Making The World A Billion Times Better

Worth A Look, Energy, Frontier Centre

MIT was so advanced in 1965 (the year I entered as a freshman) that it actually had a computer. Housed in its own building, it cost $11 million (in today's dollars) and was shared by all students and faculty. Four decades later, the computer in your cellphone is a million times smaller, a million times less expensive and a thousand times more powerful. That's a billion-fold increase in the amount of computation you can buy per dollar.

Yet as powerful as information technology is today, we will make another billion-fold increase in capability (for the same cost) over the next 25 years. That's because information technology builds on itself — we are continually using the latest tools to create the next so they grow in capability at an exponential rate. This doesn't just mean snazzier cellphones. It means that change will rock every aspect of our world. The exponential growth in computing speed will unlock a solution to global warming, unmask the secret to longer life and solve myriad other worldly conundrums.

This exponential progress in the power of information technology goes back more than a century to the data-processing equipment used in the 1890 census, the first U.S. census to be automated. It has been a smooth — and highly predictable — phenomenon despite all the vagaries of history through that period, including two world wars, the Cold War and the Great Depression. I say highly predictable because, thanks to its exponential power, only technology possesses the scale to address the major challenges — such as energy and the environment, disease and poverty — confronting society. That, at least, is the major conclusion of a panel, organized by the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Engineering, on which I recently participated.

Take energy. Today, 70 per cent of it comes from fossil fuels, a 19th-century technology. But if we could capture just one ten-thousandth of the sunlight that falls on Earth, we could meet 100 per cent of the world's energy needs using this renewable and environmentally friendly source. We can't do that now because solar panels rely on old technology, making them expensive, inefficient, heavy and hard to install. But a new generation of panels based on nanotechnology (which manipulates matter at the level of molecules) is starting to overcome these obstacles. The tipping point at which energy from solar panels will actually be less expensive than fossil fuels is only a few years away. The power we are generating from solar is doubling every two years; at that rate, it will be able to meet all our energy needs within 20 years.

Nanotechnology itself is an information technology and therefore subject to what I call the "law of accelerating returns," a continual doubling of capability about every year. Venture capital groups and high-tech companies are investing billions of dollars in these new renewable energy technologies. I'm confident that the day is close at hand when we will be able to obtain energy from sunlight using nano-engineered solar panels and store it for use on cloudy days in nano-engineered fuel cells for less than it costs to use environmentally damaging fossil fuels.

It's important to understand that exponentials seem slow at first. In the mid-1990s, halfway through the Human Genome Project to identify all the genes in human DNA, researchers had succeeded in collecting only 1 per cent of the human genome. But the amount of genetic data was doubling every year, and that is actually right on schedule for an exponential progression. The project was slated to take 15 years, and if you double 1 per cent seven more times you surpass 100 per cent. In fact, the project was finished two years early. This helps explain why people underestimate what is technologically feasible over long periods of time — they think linearly while the actual course of progress is exponential.

We see the same progression with other biological technologies as well. Until just recently, medicine — like energy — was not an information technology. This is now changing as scientists begin to understand how biology works as a set of information processes. The approximately 23,000 genes in our cells are basically software programs, and we are making exponential gains in modeling and simulating the information processes that cracking the genome code has unlocked. We also have new tools, likewise just a few years old, that allow us to actually reprogram our biology in the same way that we reprogram our computers. For example, when the fat insulin receptor gene was turned off in mice, they were able to eat ravenously yet remain slim and obtain the health benefits of being slim. They didn't get heart disease or diabetes and lived 20 per cent longer. There are now more than a thousand drugs in the pipeline to turn off the genes that promote obesity, heart disease, cancer and other diseases.

We can also turn enzymes off and on, and add genes to the body. I'm an adviser to a company that removes lung cells, adds a new gene, reproduces the gene-enhanced cell a million-fold and then injects it back into the body where it returns to the lungs. This has cured a fatal disease, pulmonary hypertension, in animals and is now undergoing human trials.

The important point is this: Now that we can model, simulate and reprogram biology just like we can a computer, it will be subject to the law of accelerating returns, a doubling of capability in less than a year. These technologies will be more than a thousand times more capable in a decade, more than a million times more capable in two decades. We are now adding three months every year to human life expectancy, but given the exponential growth of our ability to reprogram biology, this will soon go into high gear. According to my models, 15 years from now we'll be adding more than a year each year to our remaining life expectancy. This is not a guarantee of living forever, but it does mean that the sands of time will start pouring in rather than only pouring out.

What's more, this exponential progression of information technology will affect our prosperity as well. The World Bank has reported, for example, that poverty in Asia has been cut in half over the past decade due to information technologies and that at current rates it will be cut by another 90 per cent over the next decade. That phenomenon will spread around the globe.

Clearly, the transformation of our 21st-century world is under way, and information technology, in all its forms, is helping the future look brighter … exponentially.