Vivek Wadhwa

Stephen Albin, chief executive of Urban Development Institute of Australia NSW, is a big ideas kind of guy. But even so, his call that energy would or could soon be virtually free – and mostly solar – prompted a bit of a step back during a recent conversation.

“You need to come and hear Vivek Wadhwa,” he said, referring to the man who will run a 10-hour workshop in Sydney at the end of this month for some key UDIA members. All would then be revealed, he said.

Curiosity is a hard itch to scratch, especially when it relates to something that could decimate the fossil fuel industry. The only relief: information.

So we called Wadhwa in the US to find out why the head of what we used to think of as one of the more conservative development organisations in Australia was saying such outlandish things.

Wadhwa, from the interestingly named Singularity University in Silicon Valley, was no disappointment.

The lecturer, technologist, futurist, researcher – call him what you will – embodies the future snapping at our heels.

“For the last five years,” he tells us, “the advances in technology, in robotics, in 3D printing, in sensors, in nanotechnology and synthetic biology have been exponential,” he begins.

“New technology is coming together and making amazing things possible.

“I’m carrying a supercomputer in my hands right now. At the rate at which computing is advancing, by 2023 a $1000 computer will have the same processing power as the human brain. Two years later it will be two human brains, then four.”

Ultimately these devices will be more powerful as all the brains in the world, he says.

Wadhwa’s background is impressive. He is an academic with Stanford University and Duke University; a distinguished fellow at Singularity. He is also author of several books and has been named as by Foreign Policy Magazine as a Top 100 Global Thinker in 2012, with Time Magazine listing him in 2013 as one of The 40 Most Influential Minds in Tech.

His job at Singularity is to deliver research that will meet the university’s mission to “educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges”.

Here’s a hint at what the university is telling those leaders: robotics, AI, computing, synthetic biology, 3D printing, medicine, and nanomaterials “are making it possible for small teams to do what was once possible only for governments and large corporations to do: solve the grand challenges in education, water, food, shelter, health, and security”.

Wadhwa says there will be dramatic changes in how we live and work.

“Sensors have become so powerful and so cheap, they will detect pollution, traffic patterns, noise. We can actually build smart cities for millions of dollars, not the billions of a few years ago.”

Within four or five years there will be self-driving cars on our roads. In two months Wadhwa takes delivery of a Tesla car that will drive itself on highways. Within 12 months one of the regular software upgrades that Tesla will send will mean that the car will be able to take itself out of the garage and present itself to Wadhwa’s front door.

We’ll be growing food on green walls, which will be cheap because the energy to service the plants will be next-to-free, he says. We’ll be able to recycle plants and food for organic natural compost, and we will have unlimited water because you can desalinate the ocean with all the cheap energy.

“There will be no shortage of water; you can boil the ocean.

“We’re going to have unlimited energy and food.

“Right now there is a race going on between technology and the destruction of the earth caused by fossil fuels. Within 15 years, the advances in solar will mean that 100 per cent of the Earth’s energy needs will be met by solar.”

This snippet from his article on unlimited clean energy published in the Washington Post sums it up:

In the 1980s, leading consultants were skeptical about cellular phones.  McKinsey & Company noted that the handsets were heavy, batteries didn’t last long, coverage was patchy, and the cost per minute was exorbitant. It predicted that in 20 years the total market size would be about 900,000 units, and advised AT&T to pull out. McKinsey was wrong, of course.”

Futurist Ray Kurzweil notes that solar power has been doubling every two years for the past 30 years – as costs have been dropping. He says solar energy is only six doublings – or less than 14 years – away from meeting 100 per cent of today’s energy needs. Energy usage will keep increasing, so this is a moving target.  But, by Kurzweil’s estimates, inexpensive renewable sources will provide more energy than the world needs in less than 20 years.”

Will all this clean energy save the Earth from the ravages of fossil fuels and pollution?

If he’s certain about the technological advances, here’s an area Wadhwa is not so sure of. It’s a question of timing.

“We’re heading into a clean energy future,” he says. “The question is have we damaged the planet too much?”

So what’s the downside in all this good news?

“Hardly anyone is aware of these big changes and they keep designing and building what they do the same old way, with a few small modifications,” he says.

So what holds things back?

“Ignorance,” he shoots back.

“Come to my workshop,” he urges.

“I walk them through all the advances and how their businesses can take advantage of the technology; it’s a 10-hour session.

“After the talk they come out with their minds blown; they won’t be the same any more… It becomes so obvious.”

What does he say about the fossil fuel industry?

“Stupidity,” he answers.

“They are going to lose the battle. In five or six years time they will lose their shirts because of clean energy… Let them lose their shirts.”

For details of the workshop see the website 

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  1. I’m pleased that this kind of discussion is being presented to Australian business leaders, who so often seem to be years behind in their thinking. It’s a shame however that the event is so inaccessible for most. I work for an NGO that promotes positive solutions and technologies as a fix for sustainability challenges. Vivek’s ideas are absolutely the wavelength that we think on. It would be great if there was some kind of low-cost community lecture from Vivek, that could engage professionals working in sustainability positions (who all too often are just as behind in this kind of thinking as the business leaders).

  2. The reason I believe @Vivek is because:
    1. We’ve seen “exponential” work in a completely different field – the financial field. This is exactly what compounding your investment is about. To quote someone else: “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.” ? Albert Einstein.
    Those of you who work in the financial Industry know what I mean.

    2. @John Doyle. Respectfully, your perspectives are simply an extension of the past. These (Dams, petroleum etc.,) are not the ones that will grow – what will grow is coming from our blind side – Solar, Hydrogen Power etc. For example. Here’s a very interesting deployment of Solar Energy in India. Couple of states in India have started deploying Solar Panels to cover the canals carrying water to the farms. This is two birds with one stone. The real-estate is free (common/Govt. property) AND the shade of the Solar panels reduce evaporation. Windmills are beginning to dot the country side as wind power costs have been dropping massively. Another example that is being explored is relaying roads with solar panels – the roads generate power, driving your vehicles…

    I would agree with @Vivek!!!

    1. BTW, while you are about it, check out Nuclear Energy – specifically Thorium powered Nuclear Energy…

      We don’t know what is gonna blind side us but there is a lot of stuff coming up from behind.

  3. Interesting discussion, and welcome to Oz.

    I’d love to hear how the time-shifting of solar generation will be achieved. It doesn’t matter how much energy is produced by solar throughout the day if no one can watch their TVs at night.

    Battery storage is a popular idea today. It appears to be on a nice exponential curve, too. But it’s tough to guess when it’ll hit escape velocity. In the 70s solar became a popular idea but it wasn’t till this decade, 40 years later, that it really became a major influencer on energy generation.

  4. John, you have to understand what exponential means to realize how wrong you are. With solar being at 1% of global needs, we are half way to 100%. 1 becomes 2 becomes 4 becomes 8 become 16….and this is happening every 18-24 months with solar. What you call ridiculous is the future we are headed into–ready or not.


    1. Hi Vivek, thanks for your clarification. You made the concept of exponential growth central in your arguments during our interview and it should have had stronger prominence in the story, with solar on the same trajectory as computing power (and other technology). I need to say speaking to you certainly gave me a boost of confidence here in Oz where almost every day there is another attempt by our central government to stifle clean energy. What you say so clearly is that there is no stopping this enormous drive to evolving technology, and clean energy is just part of the tsunami it’s collecting on its way.

  5. This guy is not being realistic. The renewables industry is built on a fossil fuel foundation. Not only that but since we have to duplicate the fossil fuel economy to convert to renewables we just don’t have the capacity to supply what we would need in our finite world. People have little idea of the scale of the project. To give you some idea, to match the energy output just of petroleum in any one year and match it with electricity we would need 200dams each the size of the 3 gorges dam in China. And, since we still want to grow [and the IMF says 3.5% p/a] in 20 years we would need ANOTHER 200 dams. The whole idea of renewables substituting for our fossil fuel appetite is utterly ridiculous. We are in civilizations end game and can only collapse. It is ordained. It is unavoidable. Get used to the idea!

    1. Re: Civilizational collapse. Maybe, maybe not!!! Check out:

      There are multiple reasons why civilizations collapse, why dynasties have failed. We, as a collective civilization, are addressing some of them. This does NOT mean that civilization-as-we-know-it might not collapse anyway (For example: The reason the Roman Civilization collapsed was probably for economic reasons, not environmental).

      But it looks like we’re starting to succeed (yes, I know we might not be doing enough but there are more and more pointers to the contrary) – at least from a technological perspective. Another example to my mind is the closing of the hole in the Ozone layer.

      1. Hmmm, you’re both right on some points.

        John is right that our current production of renewable technologies is underpinned by the consumption of fossil fuels. I read somewhere recently that a LCA study into solar modules produced in China are far less beneficial than many believe/assume, once their production processes’ power sources (i.e. diesel and coal) are taken into account. (I don’t know what the rhetorical strategy name is for it, but nice try in using 200-three-gorges dam equivalent to support your case for doom-thinking. Yes, 3-Gorges was/is environmentally and socially horrendous, but a renewable energy world would be a mix of sources.)

        He’s also right (or at least from what I am inferring from his comment) amount consumption. The less sexier side of the equation always seems to be forgotten by people (Vivek too maybe? Though a TFE article may not be long enough to get ‘his whole deal’ across) is DEMAND. There’s too many damn people living in a way that’s too damn destructive, and more want to do the same. Because, to use his own rationale against him, if it’s all so exponential, then it stands to reason that the demand side will track exponentially. Therefore you can source energy from the cleanest sources you want, but at some point, in a finite world with exponential demand that too becomes a problem. From what I’ve seen technologists, futurists et al. always seem to forget the human side of things. That is, how inter-related and inter-dependent it all is.

        PS – why is there never any love for Geothermal? Look how many people are practically sitting on our very own, natural, nuclear reactor. The Icelanders get it…

        1. +1 your response. Yes, the energy burned to create the next gen technologies are usually never considered. But as the technologies take off, resource optimization happens, reducing the amount of “dirty” energy needed. And at some point the “dirty” energy is replaced by “cleaner” alternatives.

          Re: Geothermal. Absolutely. There’s a bunch of other technologies in various stages of development and deployment:
          – Run of the river power generation:
          – Tidal power
          – High altitude wind technology:
          Though if I were to place my bets, I would do so on Thorium power. My gut says that it will have the smallest footprint as compared to resources consumed.