TECHNOLOGY LIMITATIONS
by Karl Arnold Belser
9 February 2014



Tyler Cowen's book The Great Stagnation as well as Robert Gordon's article Is U.S.  Growth Over argue that the world has seen an unprecedented technological growth over the last couple of centuries that has allowed the Earth to support more people and has allowed those people to enjoy a higher standards of living. They  ask the rhetorical question: What changes are coming that would lead to even more growth, given that there have been no significant technological developments in the last 30 years that would support an increasing population and given that the human population of Earth is growing and  putting severe pressure on the environment? In my opinion the future looks very challenging for the human race to survive in its current structure.

However, Nacim Taleb points out in his books The Black Swan and Antifragile, Things That Gain from Disorder, the things that will change the future will be surprises and result from luck that cannot be predicted.  This situation puts the human race in the precarious position of not knowing what will happen.

I personally am optimistic that the human race will survive through human ingenuity, but probably with a radically changed structure of society.  To that end, the purpose of this BLOG is to explore the adjacent possible.

Let me discuss some specific technology limits:

First, I spent apart of my career in Magnetic recording and in semiconductor design. I observe that the exponential growth in semiconductors described by Moore's Law is close to it's limits. Similarly perpendicular magnetic recording is close to its limits. The size limits of the features in both technologies is about 10 nanometers (10 billionths of a meter), which is about the size of 100 carbon atoms lined up in a row. At this scale the normal laws of physics (Maxwell's equations) are corrupted by quantum mechanical effects and the devices, as we know them today, no longer work at smaller dimensions.

Quantum mechanics describes the behavior of individual atoms and collections of atoms (molecules), and the study of how matter behaves at scales below about 10 nanometers is called nano technology. There is tremendous interest in nano technology, but to date there have been few practical discoveries. So there is hope for new invention, but it is likely that inventions here will be involved with exploring the human genome, which is on the same order of size as the nono machines. These discoveries may result in longer life times and better health, but it is doubtful that they will provide more food or other resources.

Next, the exponential growth that has already apparently happened is the dissemination of computer and Internet technology to a large percentage of the world's population. This connectedness might put the world's population in a better position to discover new and meaningful technology. It might also allow the fittest to survive coming crises by using on-line resources. As I point out in The Internet, a Paradigm Shift in Learning,  many more people have the chance to educate themselves and contribute to society.  However, this education will probably not allow more people toe use fewer resources unless everyone is confined to a very small space to which limited resources are supplied for survival of each person. 

Finally, the technologies of the Green Revolution have apparently run their course. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) have helped increase crop yields, but today GMO is so controversial and problematic  that Monsanto is redirecting its efforts to develop true hybrids that have desirable fruit or grain characteristics as described in Monsanto is Going Organic in a Quest for a Better Veggie. This occurrence is a veiled indication that new and more productive crops are not going to come from genetic engineering, at least in the near future. However if there is global warming and climate change as I describe in
Global Warming as a Black Swan for SurvivalGMO and new hybrid crops will be needed to tolerate high temperatures and lack of water.

Assuming that there will be limited technological innovation  toward more food and other resources, the name of the game will be energy usage per capita. The United States as a result of the natural gas revolution, has become more energy independent. This means that the fuel for heating, running factories, operating cars, making fertilizer, purification of water and air conditioning will likely be sufficient to withstand the climate change and resource depletion that seem to be in the offing.
This energy, along with the currently unpopular usage of coal, will probably be sufficient to sustain a steady state economy for a long time to come.

   
Last updated February 10, 2014
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