Reader Request Week 2008 #2: Technological Gifts

Daniel asks:

You are the the Great God Scalzi, but sadly you are not quite omnipotent. In fact you only have the ability to create five new technologies. Which 5 technologies will you bestow upon humanity in 2008?

Five seems a little much; if you choose the right five, humans won’t have to do a damn thing for themselves between now and when the race finally implodes from ennui. So, Daniel, allow me to limit myself even further and give humanity only a single technological advance, not just in 2008 but ever. That advance: Fusion.

Why fusion? Because at this point in our species’ history, we’re killing ourselves over energy; energy procurement and consumption is the driving force for pollution and climate change, and a significant factor in American and global economic and social inequality (not to mention our military involvement in the middle east). Basically, we get really really stupid in the presence of energy. Cheap, efficient and safe fusion technology won’t make us any less stupid overall, alas, but it might buy us some time to let some of the smarter and saner members of our species do a little cleanup and long-term planning before we find something else to get all stupid over. That’s worth spotting humanity a technological advance.

Note, please, that fusion doesn’t solve every problem and would create a few new ones: When petrodollars (or petroeuros these days) dry up, for example, the middle east is going to fall in on itself in really interesting and probably very scary ways. But overall I suspect cheap fusion technology would make life better for more people around the world than not, and open more doors for humanity than it would shut. On balance, it would be a nice gift. Everything else, I’d make ’em work for.

(there’s still time to ask questions for Reader Request Week 2008: Post your question here.)

31 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2008 #2: Technological Gifts”

  1. For what it’s worth, John, I think that’s an excellent choice, made for all the right reasons. It even has positive consequences for one of my pet “I wish” technologies: economical space travel. A technology that generates safe, cheap, efficient fusion power could probably be modified into a long-range spacedrive without too much work.

  2. I’m using Safari under XP and have been for a while. It wasn’t this way on Friday. I know I saw the posterized Athena and the sidebar then from my bookmark (the www. version).

  3. John,

    Absolutely! I’d love to see the government tackle fusion they way they took on Space Program. It would bring security (energy independence), which should appeal to conservatives, and is environmentally friendly (no CO2 emissions) which should appeal to liberals, and could help to bring technology and engineering back to the fore of the American consciousness, which everyone should consider a good thing, since technical ideas are one of our major exports.

    Interestingly, this actually would probably not kill the economy in the Middle East. I’m sure it would have an impact, but plastics, fertilizers, and many other everyday items need petroleum. Several of the more prosperous ME countries already make more off plastic exports etc. than crude oil.

  4. Hell, I’d settle for safe, efficient fission that’s no longer considered the boogeyman by most of the american populace.

  5. I think that the economic problems in the Middle East that would result from the deployment of usable fusion tech wouldn’t be all that bad. Even if the transition to fusion is sudden, crude oil still has significant value as chemical feestock. Yeah, more-or-less bottomless energy would likely open up process pathways that would be inconceivable in the current world, but it would take years to fully exploit the new status quo. So, until then, chemical companies would probably have a serious interest in keeping the crude oil flowing.

  6. I’d love to see the government tackle fusion they way they took on Space Program.

    Hopefully two of the first five fusions plants wouldn’t suffer spectacular destruction because of bad decisions by government bureaucrats…

    NASA has long since ceased being the solution to space travel. It is now part of the problem.

  7. Not to mention the fact that the transition wouldn’t be instant – the world as it is set up at the moment relies on oil, and even if the ScalTech Mr. Fusion became reality tomorrow, it wouldn’t be cost-effective (or even physically possible) for everyone to switch to electric cars by the end of the week; you just couldn’t build the electric cars that fast. There’d be a tapering-off of demand as old cars, heating plants etc were replaced by new fusion-eletric powered versions, but that could take years. (Especially as the drop in demand for oil during the transition would drop the price, reducing the cost advantage of switching to electricity.) Think how long a ship lasts. Think how expensive it would be to rip out the engines and replace them with fusion-electrics.

  8. While I’m REALLY grateful you have bestowed fusion upon us, could you also give us the uterine replicator? I know, I know, I’m greedy.

  9. JJ @11 : NASA has long since ceased being the solution to space travel. It is now part of the problem.

    I couldn’t agree more.

    As far as fusion is concerned, a NASA-like (or worse : ISS-like) approach would almost automatically mean “big science” — hence tokamaks, which aren’t anywhere close to practical energy plants (or I should say “anywhere closer than in the 50s” : it’s still “free energy in 15 years”…).

    I’ve worked for a while around inertial (= laser induced) fusion projects. Far more practical in many ways, and could indeed probably be developped in 15 years if we really wanted to — BUT with significant proliferation problems (you don’t really want hydrogen bubbles implosion techniques, and simulation codes, to be common knowledge…).

    My bet would be on alternative, “smart” rather than “big” science solutions. For instance, I’ve always found Luis Alvarez’s muon-assisted fusion techniques (validated at the CERN around 1955, if memory serves) very elegant. This particular one probably won’t be the actual solution, but my point is : let’s put one hundredth (each) of the money now devoted to huge and inefficient NASA-like projects on a dozen such ventures, led by Nobel-class scientists, and see what happens !

  10. Forget Nasa. We need a Manhattan Project type of effort here. Energy Dependence is our biggest concern. We should have done it in the seventies.

  11. We don’t need fusion; we have a perfectly fine fusion reactor located just 93 million miles away (a good distance for a fusion reactor, probably). What we need are more efficient, and widely distributed, ways to make use of all of that power. Imagine, maybe, miles upon miles of solar collectors across all of the desert areas of the planet. Besides providing power to distant cities, they would provide local shade, which anyone who has been to such an area would tell you is a vital commodity. Just a thought….

  12. @16:

    The problem (which is also a problem with fusion) is that the technology you’re talking about is far enough away that we’d need a stopgap power solution between coal and solar. Also, it’s never really efficient to power “distant cities” because a lot of power is lost during transmission. If THAT problem could be solved, we could just build a thousand reactors in the middle of the Nevada desert and power the whole hemisphere.

  13. I respectfully disagree. Practical applied nanotech is a far more useful tool because it can solve health issues, food issues, power issues, and more. In fact, I strongly suspect that nanotech may be a necessary prerequisite for building precision or super-dense shielding material, conductors, and other elements necessary to create useful fusion power in the first place. I also suspect that once nanotech engineering reaches maturity, it will be able to increase the efficiency of solar cells dramatically and make other power consuming devices smaller and far more energy efficient, so fusion energy might be redundant.

    Now, having said that, I would still like a small, safe, fusion box in the basement powering my stuff for all eternity. I’d also be just as happy however with a 12-volt house powered by the perfectly safe solar panels on the roof… but I’d really like to be alive for most of that time to enjoy it.

  14. I think Fusion is a waste of a technological wish. Yeah, it would nice to have a really safe and clean source of energy. But look at fission. It can produce huge amounts of energy, there hasn’t been a major accident at a properly built plant ever. There are new designs which are both much more efficient and safer than the currently ones (which still haven’t had a major problem). Plans for reactors which run on nuclear waste exist, eliminating the major problem with fission power. Would fusion be nice? yeah, it would be awesome. But it doesn’t solve a problem which we don’t already have an answer to.

    I think the single most important technology which we don’t have and which may not exist for quite a while is a full understanding of what genes/DNA are/is and how to manipulate them.

  15. Fusion and control over gravity, and we’ve got the two biggest issues with getting off the planet tamed. That leaves getting artificial ecologies working as the only other issue, technology wise that is.

  16. So what would be everyones list of 5? I would go with either fusion like mentioned or possibly beamed solar power from space. Robots. Matter replication. Faster than light travel. Teleportation.

  17. If we’re talking about scientific breakthroughs that humanity seems to be on the cusp of right now, I’d go for economically feasible mass production of carbon nanotubes (Wants me a space elevator!), fuel cell (or other, non-oil, non-corn based alternative fuel) automobiles, and then I’d spend the last 3 on some really neat medical advancements – ideally ways to help old people retain some mental and physical agility. We can’t have people retiring at 65 then living to be 90+! Give us more than half a century of productive life!

    If we’re really shooting for the cosmos, I’ll have a dyson sphere and my very own lightsaber.

  18. I would pick two technologies: fusion, as Jon suggests, but also teleportation. Because we would all like to be able to get from Point A to Point B in a second or so, rather than dealing with traffic, airport security, airlines delays, and cramped conditions on buses and trains…

    Think about how much time and energy we waste getting from A to B. We’d need less of that cheap fusion energy, for starters (although come to think of it, we might need fusion to power our teleportation technology).

  19. If we had the political will to do it, we could produce all the energy we (and our political and economic allies) needed through algae-produced biodiesel, thermosolar, and nuclear energy (from uranium that’s already been enriched, no less).

    What do I really want? Inexpensive, mass-produced fabricators. $2,000 for a clothing fabricator, a body scanner, and some design software and you’d have perfectly-fitting clothing for the rest of your life. Recycling units would take your old clothing and break it up into the component fibers for refabrication. A similar device, using rubber, nylon, and latex, would be used for making custom-fitted shoe soles; throw some vat-grown cowskin into the clothing pattern printer and you’d have a better pair of shoes than 99.9% of people living today. For computer components, there’s a silicon-ceramic-metal fabricator that (along with your plastic printer) also supplies most of your your small household items and electronics. Furniture’s a different story; a few blocks away there’s the neighborhood mega-printer where you can print out metal, plastic, and glass furnishings (your aluminum folding chair used to be Coke cans in Fresh Kills, and you’re grateful that the components for your latex or polyurethane mattress were autoclave-sterilized), but wood will become a luxury, something you pass down through generations. Bamboo, however, is a popular alternative; it’s attractive, strong, and fast-growing enough that even ardent environmentalists enjoy their cherry-stained bamboo bedroom sets.

  20. I’m not sure I agree. Hark the memory of Alfred Noble, an interesting fellow with an interesting history. He believed that his invention would help the world become a better place by creating a cheaper way of mining and tunneling so that the cost of manufacturing and infrastructure would be cheaper. His invention, Dynamite, had somewhat of an opposite effect being refined into the high explosives used on the worlds battlefields.

    So distraught with the destruction to human life that his invention caused, he created the Noble prize for Peace.

    If energy was simple and cheap to produce, yes we would have a multitude of benefits; bigger TVs, faster cars, cheap public transport, cheap water [desalination plants would cost next to nothing to run] etc, but the opposite is also true. Cheap energy equals easier ways to make things go bang. From terrorists to crackpots to the defence forces everybody gets a bigger bang for their cause.

    Its the unforeseen results of new inventions which are the most interesting / complex

  21. Fusion? Bad idea.

    Easy and cheap fusion means easy and cheap neutrons, which means easy and cheap plutonium, which means easy and cheap weapons.

  22. @28: do you have a compelling argument for how those neutrons are harvested and then subsequently used to make plutonium?

  23. Actually fusion needn’t produce lots of fast neutrons (the proton-proton cycle in the sun doesn’t). “Magic” fusion might be a good answer but certainly not fusion as science currently understands it. THAT fusion is incredibly expensive, with lots of bad pollutants, and will always be “10 year away” until solar technology makes it irrelevant. So, if you change John’s answer to small, magic, free energy box that’s unlikely to make city blocks disappear, then, yeah, that’s a great idea.

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