On why we need to go forwards, not backwards and the fusion thing

Every now and again you hear something that rocks your world. So it was in speaking with Vivek Wadhwa, one of the people conjuring up our future in what seems the stratospheric reaches of the human mind. And then bringing it right back to earth with a thud of practicality and hope we could only dream of five years ago.

Technology, it seems, will turn the imaginings of fiction writers into reality and offer the possibility to save this planet. Energy, he says, will soon be 100 per cent solar and next to free. Give it just 15 years. We’ll grow food everywhere, we’ll have all the water need thanks to sunpower and desalination. Fossil fuellers will “loose their shirts”. That will take around five years.

Based at the incredibly named Singularity University, Wadhwa is about to storm a select leadership crowd in Australia and with a view of the future that he says will “blow their minds”.

Where Wadhwa comes from, in the midst of Silicon Valley all this talk is idle gossip over the water cooler.

When it’s taken out to the pedestrian world where most of us live, it does two things, makes us stop and pause in shock, then scepticism. Then it gives us hope. Perhaps if only half of this comes to pass…

Wadhwa’s university mantra is to “educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges”.

But what is a Singularity University and what’s with the name?

This is all abut the immense power of technology that by 2045 will mean $1000 is likely to buy you more computing power than millions of human brains.

The name comes from Ray Kurzweil, futurist technologist and Google guru, who used the term, the Singularity, which was popularised by Hungarian born Vernor Vinge in his 1993 essay “The Coming Technological Singularity” who in turn borrowed from mathematician and physicist John von Neumann.

As you might suspect there is a threatening undertone to the kind of power suggested by the term.

Wikipedia says:

The technological singularity is the hypothetical advent of artificial general intelligence (also known as “strong AI”). Such a computer, computer network, or robot would theoretically be capable of recursive self-improvement (redesigning itself), or of designing and building computers or robots better than itself. Repetitions of this cycle would likely result in a runaway effect — an intelligence explosion[1][2] — where smart machines design successive generations of increasingly powerful machines, creating intelligence far exceeding human intellectual capacity and control. Because the capabilities of such a superintelligence may be impossible for a human to comprehend, the technological singularity is an occurrence beyond which events may become unpredictable, unfavorable, or even unfathomable.[3]

Good or not it’s clear we’re going wherever that technology wants to take us. Sooner than we think whether we want it or not.

Perhaps the only thing that will prevent this is catastrophic climate change. But don’t fear, these geniuses are working on ways to save the planet. Well at least creating tools that enable us to save the planet because what they promise is the ability to solve problems in a short space of time that might have taken governments and massive organisations decades to do.

Yes there are always unintended consequences. And we really don’t know whether there is still time irreversible heating. No matter how clever our systems for now we are still anchored in our organic world and most of us like it that way. If the ultimate solution is to save us and not the planet, for instance, finding a way to upload our consciousness into cyberspace, then many of us will be bitterly disappointed. And yes many of us, because the way these guys are working the system it will all be happening well within our lifetimes.

Going backwards on the code, while the world moves on

But while the smart part of the world is racing to the future, there are others in this country plunging us backwards as fast as they can go.

See the story Willow has unearthed this week in a marvellous piece of work. It’s on a group of the property industry’s leading sustainability engineers appalled that the National Construction Code is about to reverse some of the gains that have been so hard fought by so many for so long.

Here’s Willow’s assessment:

It’s too vague, has no aims, is riddled with loopholes and appears to have abandoned any explicit imperative to make a building energy-efficient or sustainable – it’s a new lower-bar Building Code of Australia 2016.

Some of the proposed changes to the National Construction Code are so dodgy, the new modelling protocol would allow an apartment that scored ZERO NatHERS stars under the old system to actually pass as compliant, leading ESD practitioners say.

It’s astounding that Australia, with its wealth and with its foreign investors banging down the doors begging to be allowed to pay way over market to buy a slice of our property, thinks it’s in any way OK to drag those standards back to the Dark Ages, and perhaps to the standards that those investors are trying themselves to shake free of.

In Melbourne where this radical little hothouse of fomentation has its roots the previous government turned a blind eye to a swathe of high rise apartments built with barely a nod to the quality that anyone buying buildings in this country should expect.

But instead of chastising the builders and developers the law decides to sink down to their standards.

Let’s not forget the cardinal rule of developers. They’re like a unit trust, they don’t keep anything, they pass it right along to the end owner/buyer. So they don’t really care what they have to do as long as everyone else has to do the same (the even playing field rule), because they simply pass the costs on to market.

It’s up to the regulators to make developers deliver what they are meant to deliver: a reliable, quality building product, which if it’s housing, is usually the most expensive and important asset a person buys in their lifetime.

So while we have incredibly high standards for electrical goods and cars and so on, for buildings, where we spend most of our waking hours, the government throws in the towel.

It’s outrageous.

And please don’t cite caveat emptor (buyer beware) and some babble about the market sorting the wheat from the chaff. We don’t let the market decide safety standards in cars. We don’t let the market set the road rules.

People are generally not expert in making assessments of whether a builder is doing the right thing or not.

This is precisely where we need strong government and strong regulation. If the government wants laissez faire in building then let it apply laissez faire in oh, let’s say, the stock market and get rid of insider trading rules: the market will sort it out.

Why so weak and lily-livered in the face of the foot stomping developers and building industry wanting lower standards? Oh wait, we’ve just lost the mining industry and coal is going belly up… must mean we have new set of heroes to bend over backwards to…

This newspaper has its heart set in the green development industry. We know there are wonderful passionate people inside it but riding often at the top of the pile are the more political types whose mandate is to drive the business and maximise returns for their stakeholders.

It’s up to us, the public, the regulators, the staff and consultants who work for them and with them to remind these leaders that we are also their stakeholders. Property as an asset class is one of the most important in the economy. It touches all of us and is key to our health, welfare, social outcomes as well as wealth.

Place, when you think about it is right up the top of the needs hierarchy, just a smidgeon under food.

Let’s not let this industry sink under the short term political manipulations of people who won’t be there next election cycle.

Property is for good. Or should be. (In both senses of the word.)

We’re about to embark on a period of huge importance for the Australian property market. The world – economically and environmentally – is looking increasingly fragile. Australia will increasingly look like the safe haven it is and as they said in the papers this week, the foreign flood of money into this market has only just begun.

If you doubt this, stand back and look at the world. Then gaze at Australia. Looks good doesn’t it?

To Willow and to the long list of people who have signed their names and promise to fight for a better National Construction Code, not a worse one, we salute you!

Here’s the rollcall:

  • Andrew Thompson – State Manager [Victoria] at Cundall
  • Clare Parry – principal sustainability consultant Grun Consulting
  • Chris Buntine – ESD Leader Aurecon [Melbourne]
  • Jeff Robinson – sustainable design leader APAC Aurecon
  • Darren O’Dea – principal building physics Inhabit Group
  • Cormac Kelly – sustainability project engineer at Wood +Grieve Engineers
  • Chris Walker – lead ESD Consultant at Jacobs SKM
  • Digby Hall – principal sustainability consultant at Umow Lai
  • David Jarratt – director at WSP Built Ecology
  • Jessica Hogg – senior building physics engineer, Inhabit Group
  • Tai Hollingsbee – director of research Studio Huss
  • Shane Esmore – director Umow Lai
  • Thorsten Padeffke – associate – discipline leader ESD at Irwinconsult
  • Hannah Morton – senior ESD consultant at Cundall
  • David Barker – building physics leader at ARUP
  • Jenny Lewis – environmental design consultant at WSP Built Ecology
  • Michael Shaw – ESD manager at Connor Pincus Group

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