Singularity, Energy, Complexity, Economy
I'm a Singularity critic. I can't help seeing Joshie and Post-Human Services from Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story
There's an IEEE post by Robin Hanson "Economics of the Singularity" which pretends to explain how the Singularity would work from an economic perspective. I feel it fails, particularly discussing the Industrial Revolution: "We call this transition the Industrial Revolution, but that does not mean we understand it well or even know precisely how and why it arose."
a few matters of interest to how the Industrial Revolution arose, and some precursors were set by European geography, politics, philosophy, and political traditions (separate form politics themselves), all of which set the stage. But the key feeder of the Industrial Revolution is exceedingly plain to see: Energy.+Gail Tverberg
provides an excellent analysis of this here:
"The Long-Term Tie Between Energy Supply, Population, and the Economy" (August 29, 2012).http://ourfiniteworld.com/2012/08/29/the-long-term-tie-between-energy-supply-population-and-the-economy/
The relationship was recognized much earlier, in 1957, by USN Admiral Hyman G. Rickover ("father of the nuclear navy"):
"Energy Resources and Our Future"http://www.resilience.org/stories/2006-12-02/energy-resources-and-our-future-remarks-admiral-hyman-rickover-delivered-1957
That's a remarkable piece of insight, foresight, and prediction which holds up very well today (his oil exhaustion predictions are fairly close to current estimates, population estimates were low, but he pre-dated the Green Revolution which boosted growth, and then subsequent moderations via demographic effects. For a military man to anticipate much of the ecology, counterculture, and limits-to-growth movements is really telling.
I'm pretty sure Rickover would have been aware of peak oil as Hubbert's work was published in 1956 and was being discussed at the time, as Google's Ngram viewer illustrates: http://goo.gl/JdkaW
(FWIW: Discussion took off markedly after 2000: http://goo.gl/0GlKT
)Oil isn't just an energy source, it's energy storage
We can generate energy via renewables, but finding places to store
it is a Hard Problem. Especially in transportation, which relies almost exclusively on it and accounts for 25% of total energy use. Of the alternatives available:
- Straight biomass use would account for 22% of all plant productivity, without
conversion to other forms: (http://globalecology.stanford.edu/DGE/Dukes/Dukes_ClimChange1.pdf
- Electrification (electrified heavy / light / high-speed rail or EV storage for cars) addresses many needs of ground transport, though battery materials are limited, costs increase, and capacities are limited compared to present. I suspect we'll see a mixed fleet with several modes of power, as well as greatly increased transit and human powered vehicles (bikes fit cities well). Technology might help: self-driving care-share / ride-share services could reduce fleet sizes and increase passenger-miles per vehicle.
- Water transport can revert substantially to wind, though with a significant decrease in speed, service levels, and predictability. Or biomass-fueled steam. Though with 1/3 of all tonnage being oil, shipping demand would fall markedly: http://people.hofstra.edu/geotrans/eng/ch3en/conc3en/world_tonnage_by_cargo_vessel.html
Data on shipping energy needs are hard to find, and few energy/renewable research groups seem to publish much on the topic. While ships are technically suitable for nuclear powerplants, I doubt either the economics nor security aspects of running non-militarized vessels with payloads of nuclear decay products through
pirate-infested waters at night merits consideration.
- Air transport would be most affected. I predict an almost total substitution of ground (rail and air) travel, with some lighter-than-air craft (for which solar power is very feasible: topside surface area would provide several times Hindenberg's power rating, though battery or fuel storage would offset lifting capacity). Heavier-than-air craft would be limited to exceptional luxuries, government, and military use. Small, solar-powered drone aircraft might be used for observational and similar uses. The Solar Impulse project has been much criticized be me and others for portraying solar human flight as practical
. It's not. It's possible
, but only just. Small, light solar craft could work though.
- Some limited fossil fuel use (petroleum or coal-derived fuels) might be still used for specific needs.
- And advances in biofuels or electrically-powered liquid fuel synthesis might also allow for creating at least some liquid fuels, though in vastly smaller quantities than the world has been consuming recently, and much less than would be required to allow the undeveloped world to meet even a small fraction of Western consumption.Storage is the challenge
Outside of transport (which Kurzweil discusses briefly) the principle challenge isn't so much efficiency as total capacity, scale, and net cost
. National power systems must adapt to changes in both supply and demand, and switching to renewables greatly increases the complexities. One option is to do away with the grid (localized production and consumption) though I doubt this is grossly feasible. Storage, on the level of a week or more's total energy requirements, seems essential.
Tom Murphy's "Do the Math" blog shows there's nowhere near enough lead in the world to build grid-scale storage on lead-acid batteries. Donald Sadoway's liquid metal battery research takes precisely the right approach: what's cheap and abundant, and how can we turn it into sufficient storage to meet needs, efficiency per kg / m^3 be damned.http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/08/nation-sized-battery/http://sadoway.mit.edu/research/liquid-metal-batteriesCost, not efficiency, matters
Future energy is about $/W and $/Wh.
There's plenty of sunlight. Building capacity takes time and money, but it can be done. Building additional
capacity to account for losses in storage, transmission, and conversion is also largely feasible. Even maximizing solar efficiency (presently practical at 15-25%) pushes up against a hard limit of about 1kW/meter^2 at ground level.Financing the transition is exceptionally problematic"Verbing weirds language" - Bill Waterson, Calvin and Hobbes"Energy weirds economics" - Dr. Edward Morbius
There's a whole other discussion on how capitalism, banking, financing, and growth play into things, and I'm only really just starting to take a hard look at the steady-state economy literature. It is, though, another area that Gail Tverberg gets into in detail. Her background is as an actuary for Towers Perinn, it's rather up her alley.
The short of it: while economic shortages can drive up prices, they cannot increase physical supplies of something that don't exist. Nor can economics violate the first law of thermodynamics: a shortage of energy cannot increase supplies, nor provide substitutes. _Energy itself is not substitutable_ (though forms
of energy are). The effect on oil prices, as Tverberg points out, is that they tend to get very unstable: rising as the economy expands, then hitting a level which is unsustainable, triggering a recession (or depression),
At the same time, established interest of which oil is huge -- the majors are the largest companies in the world by revenues and market cap -- and financial returns on capital tend to favor rent-seeking or short-term returns over long term. Even established financiers such as John Doerr have found investing in green tech challenging (http://www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_22385874/kleiner-perkins-john-doerr-falling-behind-after-betting
And the investments necessary for renewable, sustainable, and carbon-neutral energy and infrastructure are huge. Trillions if not hundreds of trillions of dollars. Spread over years, but with R&D and other development required, it's still a huge price tag. Likely dwarfing Kurzweil's predicted $80 trillion return from the Singularity.
And the process is open to many opportunities for failure and collapse. some of which we may well be seeing already. Compare photos of life in Afghanistan (a marginal economic zone) in the 1960s with today.
I have a very hard time seeing how humanity gets through the next 50 years while maintaining, at least in pockets, not only elements of modern high-technology, but the ability to continue creating and sustaining them. *Energy enables complexity*, and complexity requires energy
. Most future development paths call for both increased complexity and reduced energy, which ... doesn't seem to work. What I've seen of the Singularity folk largely hand-waves over this (I'm looking for further information and clarification). While there are some possible solutions to energy needs (solar looks feasible in raw capacity, nuclear may offer either a bridge or long-term (millenia) solution, though at a huge increase in complexity and additional long-term concerns (waste, proliferation, safety, mismanagement, corruption, and asset ownership concentration).
And it's not just being able to use items we've already built, but to make more. Chip and pharmaceutical fabs have very stringent quality constraints. They're not feasible with 19th-century technology. Or even much tech available through much of the 20th Century.Paul Allen's 'The Singularity Isn't Near'
Paul Allen presents a pretty good general criticism of the Singularity as well:http://www.technologyreview.com/view/425733/paul-allen-the-singularity-isnt-near/
(Kurzweil's response: http://www.technologyreview.com/view/425818/kurzweil-responds-dont-underestimate-the-singularity/
From Allen's critique, the "complexity brake" is probably the most salient point. You deal in technology, and are no doubt aware of two maxims: "complexity is the enemy", and "we build systems as complex as we do because to make them any more complex would make them unmanageable" -- we're constantly working at or near our limits to manage complexity of design, construction, implementation, support, training, use, etc. (And, for what it's worth, version control systems are part of that complexity management scope).
There are other points as well, Allen notes that Kurzweil cherry-picks from phenomena which represent dramatic advancement while ignoring a great many others which have shown little progress in recent decades -- there are technological limits, and ultimately physical limits which technology can only approximate.Technology doesn't substitute for energy
Technology can make
previously unavailable energy forms available, and it can extract more useful work from existing energy sources. It cannot create more energy out of whole cloth.
That's a violation of the first law of thermodynamics.
Economic efficiency (GPD/joule and joules/capita) fall with time -- that's part of economic progress. Even net national energy use can fall, as did that of the US through parts of the 2000s, though it's climbing again. Peak was 2006, and we were below that as of 2011.
But Jevon's paradox states that increased efficiency results in increased consumption. I suspect that this itself is a consequence of two factors: technological advance and increased resource availability (as was the case in the 19th century -- humanity was just climbing on the fossil fuel rocket sled). So the pattern could allow for both increased efficiency and
reduced consumption where technology is advancing as resource availability and prices increase.
But: increased efficiency also generally calls for higher levels of technology, and hence complexity. CFLs and LEDs are harder to fabricate than incadescent bulbs. Electronic systems controls are more complex than centrifugal governor.
With increased energy, you're expanding the potential wealth envelope. With increased efficiency, you're merely getting closer to the walls of that envelopeTainter and Collapse Theory
There's a whole "collapse" literature out there. Jared Diamond and James Howard Kunstler are among the more popular. Among the more compelling theoretical understandings is Joseph Tainter's work:http://dieoff.com/page134.htmhttp://ourfiniteworld.com/2011/03/31/tainters-law-where-is-the-physics/http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com/2011/03/joseph-tainter-talking-about-collapse.html
Unless Kurzweil & Co. can explain complexity, energy, and sustainability (there's some addressing of these points in his book, which I've been stabbing at piecemeal so far), and
the transition path to these sources and stores
of energy, I'm going to have an exceptionally difficult time accepting his vision even with the issues given above.
Note: This is long and more of a ramble than I'd like but it's the best stab I've taken yet at a bunch of interrelated issues I've been thinking about.
I've also omitted a few topics: climate change (significant, but largely merely putting additional constraints against using fossil fuels), renewables other than solar (may provide a substantial fraction of needs, but solar seems to be the leading option), carbon-neutral (mostly nuclear: limited known fuel reserves for present technology, a possibly bridging option to a sustainable energy economy, very significant technological challenges, especially for fusion).
The fundamental problem is addressing the question on this graph:https://plus.google.com/photos/104092656004159577193/albums/5874259959011114033/5874796683917001186
Thanks for reading this far. You know who you are.
(Adapted from a post to +Don Marti