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Saturday, March 28, 2015

America is Inventing Again

Introduction –
America is inventing again.  After a few decades of stagnation, American inventors and entrepreneurs are pursuing audacious goals.  Some of these goals are already partly achieved, and some of them are still hopes in the minds of the inventors.  But there is no question that new inventions, currently in active development, will change the way the world works, travels, and lives.  Some of these inventions, if successful, will end the threat of climate change; others may improve the quality of life for people suffering from illness.  Some of the inventions may cause shattering economic disruption, as many jobs will become obsolete and people become unemployed.  

There are many candidates for inventions that may change the world.  I chose a few innovations that seemed the most obvious to me.  The inventions considered in this post include: 
Small-scale Nuclear Fusion; Autonomous Electrical Vehicles; Cancer Treatments and Genomic Therapies; Hyperloop Pneumatic Tube Transportation; Oil and Gas Production from Shale Reservoirs; Asteroid Mining; and Crowd-Sourcing. 

America is Inventing Again 
In the science fiction novels of my youth, people traveled from city to city in pneumatic tubes.  Energy was cheap and abundant.  City dwellers didn't own a car – they simply summoned a nearby autonomous taxi with a hand-held device, and the driverless taxi took them wherever they wanted to go.  Internal combustion engines were a thing of the past.  Spaceflight was a matter of private business, and commercial enterprises mined the asteroids.

[0n the negative side, in these futuristic worlds, autonomous taxis spied on their clients and there was pervasive unemployment in society.  But that will be the topic of a different post.]

For better or worse, the future is here.  America is inventing again.

Innovation in the American economy noticeably slowed in the 1980s and 1990s.  Various authors have noted this in articles and books with titles like “Why has human progress ground to a halt?” ( http://aeon.co/magazine/science/why-has-human-progress-ground-to-a-halt/ ) and “The Great Stagnation” ( http://www.amazon.com/The-Great-Stagnation-Low-Hanging-Eventually-ebook/dp/B004H0M8QS ). In my view, the stagnation was caused by pressure from the investment community to raise short-term corporate profits.  Basic businesses with physical products (oil, automobiles) were challenged to match the rate of return on capital of software companies (e.g., Microsoft and Oracle).  Of course, this was impossible. Business consultants, who appeared like weeds during that time, advised companies to close their laboratories and research centers.  Without research to develop new products, the economy stagnated.

Recent Innovation
But that began to change in the new millennium.  New companies such as Apple and Google showed that innovation, not cost-cutting, is the road to success.  Apple introduced attractive new products which changed the way we live, and in the process became the largest company in the world. 
Young companies delivered innovation in computers, marketing and telecommunications.  Google, Apple, Oracle, Facebook, Microsoft,  Intel, eBay, and Amazon were all formed after 1971, a date that author Michael Hanlon marks as the end of our golden quarter century of innovation. These companies are the survivors of the technology explosion and subsequent crash of the 1990s.  The companies attempted things which seemed outrageous to their competitors – achieved their goals and made it profitable.

Billionaire Elon Musk is the archetype of the new entrepreneur and inventor.  Musk made his fortune creating software for the Internet and used his money to pursue other dreams.  Elon Musk is a founder of  numerous companies: Zip2 (internet software company), Pay-Pal (internet commerce platform), Tesla Motors (maker of all-electric cars), Space-X (the private launch company supplying the International Space Station, and SolarCity (solar power company), and is developing the Hyperloop transportation concept.  Musk’s ventures are amazing in terms of their diversity, success, and revolutionary thinking.  Other entrepreneurs, inspired by his example, are tackling equally audacious goals.

Both young and old companies are now researching revolutionary ideas.  International competitors are racing to catch up with American innovators.  I believe most of the new technologies being developed will come to fruition in ten to fifteen years.  These ideas will change the way we live, work, and move.  The new technologies will be more efficient, more environmentally safe, and improve the quality of life for consumers.  However, changes will also inevitably result in economic disruption as existing products and companies are rendered obsolete by the new technology.   The “creative destruction” of new technology will be the subject of a future post.

Let’s look at some of the prospective technologies:
Small-Scale Nuclear Fusion Energy
 The most revolutionary concept is an effort by Lockheed to develop small-scale nuclear fusion reactors.  Lockheed hopes to build a working fusion reactor within five years, and to commercialize the concept soon after.  Lockheed’s concept involves using nested containment systems to confine and control the plasma in the reaction chamber.  Unlike competing fusion concepts involving massive facilities, Lockheed claims that their reactor will be small enough to place on a truck.   If Lockheed is successful, they will finally deliver on the promise of cheap, plentiful and environmentally safe nuclear energy.

The consequences of a workable fusion reactor would be enormous.  Energy represents about 8 percent of the world’s economy.  A successful small fusion reactor would make most of that obsolete:  fossil-fuel companies, physical facilities (wells, pipelines, mines, tankers, storage tanks, gas stations), contracts and employees.  The international world order would also be shaken, as the world’s dependence on petroleum exporting countries would be ended.  Those nations’ principal source of revenue would also be ended.  The economic, social, and political repercussions would be significant.   On the positive side, successful fusion energy would be the best means of curbing CO2 emissions, which threaten a wide range of disasters due to climate change. 

Automobile Technologies – Electric, Autonomous, Available Transportation
American company Tesla is now producing the most successful electric cars on the market.  The company’s inventors are routinely creating new advances in efficiency and range for their vehicles.  Tesla has audacious plans for replacing most of America’s gasoline-driven vehicles with electric vehicles. 

Google, America’s search-engine giant, has also diversified into automobile technology.  Google is well along the way toward producing self-driving vehicles.  Such vehicles could create safer roadways, while leaving passengers free to conduct other business during their travels.  This concept is no longer science fiction; these vehicles are well on the way to becoming reality.  Google has a fleet of over 100 vehicles operating in Southern California, which have traveled a total of 300,000 miles.  .  Other companies are jumping on the bandwagon: Merecedes, Baidu, Apple and others are all working on self-driving car technology. 
Apple is reportedly working on a synthesis of several concepts.  Google's concept is the self-driving car; Tesla's concept is the all-electric car, and Uber's concept is that every car is a taxi.   Apple's concept is all of the above.  The Apple car would be electric and self-driving; consumers will be able to summon a ride from a fleet of autonomous taxis – and can dispense with individual car ownership. 

There is a potential for huge economic disruption from new automobile technology.  There are 3.6 million professional drivers in America, mostly driving repetitive routes which can be easily automated.  There will be a cascade of job losses resulting from reduced car ownership, as well. 

Medical Advances
America’s “War on Cancer” dates to the late 1950’s, when researchers in the U.S. Public Health Service began publishing the links between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.   The war was officially declared in 1971, by President Nixon.  However, after 50 years of research and between $!00 billion and $500 billion in spending, cancer remains an intractable enemy.  Critics say that death rates from cancer have declined only 5% from the levels in 1971.  (However, statistics on the life expectancy of cancer patients would yield a more favorable report.)  Finally, new research and new therapies are showing promise of ending early death from many types of cancer.
 
The Human Genome Project was an ambitious effort to read the entire sequence of 3 billion base pairs in human DNA, completed in 2003.  The project required 13 years and nearly 2.7 billion dollars to complete.  But gene-sequencing technology has increased in speed, and decreased in cost, such that a complete DNA sequence is currently under $10,000.  Within the decade, the cost to obtain and individual patient’s genome is expected to fall to about $100, and may be completed within an hour.
The genome project, coupled with better understanding of cancer’s adaptive traits, is allowing the design of drugs specifically tailored to particular cancers in particular patients.  The new therapies mobilize the patient’s own immune system against the cancer, and block the cancer’s attempts to evade the body’s immune response.  Experimental trials of new therapies are showing success rates of 50% to 90% in achieving full remission.

Deeper understanding of all cellular systems is promising to yield cures for other diseases and injuries as well.  Stem cell research offers the hope of regenerating damaged organs and nerves, of restoring sight, or healing victims of spinal cord injuries.  Medical advances will not revolutionize the economy or change the most of us go about our day-to-day business. But for many, these advances literally mean life itself.

 Hyperloop
The Hyperloop is a transportation concept touted by entrepreneur Elon Musk.  

America’s flight systems are obsolete and overloaded, particularly on the east coast.  Airports are overloaded; the airways between cities are at capacity; air-traffic control systems are at capacity; gates are overscheduled; passenger loading and unloading zones are a nightmare. On the best days, airports operate smoothly, but weather delays or any system upset causes a cascade of cancellations and costs for passengers.  Elon Musk thinks it is time for something better.

The Hyperloop is a pneumatic tube transportation system, intended to provide passenger transportation between cities at moderate distances (up to 900 miles (1500 km)).  The tubes would operate at a near vacuum (1/1000th of atmospheric pressure), and capsules would carry passengers at speeds ranging from 300 mph (480 kph) to 760 mph (1220 kph), for an average speed of 600 mph (960 kph).  Capsules would be levitated by air pressure to reduce friction, and would be accelerated by external induction power.  Musk’s Tesla Corporation has published a fairly detailed description of engineering, design, and costs for a hyperloop between Los Angeles and San Fransisco.  Initial design parameters call for transporting 840 passengers per hour, but engineers expect to increase that capacity, assuming that demand increases.

In January, 2015, Elon Musk announced plans to construct a 5 – mile hyperloop test facility in Texas, and in Feburary 2015, a company was formed with the intention of building the Los Angeles to San Francisco hyperloop. 

It seems to me that similar tube-based transportation systems could also be used in large cities for express commuter travel from suburbs and outlying communities, with the benefits of reduced traffic congestion, travel time, and air pollution.

Hyperloop concept sketches.

Oil and Gas Production from Shale Reservoirs
Recent innovations in petroleum technology have enabled dramatic improvements in production from shale reservoirs.  Large volumes of oil and gas are trapped in certain shale formations; this oil and gas was long considered unrecoverable using conventional production techniques.  Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing of shale formation opens channels for the fluids to flow, unlocking the petroleum resources.  Many new technologies were developed and integrated in order to localize the fractures for maximum effect.  These technologies continue to be improved.   An oil well may be subject to as many as forty small localized fracture treatments, doubling the well production as compared to wells with simple fracture treatment. 

The shale revolution reversed three decades of decline in American oil and gas production.  The shale revolution appears to have overturned the science and beliefs about “Peak Oil”; at least over the course of the next decade.  Gas from shale reservoirs has grown from 5 billion cubic feet per day (bcf/d) to over 33 bcf/d since 2007.  Shale gas now exceeds gas from conventional reservoirs in the United States.   Oil production in the United States has undergone a similar revival, increasing from 5 million barrels per day in 2008 to over 9 million barrels per day in 2015. 

Saudi Arabia, facing the loss of market share, has maintained production levels.  The increased supply has created a glut on world oil markets, and caused a crash in oil prices.  Oil storage tanks in the United States are literally full, and oil tankers are sitting at anchor in America’s harbors, waiting for space to unload their cargos.  Falling prices have had a global geo-political impact, causing economic disruption in major oil exporting nations and states, notably Russia and Alaska. 
American shale oil producers are not immune to the disruption from falling oil prices.  These companies have been severely hurt financially.  They have suffered financial losses, and have been forced to terminate many workers. 

But the technology for shale oil production cannot be put  back into the bottle.  Some companies that were producing oil for a break-even cost of $70 per barrel will find a way to produce successfully at $40 per barrel.  I believe that American oil production may falter due to low oil prices, but will soon resume its upward trajectory.

Asteroid Mining
America’s billionaires are lining up for space ventures more ambitious than earth orbit.  Two companies have been formed which seek to explore and mine asteroids for profit.   Billionaires Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, James Cameron, Charles Simonyi, Ram Shriam, Ross Perot Jr., and Richard Branson, are all investors in Planetary Resources, Incorporated.  It is a serious venture, which has attracted the attention and substantial financial support of the world’s most capable and successful entrepreneurs.

The potential benefits of asteroid mining would be that acquisition of critical materials – metals and water – for missions in space, without the expense of lifting these materials from the bottom of the earth’s gravity well. 

Crowd-sourcing
Not only billionaires are inventing in America. 

Crowd-sourcing itself is a new, Internet-enabled innovation.  And it is democratizing the process of invention, allowing the best ideas to attract funding.  Crowd-sourcing is a process of gathering support for an idea or program over the Internet.  A few of the major crowd-sourcing platforms are Kickstarter, Indigogo, Rockethub, Crowdfunder, Crowdrise, Quirky.  Crowd-sourcing is usually considered a process for funding a project.  But crowd-sourcing may also refer to fund-raising for charity, for specific types of artistic or inventive endeavors, or collaborative efforts requiring active participation by its users. Kickstarter projects may include inventions, books, art or games.   Interested patrons can make a donation, and in exchange receive a reward – a book, an artistic item, a T-shirt or mug representing the project.  Not all projects are successful, but many projects have already been completed, to the satisfaction of entrepreneurs and supporters.  Kickstarter has already received over 1.5 billion dollars in pledges from 7.8 million donors, to fund 200,000 creative projects.  Some of these projects may become major businesses.  And some of those entrepreneurs may become billionaires funding more audacious projects.

Other crowd-sourcing efforts involve other collaborative efforts.  Some of these involve volunteer-generated computer code, amateur astronomy or analysis of historical documents.  Crowd-sourcing is being applied in many, many fields.  Wikipedia is one of the best examples of a collaborative, crowdsourced product.  Wikipedia is the 6th most popular Internet site, and the world’s most widely used reference work.

Crowd-sourcing is still in its infancy.  Crowd-sourcing is realizing the true potential of the Internet, to bring people together and link them in effort towards common goals.  It represents a higher level of civilization that is now just beginning.

Conclusion

America is inventing again, and it will change the world.   The future is almost here.
--------------------
References:
Innovation
Author believes that the period of major innovation was the golden quarter century following WWII.    Everything that defines the modern world had its beginning between 1945 and 1971.  Author includes cultural developments – feminism, civil rights, decolonization, with technological developments: electronics, television, computers, the green revolution.  Author refers to a book called “The Great Stagnation”.   Author believes that innovation is no longer occurring in revolutionary jumps, but in incremental improvements, and that social progress has also stalled.

McKinsey Global Institute’s list of 10 Disruptive (World-changing) Technologies

Small-Scale Nuclear Fusion
Lockheed Martin’s page on compact nuclear fusion.
A review of scientific views of the Lockheed claims, with both positive and skeptical views.

Energy represents 8.8 percent of US GDP (2006).   Energy represents 8.2 percent of the global economy by one calculation; 7.9 percent by another.  Conclusion – Energy represents about 8 percent of the global economy; about 9 percent of the US economy.

Autonomous, Electrical Vehicles
China’s fleet of electric or hybrid vehicles is rapidly growing.  Sales of private electric and hybrid vehicles are soaring, encouraged by government subsidies.  Authorities plan to add 200,000 buses and 100,000 taxis running on hybrid or electrical power by 2020.

Mercedes is working on the car-human interface for autonomous vehicles.   An earlier model demonstrated feasibility of the autonomous automobile. 

Google is leading in terms of developing self-driving cars.  Competitors started later, but are serious in their efforts to bring their own vehicles to market.  Both old-line companies and giant new technology companies are participating in the race to bring the first and best autonomous vehicles to market.
Apple’s effort is perhaps the most interesting.  Apple is pursuing a synthesis of the new transportation ideas.  Their vehicles will be self-driving, like Google’s; their vehicles will be all-electric, like Tesla’s.  And their business model will involve fleets of cars available anywhere, like taxis, and accessible by mobile devices like Uber’s ride-sharing service.  This concept, for many people, would over-turn the paradigm of self-ownership of a vehicle.  As a society, the Apple concept would be more efficient.  A fleet of autonomous taxis would require fewer vehicles on the road, and require fewer vehicles to be manufactured.

A fairly comically stupid article about how driverless cars will put traffic policemen out of work – without noting that 3.6 million commercial drivers will be put out of work. 

Baidu and Sony pursuing driverless car technology.

Cancer Therapies and Genomic Therapies
Cancer Immunotherapy

Federal cost of War on Cancer, $108 billion

Total cost, $500 billion.  Minimal results to date.   If we cured cancer, the result would be, on average, an extension of human life by on 3.3. years.


Hyperloop
Engineering, design and cost discussion of a proposed hyperloop from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
Expected to provide high-speed passenger transportation for cities that are less than 1500 km (900 miles) apart.
The hyperloop capsules are expected to travel between 300 mph and 760 mph (960 kph – 1220 kph), for an average speed of about 600 mph.  The 350 mile trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco would require about 35 minutes.
The tube is operated at a near-vacuum, at about 1/1000 of an atmospheric pressure at sea level.  Capsule would be levitated by air pressure to reduce friction.  Initial design calls for transport of 840 passengers per hour.   Capacity is expected to be easily increased by shorter intervals between departures.

Oil and Gas Production from Shale Reservoirs
US shale production from shale reservoirs has increased ten-fold, from 2.5 BCF/d to 25 BCF/d, in eight years since 2007.

Shale gas production has increased from 5 BCF in 2007, to 33 BCF in 2013.   Gas from shale wells exceeded supply from conventional wells in 2013 and continues to increase.

 Increased supply has caused prices to decline by over 60%. 
US oil production has nearly doubled since 2008.  Shale oil production reversed a three-decade production decline.
US oil production increased from a low of 5 million bopd in 2008 to over 9 million bopd in 2015. 

Asteroid Exploration
Lockheed Martin is developing the Orion multipurpose spacecraft.

Company working toward asteroid exploration and mining.  Currently developing interim products.  Investors include a bevy of billionaires, including Richard Branson, Larry Page, other Google and Microsoft billionaires, and Ross Perot, Jr.

Another company intending asteroid exploration and mining.  Currently developing interim products.

CrowdSourcing
Definition of Crowd-sourcing.

Kickstarter.

Top ten sites for crowd-sourced fundraising.

Small-business funding through crowd-sourcing.

Directory of Crowd-sourcing sites.

Amateur astronomy site.

Crowd-sourcing scientific projects, including historical document analysis.

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