Accelerating Pace of Change

Are we living in an age of Magic? Is Elon Musk a magician?

The age of Magic

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The ability to do things is becoming more and more feasible from a purely engineering point of view.

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Is Elon Musk a magician?

Elon is building the first re-usable space transportation system something the US government spent $150 billion trying to do 20 years ago.  He seems to be doing it for somewhere between 1/40th and 1/100th the cost that NASA  developed the Space Shuttle system for unsuccessfully.

Elon built the Tesla which is a car that accelerates from 0 – 60 in 2.8seconds, faster than any gas powered car, is safer than any gas powered car ever built and has a 98-99% customer satisfaction in the first 2 years of sales and improves itself by downloading new versions of itself overnight.

A couple years ago the State of California passed a bond measure to build a high speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles.  The initial cost was estimated at $20+ billion dollars.    Unfortunately, since the initial estimate costs have skyrocketed to an estimated $60 billon+.

Elon Musk proposed building a “hyperloop” instead of the train.   A hyperloop running at 750mph would take 30 minutes instead of 2 hours.   Analysis of the project costs are currently at $6-7 billion or 1/10th the cost of the train system.

I have no idea if the costs are correct but I have read through the description of the project and it seems doable.  The technology to be employed is pretty much off the shelf.   No unknown technology or materials are needed to do this project.  The cost of operating it would be a small fraction of what a rail system would cost.

The fact that it is virtually free from friction allows the system to use very little energy, so a major component of operational cost is vastly reduced as well as maintenance of rails, engines or other components.  Sure there will be some maintenance and other costs but the lower operating costs would make this system the system of choice even if it cost twice what the rail system will cost.  In fact, it is projected to cost less initially to build it and vastly less to operate as well as being 4 times faster.

So, is Elon Musk just lucky, a magician, super brilliant or will all these things crash and burn for reasons we just haven’t seen yet?  Why is it he thought of these things and it didn’t occur to lots of people?

“Unbelievable” technology that is available today or in delivery.

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128GB chips have been available for years that fit on the surface of your finger which means we have the ability to write a trillion transistors in the space of your thumb.   That’s unimaginable.  Do any of you know how we do that?   An IBM engineer once told me the theoretical limit of chips density was 64,000 transistors on a bigger surface area.  He was off by about a factor of 100,000,000.    I don’t know how to describe being able to “print” one trillion transistors in such a small space as other than magic.   Not only that it costs tens of dollars not millions.

My cell phone is able to transmit and receive data at >1million bytes/second.  10 years ago smart phones didn’t exist and wireless technology allowed you more like 1 thousand bytes/second.  I remember the first time my mother saw a cell phone and I explained that people could call me on it.  She looked at me like I had said something completely crazy and unbelievable.   She honestly didn’t think it was possible.   When the phone rang  my mothers expression was the closest thing I think I’ve ever seen to someone seeing a miracle.

We have cell phones with screens that are resistant to scratching, resistant to cracking and last years without smudging.   I get that if you put diamond onto the surface of a transparent material it would be harder but wow, for someone who protected his screen religiously for decades it does seem awfully convenient we figured out how to make such resilient transparent material.

These are very real tangible to ordinary people “miracles” but below the surface are many “miracles” that are no less amazing.

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New 3D memory technology that uses resistive approach in layers is being brought to market by numerous players.  This technology will bring the dream of virtually unlimited 3 dimensional storage that is super fast and cheap.    In 10 years we will probably have 128 terabyte memory that are a thousand times faster than current SSD on our laptops.   Of course, we likely won’t have laptops if I’m right.

Software development has experienced at least a 10 fold to 100 fold increase in productivity in the last 10 years.   Surprisingly this has nothing to do with the technology improvement in hardware as in the past. It is due to open source, APIs, PaaS, DevOps. What I call the 3rd platform for software.  (Okay, I admit a commercial for my company but the software is available ubiquitously also from other open source vendors.)

I could go on and on with improvements in every field.

The question I am asking is Elon Musk a magician or is something else going on?

Caution:  Spoilers here.   Let me explain the magic Elon Musk uses.

I believe instead we have reached the age of Magic and whether Elon believes this or not he is leveraging it. This means we have reached a state where the things we can do technologically exceed what most people think we can do.

If you have an idea to do something, for instance, I want to go to Mars.  With some cash this is doable because we have the technology you just may not realize it.  It’s also not as much cash needed as you might think.

So, is it simply almost a naïveté that allowed Elon to achieve these dreams?   Did he KNOW that the technology was available?  Was he just lucky naive?   He admits to a fair amount of naïveté in his video interviews.

He describes how he first went to look on the NASA website for when NASA would be offering Mars rides.   He was surprised they had no plan to go to mars.   So, he decided to spark curiosity and get people excited about space again by doing some inspiring trifle hoping it would trigger an interest.    He says what he figured out was not that people weren’t inspired enough to go to Mars they simply didn’t believe it was possible.   In other words people lacked the “awareness” of what was possible.

Let me be clear.  I realize that Elon worked unbelievably hard and he sacrificed nearly his entire wealth and he is indisputably brilliant in multiple dimensions.  There are few who appreciate what he’s done but there were no breakthrough technologies to do what he did that I am aware of.  Almost all the companies he’s built have used off the shelf technology brilliantly engineered.

What this means is that if you have an idea for virtually anything, say you want to go to Mars or you want to cure cancer or eliminate hunger or whatever?  Is the thing that is stopping you or us from doing this simply a lack of will or belief and not technological?

The Age of Magic

The pace of progress has been so blistering that most people are simply unaware of how advanced we have become in many fields.

We have assumed so many things aren’t possible because frankly most people simply don’t know what is possible.  We have crossed things off off our list like my mother had.   If you haven’t been tracking all the technology improvements in the last 10 years you may not realize what is possible.

That is not surprising because keeping up on the technological changes is daunting.  There is a lot.

The past paradigm

In the past some new miracle of technology revelation happened, like we discover the vaccine for polio that fundamentally changed what was possible and made advances suddenly possible.     This was then followed by a period of mad creation and disruption.   We started building vaccines for lots of diseases and a revolution happened.   To those who experienced numerous diseases this surely seemed like magic at first.  Then we became used to it.

Certainly the first microscope or telescope brought the perception of magic and amazing revelations.

The same happens in Art or any creative endeavor.  When a discovery or new thing is created there is initially a “wow” factor and rapid advancement.

The New Paradigm

There was no “fundamental technology” discovery that enabled Elon to build these technologies.  Even the hyperloop doesn’t require anything but off the shelf components.   NASA did supply Elon with a material called Pica that enables him to build vastly superior heat shields but it was already invented.  He uses off the shelf Panasonic batteries for the Tesla.

Let me not impugne Elon Musk’s engineering skill.  There is no doubt these things are amazing engineering achievements and his skill in managing the process of bringing to market all these products is unquestioned.   In some sense he just had the courage to try.

I don’t believe in luck.  In my experience luck is the application of massive repeated “doing” that spontaneously finds opportunities but without the “doing” the luck doesn’t happen.  Sorry, so Elon’s not lucky.  He’s truly hard working and brilliant too.  No doubt.   He’s not super-human or an alien or a time traveler or a magician.   Also, I don’t believe this is a bubble and “unreal” in the sense that there is some illusion about these things he’s done.

When the internet came about 20 years ago many of us saw that amazing disruptive things would happen but the internet is just one of a vast panapoly of new technologies that is enabling not simply the cloud but physical creativity that was unimaginable before.

There is so much technology available now in the form of materials and computer related advancements but also in small stuff.  Low power stuff and just the ability to control and be smart with things.

One of the key abilities which allows massive growth in understanding in engineering ability is being able to see smaller and smaller dimensions.  We have microscopes that can see the quantum foam of the electron around a proton in a hydrogen atom.   We have developed a lot of technology that allows us to manipulate at incredibly tiny scales.  This has allowed us to count, assemble and feedback genetic code thousands of times faster than before at a fraction of the cost, to be able to assemble incredibly small electronic or biologic things.

Ushering in a new age of innovation

Being able to see at the tiny scale allows us to understand what is really happening and fix it or engineer around it.   This I believe is a large part of our “magic” ability.

Right now our technological ability far exceeds the applications of that technology that currently exists.  That’s the definition of the age of Magic.  There are so many ideas that are possible that even the hobbyist with few resources can create industry changing innovation.    In a sense Elon was just a hobbyist with a lot of money.

With kickstarter and other ways to enable small entrepreneurs we are seeing an explosion of innovation but without all the technical possibilities brought about because of the “magic” we live in there would be precious few successes or interest.

The bigger picture

The point is that many “problems” or “ideas” that 10 or 20 years ago seemed impossible or science fiction magic now appear to be eminently doable and it is just a matter of someone having the belief that it can be done and then scrupulously following the engineering trail to find the technology needed to build the magic.

Let’s say you wanted to build a robot for the home.  Today we have much of the technology to build real robots that we’ve all seen in movies.  The recognition software we have developed in just the last few years would enable a robot to “see” objects and recognize them, to read text or do other basic tasks.   We have figured out how to make robots walk “naturally” and to move smoothly.  We have the improvements in motor systems and control systems that is embeddable.     We also have with Siri and Google Now the ability to answer questions or to take commands and perform actions.   The age of robots cannot be far off.

There is no doubt we will see more robots in the home before a decade is out.   The first I want is a pick up robot.  I want a fairly unobtrusive robot that will just pick up stuff and put it where it belongs.   Clothes, food and such.   The next would be to do the laundry and dishes.   These are constrained tasks that are doable with our technology.

The rate of advancement is hardly slowing down

Discovery of the epigenetic code in DNA was a big advance that will lead to massive improvements in our understanding and ability to engineer improvements in healthcare.     The combination with IoT and BigData could create massive reduction  in healthcare costs and improvement of consistency in results.

Solar energy is on the cusp of a big “inflection” point.  Recent reductions in costs and efficiency of solar cells are turning what was an “iffy” proposition to an economic absolute win.    Energy is closely related to quality of life.

The “Cloud” and the virtualization of compute technology is already having massive effects but we are just in the infancy of this movement that will transform businesses and personal life in a decade.

Graphene, correlated-oxide, diamond infused glass, you name it.  We have new materials like the Pica Elon is using to build things that were science fiction before.

Our ability to leverage the quantum world as nature has done will enable truly unbelievable things in the next few decades.    We have done so in tunneling diodes central to computers but we will be building quantum computers soon in quantity.   They may give us “magic” computational capability.

We are in an incredible period of advancement in physics that few understand.  The implications of this will be truly staggering and affect our ability to engineer magical products that nobody even thought possible. We have discovered our world is not the simple one that Einstein imagined (:)) but that what we perceive as reality is actually  emergent from Twistor space.   You can read about that here.

Summary

We don’t need new physics to feel the age of magic.   The technology around us today is already being vastly underutilized in terms of the improvements in our lives.   It is simply a matter of will and belief that holds us back.   If I were a kid growing up today I don’t know how I could restrain myself from wanting to study engineering and science.   Without knowing what is available you can’t figure out what is possible.

Articles you may find interesting along these lines:

Artificial Intelligence

The greatest age of technology

Roger Penrose.  The smartest man to ever live and Twistor theory

Virtual Reality

Healthcare Improvements

Democracy revolutionized by new technology

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