about. The whole “500 years” figure I am pretty sure doesn’t take into account the fact that these batteries are rechargeable.


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«As a result of expensive energy, we started using less. Here, via NPR, is a graph of U.S. energy consumption per capita. Notice when it hits a ceiling.»

An important addition to this should be a mention of the "Jevon's Paradox" and his amazing 19th century paper on coal where it was first mentioned:


There is an excellent description with quantitative estimates of how the enormous improvements in productivity of the past 200 years are due almost entirely to the switching to coal and then to oil here by Cambridge historian E Wrigley:


Some interesting numbers here too:


The other big, big, big deal is that in many "advanced" countries electricity consumption per person *collapsed* and even more amazingly *starting in 2004-2005*, well before the Great Crisis of 2008-2009:



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I see a lot more of this type of "numerical optimism" coming in the upcoming year.

If I've learned anything over the last 4 years...our economy was doing pretty good and yet people were awfully pessimistic all the time. They were under Obama and Bush as well.

I used to think it was just the "office holder" who set the tone but I'm starting to believe most people overlook great articles like this because it's easier to "bellyache" than be excited/optimistic when confronted with awesome tech.

I mean, my family has oil wells in ND. Their finances are determined by fracking, etc.

And yet anyone can see...solar/batteries are running on some kind of "Moore's Law"-type cost curve. It's easy to see that in 10 years, we'll be installing more renewables in one or two years than we did in the previous decade.

It's almost impossible not to.

This is also why I'm 100% thinking climate change won't happen anything like what they think it will.

Few reasons for that (all related to solar/batteries really)

1. Fossil Fuel burning will start decreasing fast in about 2-3 more years the way things are going with EVs.

2. Enough countries have put the necessary regulatory regimes in place that we likely will be burning dramatically less fossil fuels by 2050.

3. Crop and livestock productivity will dramatically increase because of some of the new soil "carbon capture" stuff that dramatically improves crop yields. This will lead to a huge surge in forest restoration.

4. I think by 2050, we'll have carbon capture programs that put us into a new paradigm of sucking up carbon both with plants but also with sea algae (which soak up tons of carbon if we don't burn up our oceans).

Lot of this stuff looks fanciful now, but with electricity going to zero in a few decades...it's hard to see a future for coal beyond 2027-2030 and gas maybe past 2040. It begs the question...with electricity super cheap and solar energy being orders of magnitude larger in quantity than anything we do today...what's in the way of us being totally electric in 20-30 years time and Earth's natural systems recovering enough to start sucking down more carbon than we put into it?

The math behind these cost drops is pretty astonishing and almost guarantees it if we keep going on this type of a cost reduction line.

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Two things:

- Will you be doing any follow up pieces laying out how specific technology changes will lead to specific productivity gains?

- Do you have a similar piece coming for breakthroughs in medicine - immunotherapy, cancer vaccines, mRNA vaccines, etc?

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I suppose another possibility for the productivity slowdown is that "bits" tech and "atoms" tech are complementary factors in driving productivity. That would be even more optimistic, as it would imply that future "atoms" tech will be able to leverage existing "bits" even more.

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The cost of generation of new renewables is pretty low. Retail tariffs include a lot of other stuff like transmission, distribution, marketing expense, billing, taxes and retail margin that tend to pump up what you pay. If you don’t like the tariff, getting rooftop solar in California is an outrageously good deal from what I have heard.

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