After Energy Independence, Then What?

Glenn Beck recently did a fascinating interview with Ray Kurzweil, the remarkable inventor/futurist. Among other things, Kurzweil, a member of the prestigious National Inventors Hall of Fame, developed the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind.

Right on Beck’s show, he demonstrated how it works. It was amazing.

While listening to Kurzweil talk, the thought crossed my mind how geniuses like him appear to be able to transcend the junk that you and I allow to flood our brains day in and day out . Dumbed-down infomercials. Round-the-clock sports on TV. Nonstop pain-at-the-pump and global-warming tales. The latest shenanigans of cartoon characters like Vladimir Putin and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The childish ramblings of our own presidential candidates. Even the scary news flashes about Hollywood celebs who are threatening to emigrate if their candidate doesn’t win the upcoming election.

Listening to Kurzweil reminded me that most of the things people think about, fret about, and argue about don’t really matter much in the long run. Over the past century, we’ve survived a rash of bad presidents and shameless politicians, unthinkable natural disasters, the Great Depression, and “world” wars (along with a few little skirmishes like Vietnam). And humankind stubbornly keeps pushing forward.

I believe one of the biggest reasons for this success is that the people on the leading edge of civilization seem to be unfazed by all the nonsensical stuff.

Now when I say we’ve survived, I admit I’m talking on a macro basis. Between the advances, there is almost always a great deal of pain and suffering for the many people who happen to be living in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Soviet Union is the best recent example of this. It was only a matter of time until the lie of communism collapsed under its own weight. But for 70 years, hundreds of millions of people suffered and tens of million died. The same was true of Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Saddam’s Iraq, and Mao’s China. But what’s interesting is how, notwithstanding government’s best efforts to slow human progress, the best and the brightest keep moving mankind forward.

As a result of the exponential progression of information technology, Kurzweil says that the rate of progress itself is now doubling every decade. In fact, he believes we will experience 32 times as much technical progress in the next 50 years as we’ve seen in the last century! It’s hard for a guy like me, whose neurons shut down at the thought of learning how to load my iPod, to comprehend such things.

Kurzweil says that when he first came to MIT, the school had only one computer. It took up an entire floor and cost more than $10 million. Now, the computer in a $50 cellphone is thousands of times more powerful than that MIT dinosaur. Which is why he believes we will see a billionfold improvement in information technology over the next 25 years. And then, in the years that follow, we’ll see it again, and again, and again.

I could go on and on about Ray Kurzweil’s amazing inventions, knowledge, and insights into the future. But the biggest of all his predictions is that due to advances in nanotechnology, we will soon be able to produce highly efficient, lightweight, inexpensive solar panels. As a result, he is all but certain that solar power will provide 100 percent of the world’s energy needs within 20 years – easily and inexpensively. He points out that the sun provides us with 10,000 times more sunlight than we need to accomplish this.

If Kurzweil is right, it not only will put a damper on draconian save-the-planet ideologies aimed at increasing control over people’s lives, it will change the balance of political power worldwide. It would also mean that millions of hours have been (and will be) wasted over debating whether or not to drill through the hides of caribou or dig up our trillions of tons of coal and convert it to oil.

All this reminds me of something that another great futurist,  Alvin Toffler, said in his landmark book Future Shock. Toffler believed that at any given time in history, about 90 percent of the population thinks in terms of the past, 7-8 percent have their heads in the present, and 2-3 percent are focused on the future.

When you look back on just the past 10,000 years, the evidence is clear: Human progress accelerates, notwithstanding little inconveniences such as famines, disease, volcanic eruptions, and asteroids paying their respects from time to time.

Don’t get me wrong. In the coming decades, I believe the U.S. is likely to be a totally different place than it is today. We may even have to go through a dictator or two. Perhaps even a couple of revolutions. But the scientific brains and futuristic thinkers don’t seem to pay much attention to politics and social upheaval. They just keep marching forward as though nothing were going on around them.

Nevertheless, the big question that remains is the same one that’s been implied throughout human history: What good does human progress do in such fields as technology, medicine, and energy if there continues to be no human progress in the area of goodwill?

So, what can you and I do about this? Plenty. The thought of ever-greater technology joining forces with ever-greater malice should incentivize each of us to demonstrate – through our actions -a spirit of goodwill.

You and I can’t force anyone else to change to our liking, but we totally control who and what we, as individuals, can become. Rather than joining crusades to save the world, we can accomplish much more by focusing on making ourselves the best human beings we can possibly be.

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