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