June 07, 2004

Future Tech Library

This whole energy innovation thread that Steven Den Beste has written about reminds me of a very basic principle in innovation. There are two kinds of innovation, incremental and disruptive (revolutionary). Incremental advances are the most common. You take your vacuum tube and you make it 3% better. A disruptive or revolutionary technology would be replacing vacuum tubes with solid state transistors.

In the world of incremental technology, SDB's pessimistic world view about the possibility of feasible radical advances is just good sense. Nobody is ever going to build a space elevator out of kevlar no matter how you improve the weave of the stuff.

But there is another world, the world of disruptive technology. It's a world where science fiction turns into science fact because where the author talks about beanstalks made of "unobtanium" a japanese electron microscopist turns unobtanium into carbon nanotubes one day in 1991. And all of a sudden the race is on to realize the high strength potential of this disruptive advance in material science. All of a sudden a hundred boyhood tales from pulp science fiction are no longer mere flights of fancy because material science has caught up.

What I think is missing in the optimists' presentations is in defining their "unobtaniums". If you don't understand that you're really asking for a miracle, you get the idea that making these things happen is just a matter of time. It's not just time but time plus disruptive advances. How much better does energy capture + energy transmission efficiency have to get before solar power satellites become commercially feasible? How low do you have to have sunny location land prices before a terrestrial mirror solar station become practical?

Something complex, like novel energy forms, might well require several different disruptive advances. Solar Power Stations require a revolution in lower launch costs, significant increases in collection efficiency and better orbit to ground transmission efficiency, for example. Core taps require radical improvements in drilling technique both in the ability to drill deep and to drill cheap.

Such advances might be coming from any of several different fields. Laser drilling seems to be the best hope for core taps and that's largely come from impressive work done by defense contractors researching SDI missile defense systems. The oil extraction industry sees laser drilling as a way to improve speed and thus efficiency in deploying very expensive drill platforms.

A few hundred years ago, it would be ludicrous to even try to keep track of all the miracles you need. But, as I've noted before, the rate at which disruptive technologies occur has been accelerating for centuries and it's no longer unrealistic to think that there will be enough new disruptive inventions in our lifetimes to start keeping more formal track of the impractical dreams of today.

Let's take flying cars for instance. We currently have at least Posted by TMLutas at June 7, 2004 04:13 PM