By Doug Hornig, Senior Editor
With all of the doom and gloom promulgated by the media these days, you might be led to believe that there is no hope left in the world... that humanity is on a one-way trip back to cave fires and hunting down the last remaining wild animals. Or at least that a savage depression will wipe out the bulk of the world's wealth... or at best, that we must learn to accept a greatly diminished standard of living.
Or, well, not.
Here in the technology space, as you know, we're more keen on the facts that tech never sleeps and that it cares not about stock prices or turmoil in the Middle East. It just keeps on keeping on, through thick and thin. We are unabashed promoters of the notion that advances in tech will soon transform our lives for the better – so much so that we can envision a future in which the question will not be how to survive on so little, but what to do with so much.
Abundance was written by Peter Diamandis in collaboration with journalist Steven Kotler. Diamandis, for those who don't already know him, is a 51-year-old world-class futurist, innovator, and entrepreneur. He has degrees in molecular biology and aerospace engineering from MIT, as well as an M.D. from Harvard Medical School. He's founded or cofounded a staggering array of new companies and organizations, including the X Prize Foundation, Singularity University, the International Space University, and the Space Generation Foundation, among others. In April of this year, his name hit the headlines again as cofounder of his latest venture, Planetary Resources, Inc. – backed by Google's Eric Schmidt and Larry Page, Ross Perot, Jr., and film titan James Cameron, among others. It is dedicated to developing the commercial feasibility of asteroid mining. This guy does not think small.
The book is not full of the pie-in-the-sky dreams of visionaries ungrounded in reality. Rather, it focuses on technology that is right here, right now, or will be in the very near future – the kinds of things that we write about – and profit from – every month in Casey Extraordinary Technology.
Diamandis is also a man after our own hearts with his commitment to the free-market system and his disdain for government's invariably botched attempts to "help" people in need. Regarding the latter, he quotes economist William Easterly who points out, "The West has spent $2.3 trillion in foreign aid over the past five decades and still has not managed to get twelve-cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malarial deaths." It'd be difficult to find one sentence that better sums up the ongoing futility of a policy that enriches a few corrupt kleptocrats at the expense of millions of others.
The way forward, Diamandis understands, is through technology. That's what got us out of the caves in the first place, and it is what will forge a future that is bright not only for those nations now privileged, but for everyone. And the first thing that needs be done, as always, is to secure the essentials of life. Food, water, energy, shelter.
Take water, for example – a huge concern in many parts of the world. Diamandis details the work of Dean Kamen, a self-taught physicist, inventor, and multimillionaire entrepreneur who started out devising a more efficient way of getting sterile water to dialysis patients, who need five gallons a day. Then Kamen began thinking more broadly, not just about helping, in his words, "a few tens of thousands of dialysis patients … if I made a different machine … it might help a few billion people."
So he did. In 2003, he perfected the Slingshot – a machine the size of a dorm-room refrigerator, with a power cord, an intake hose, and an outflow hose. It can produce 250 gallons of water a day, using the same amount of energy it takes to run a hair dryer, provided by an engine that can burn just about anything (it's been run on cow dung). It's designed to run maintenance-free for at least five years.
Says Kamen: "Stick the intake hose into anything wet – arsenic-laden water, salt water, the latrine, the holding tanks of a chemical waste treatment plant; really, anything wet – and the outflow is one hundred percent pure pharmaceutical-grade injectable water."
The Slingshot costs about $100,000, but Kamen figures machines could be mass produced to sell for $2,500, with another $2,500 for the engine. Amortized over five years, that pegs the cost of producing nearly 1,000 liters of drinking water per day at a microscopic $0.0027/liter. Kamen has negotiated a deal with Coca-Cola to launch a series of Slingshot field trials. One bright guy has partnered with a global giant that sees the commercial potential, and between them they're poised to resolve an enormous problem that's vexed governments and NGOs forever.
Food? It's a fast-approaching global crisis, with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimating that we will need to double agricultural production by 2050 just to keep up with population growth. Yet the amount of arable land keeps shrinking. Obviously, a drastic new vision is needed, and one has appeared.
Growing food has always been a horizontal activity, spreading out over the land. It has centered around putting more acres into production and increasing the yield of each of those acres. But technology has now reached the point where soil is no longer necessary. So why not build our next farms upward instead of outward? That's the idea behind vertical farming.
It isn't even a very new idea. While most people have heard of hydroponics (usually associated with tomatoes and marijuana), almost no one is familiar with aeroponics. It's based on the discovery – in 1983 by inventor/entrepreneur Richard Stoner (yes, that's his real name) – that it is possible to suspend plants in midair and deliver food through a nutrient-rich mist.
Aeroponics is far more efficient than soil-based agriculture. It requires only a tiny fraction of the water supply needed by conventional farming; takes up far less space; eliminates expensive farm equipment and the fossil fuels needed to run them; makes herbicides and pesticides unnecessary, thus removing their toxic runoff from the ecosystem; minimizes transportation costs; and allows for year-round growing. It's the ideal way to feed a city.
A Swedish company, Plantagon, is already deploying 10,000-square-meter glass spheres in Sweden, Singapore, and China that can grow 100,000 square meters' worth of produce. But the concept could scale up far beyond that. It's estimated that a 30-story building one New York square block in footprint could feed 50,000 people all year long.
Vertical farms would be constructed with a skin of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene, a polymer that is extremely light, self-cleaning, and transparent as water. Parabolic mirrors would increase the amount of sunlight bouncing around inside, and LED grow lights could be used as a supplement on cloudy days and at night. Embedded, computer-controlled sensors could monitor and adjust temperature, pH balance, and nutrient flows. On top of all that, University of Illinois researchers predict that within the next 10-15 years, genetic engineering will increase a plant's photosynthetic optimization and thus ramp up crop yields by as much as 50%.
Beyond the basics, tech is continually refining the way we do everything. Space considerations limit us to a single final example out of many – one which illustrates the intensive and extensive capabilities for knowledge sharing that the Internet affords.
Many businesses which heretofore have closely guarded their secrets are finding that it can pay great dividends to open source some of their needs, tapping into a worldwide web of people just itching to put their spare computer time to use. That resource literally represented a gold mine to Goldcorp's CEO Rob McEwen, who had been impressed with the voluntary, cooperative effort that had produced Linux.
It gave McEwen a really radical idea. What if, rather than ask his own engineers to estimate the amount of gold he had underground, he took his company's most prized asset—the geological data normally locked in the safe—and made it freely available to the public? And that's just what he did. Then, in March 2000, McEwen issued the Goldcorp Challenge: "Show me where I can find the next six million ounces of gold, and I will pay you five hundred thousand dollars."
That was incentive enough for 125 teams to enter the competition. A year later, three were declared winners, none of whom had ever visited Goldcorp's properties. Yet McEwen's modest investment yielded billions of dollars' worth of new gold.
Overall, Diamandis' thesis is that, far from being on a precipice beyond which lurks another Dark Age, we're actually poised to make mankind's oldest dream a reality. The book's title says it all. The road ahead will surely be bumpy, but thanks to technology, we're about to enter the Age of Abundance.
Next time you're feeling hopeless about the state of the world, you should find Abundance to be a welcome antidote.
Few investment sectors offer as many opportunities for life-changing gains as technology does. From biotechnology breakthroughs in cancer to quantum leaps in computing speeds to exciting developments that could end food and water shortages forever, there's no shortage of ways to play the tech market. And perhaps no one knows more about how to make money in this sector than our own Alex Daley, editor of Casey Extraordinary Technology and chief technology investment strategist. He's been a featured guest on CNN, CNBC, CBS World News, and the BBC – among many others. In short, whenever Alex talks about technology, smart investors pay close attention.
Right now there's a rare opportunity to see him live – at the upcoming Casey Research/Sprott Inc. Navigating the Politicized Economy Summit, where he will share his favorite investments in technologies that are changing the world and creating massive wealth for early investors.
The Summit will also feature legendary contrarian investor Doug Casey, former United States Comptroller General David Walker, bestselling author Peter Schweizer (Throw Them All Out), and a host of other financial luminaries. Right now you can reserve a deeply discounted seat at the Summit and hear all of their priceless advice.
The trophy for the world's fastest computer has resided in Japan for the past couple of years, specifically with Fujitsu's K Computer. Last month, however, IBM's Sequoia – installed at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California – reclaimed the top spot. The Sequoia clocks in at 16.32 petaflops (quadrillion floating-point operations per second), more than 50% faster than the K's 10.51.
Answer the Call of Duty for Free (SlashGear)
In a bold move, Activision Blizzard has decided, in partnership with Tencent Holdings, to release its blockbuster Call of Duty game in China, where participants will be able to access it for free. The move is calculated to try to open the Chinese market to future Activision offerings which will – no doubt – cost real yuan.
Microsoft May Exit Ad Business... (InformationWeek)
Microsoft's plan to become a major distributor of Web-display advertising has failed, and it may be preparing to exit the ad business entirely. This week, the Redmond giant announced it will take a $6.2 billion write-down on aQuantive, the company whose ad-serving technology it acquired in 2007 for $6.3B. The charge is expected to wipe out most of Microsoft's profits for its fiscal fourth quarter (ended June 30), but investors' optimism about the future (Win 8, the Surface) kept its stock afloat, which slipped only fractionally after the announcement.
... And It Slashes Upgrade Price (TechNewsWorld)
At the same time that Microsoft is preparing for a weak fiscal fourth quarter, the company announced that upgrades to its new OS, Windows 8, will cost significantly less than past upgrades. Users running Windows XP or subsequent versions can take advantage of a $40 upgrade to Win 8, a reduced promotional rate that will be in effect through the end of January, 2013.