Market watchers like to follow trends because they are often a good indicator of what will happen next. The near future usually does look like the recent past, but not always. Sometimes we hit an inflection point. That can make things veer sharply from the trend and that change things in a way that can be truly transformational.
For example, for the first two decades of the 20th century, electricity and the internal combustion engine had limited impact, but around 1920 they became transformative and drove a 50-year productivity boom unlike anything before or since. Something similar happened with digital technology around 1995.
Today, we are likely on the cusp of three major inflection points in energy, synthetic biology and computation that will have that kind of transformative power. The impact of any one of these is hard to foresee, but when you take all three in tandem it raises the possibility of entering a completely new era. The future may be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
1. The Energy Revolution
When President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels at the White house in 1979, it was largely seen as a public relations stunt. The technology was far too expensive to be practical and more in the realm of a tree-hugger’s pipe dream than a real alternative to fossil fuels. When President Reagan took office in 1981, one of his first moves was to take the solar panels down.
Yet the price of solar energy has plummeted over the last decade by more than 90% and, as the World Economic Forum reports, wind and solar now produce energy cheaper than coal and gas in North America. In fact, in some sunny parts of the world, solar costs less than half as much as coal. That’s a major shift.
What’s more, we can only expect renewable energy to get cheaper in the future as a revolution in materials science allows us to build more efficient solar panels and wind turbines. That will mean that we can not only benefit from cleaner energy, we will also be able to get it much cheaper than fossil fuels, which will be a boon to productivity.
The one sticking point continues to be battery technology, which is still far too expensive. If we can’t store the energy generated from renewables when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, we still need fossil fuels to take up the slack. However, here too there is significant progress and we’re likely to see a scaled solution within a decade.
2. The Rise Of Synthetic Biology
Much like Neil Armstrong walking on the moon in 1969, the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, was a landmark event, culminating decades of human advancement. Much less talked about, but approaching the same level of importance, was Jennifer Doudna’s discovery of CRISPR in 2012, which accelerated gene editing much as Henry Ford’s assembly line accelerated the manufacture of automobiles.
Yet as Andrew Hessel, CEO of Humane Genomics, a seed-stage company developing virus-based therapies for cancer, explained to me, the true revolution will come when the value of a sequenced genome exceeds the cost to produce one. He believes we’re beginning to hit that inflection point now as the ecosystem of tools is beginning to both mature and accelerate.
What’s driving the shift is the move from merely reading genomes to writing them. The Human Genome Project gave us the ability to learn what specific genes actually do. For example, if we know which gene is actually causing a cancer, we can deploy therapies for that particular mutation rather than merely classifying the tumor based on where it is located, such as in the breast or the prostate gland. That’s been helpful, but limited.
Actually being able to write genes is something else entirely. Think about a genetic disease like sickle cell anemia or cystic fibrosis. By replacing the mutated gene with a healthy one, we can cure diseases that afflict millions. We can also create biological materials, such as those presently derived from fossil fuels and even use DNA for data storage.
3. The End of Moore’s Law And The AI Explosion
What’s been driving advancement in energy and synthetic biology has been the continuous improvement in digital technology. With more powerful computers and algorithms, we can make discoveries far more cheaply. This accelerated advancement is what makes important inflection points possible.
For example, the Materials Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory uses supercomputers to simulate the physics of materials and identify new possibilities hundreds of times faster. Citrine Informatics uses machine learning algorithms to analyze materials databases. It is technologies like these that are driving advancement in energy storage.
That’s why the most important inflection point today may be the end of Moore’s law. For decades, we’ve become accustomed to a new generation of chips coming out every few years that are twice as powerful as what came before. Each advancement in processor speed opened up new possibilities. Yet that process is now slowing and we can expect it to stop altogether in the coming years.
Clearly, the future is not digital. To keep advancement going in future decades, we will depend on new computing architectures, like quantum computing and neuromorphic chips. These, in turn, will require us to not only require new machines, but new computer languages and algorithmic approaches
Preparing For A New Era Of Innovation
For all of the importance of the digital revolution, it pales in comparison to the innovation unlocked by the inflection points hit around 1920. Electricity and internal combustion drove a 50-year long productivity boom. Compare that to the relatively meager productivity boost we got from digital computing at the end of 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s.
That’s why we should be encouraged that the new technology breakthroughs in things like energy and synthetic biology, not to mention materials science, are rooted in the physical rather than the virtual world. As impressive as smartphones are, we can’t eat them, live in them or wear them.
The new computing architectures we can expect to see gain traction over the next decade will also be significantly different. Quantum computers, which will be able to create almost unimaginable large computing spaces, will enable us to simulate physical systems. Neuromorphic chips, which can be thousands of times more energy efficient than digital chips, will enable us to put computing power at the edge of systems, rather than the center or the cloud.
In short, what these inflection points add up to is a new era of innovation that will be vastly different than what we’ve become used to over the past few decades. That is, in fact, what makes an inflection point so important and powerful. What comes after ends up looking vastly different than what came before.
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