data rule everything around me
September 11, 2021 6:42 AM   Subscribe

The four most important charts in science & technology (threadreader)
There's no guarantee these trends will continue without massive public & private investment and smart regulation... but imagine if they do:

- compute power too cheap to meter
- clean energy too cheap to meter
- genomic sequencing too cheap to meter
- batteries too cheap to meter
My physics prof told me: "Math is the study of all possible worlds. Science is the study of the world we happen to live in. Someday we may find out whether those are different studies."[1]

Technological Progress - "Technology is a key driver of change that matters for all the big problems that we consider..."

also btw...
  • @interfluidity: "To a first approximation your actions have almost no effect on the world but a huge effect on your position in the world. When nearly all of us anchor our own rational choice in that basically correct premise, what emerges is catastrophe."[2,3]
  • All the Biggest Environmental Risks Facing the World's Biggest Cities - "Last year 48 global cities with a population of more than 1 million reported the climate hazards they faced to the nonprofit CDP, which helps them track their environmental actions and risks and compare themselves with peers. From landslides and extreme heat to insect infestations and airborne diseases, these are the most worrying hazards."
  • Road to Decarbonization: The United States Electricity Mix - "Electricity generation by state (2020). While some states are getting close to eliminating fossil fuels, others have a lot of work to do."
  • What the Clean Electricity Performance Program from House Energy & Commerce says - "CEPP creates a grant program for suppliers of retail electricity that achieve a 4% year on year increase in the share of clean electricity used to supply their customers. It also collects a payment from suppliers of retail electricity that fall short of 4% YoY in clean share." (threadreader)
  • @JesseJenkins: "Investors are pouring billions into novel 'long-duration' #energystorage technologies. What techs are most promising?" (threadreader)
  • Fusion startup builds 10-foot-high, 20-tesla superconducting magnet - "On Tuesday, Commonwealth Fusion Systems announced that it hit a key milestone on its quest to bring a demonstration fusion plant online in 2025. The company used commercial high-temperature superconductors to build a three-meter-tall magnet that could operate stably at a 20-tesla magnetic field strength. The magnet is identical in design to the ones that will contain the plasma at the core of the company's planned reactor." (MIT; Kimota)
  • The next big thing in 'real atoms' investment macro-trends: "The freshwater scarcity problem is OVER. In the next 10-15 years, the world will realize this, and given the prospect of low-cost, low-emissions, secure, locally-produced and -controlled freshwater supplies, we will see an enormous economic boom in this sector. Mankind will take an enormous step forward in securing this most precious and basic of resources, both for ourselves AND for our natural environment. What is more, solar-desalination enables us to produce enough freshwater to irrigate billions of acres of degraded and desertified land, enough to restore them to thriving forests and create a carbon sink of sufficient scale to offset all or most of human CO2 emissions."[4,5,6] (threadreader)
  • A Theory of Progress: Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants - "A combinatorial model of progress, explaining historical exponential growth and the occasional periods of stagnation."
  • Solar power is dirt-cheap and about to get even more powerful [ungated] - "A push for more powerful solar equipment underscores how further cost reductions remain essential to advance the shift away from fossil fuels."[7,8,9,10]
posted by kliuless (39 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
The Beatles wrote a song about all this.
posted by philip-random at 6:54 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


...dollar dollar bill, y'all
posted by gwint at 6:57 AM on September 11


Unfortunately, technological advances are proceeding much more quickly than societal advances.
posted by demiurge at 7:02 AM on September 11 [2 favorites]


Flatley’s law: the cost of sequencing will decrease at exactly the rate required for Illumina to dominate the market
posted by apathy at 7:38 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


There are no market solutions to this crisis. We're getting close to free green energy? Great. Let's outlaw the building of new gas stations, mandate that all current gas stations begin installing charging stations. We can't wait for the businesses to do this on their own, because by the time they decided the disruption in their current model is economically worthwhile, we'll be even more fucked than we are now.

Major disruptive smash-the-current-system legislation and mandates are the only way we're going to get there. We won't do it, because we as a society can't even get our shots and wear our masks so where the will to do this Much Bigger Thing will come from, I have no idea. But it's only way it will get gone.
posted by hippybear at 7:41 AM on September 11 [8 favorites]


My physics prof told me: "Math is the study of all possible worlds.....

Philosophy also.
posted by thelonius at 7:58 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


Technological advancement is great and all but I think it often serves as a substitute in people's minds for the real work that needs to be done to better our lives and lessen our impact on the planet. We can make all cars electric, but that would still leave us sitting in traffic for hours a day commuting to work. That would still leave many of our cities uncomfortable to live in for those who can't or don't want to drive.

I think we actually have solutions to many of the ecological problems in hand already, and it's constantly frustrating to me that we don't implement them. We don't have enough water? Maybe we should not have so many lawns. Cars polluting? Maybe we should design our cities to favor walking, bicycling, and public transit.

People largely don't work towards those kind of solutions because political solutions are hard and require constant pressure. Technological solutions, from an ordinary person's point of view, seem to just arrive with no effort. But so far they have mostly been Band-Aids at best, or have brought with them really awful unintended consequences at worst.
posted by cman at 8:05 AM on September 11 [5 favorites]


We want robots too cheap to meter!

(the happy friendly kind of robot that does the dishes, vacuums and keeps track of one's reading glasses)
posted by sammyo at 8:12 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


Flatley’s law: the cost of sequencing will decrease at exactly the rate required for Illumina to dominate the market

Haha, yup. I've just started doing some Nanopore sequencing for a question where I need the direct RNA seq, and while the tech is super cool (tiny sequencer hooked to my laptop! base call and align reads in real time!), the amount of $$$ per sample for roughly a million reads of yield is unsettling. I've gotten real used to working up libraries for Illumina and sending them off for $50 per 10 million reads.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:55 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


The water one is the standout on the list to me. So much of the environmental damage around the world is caused by freshwater diversion and overuse. Being able to turn saltwater into fresh changes so may things, and will greatly reduce humanity's footprints.

It's the right answer, in the right place. Coasts are more populated than inland. Water is easily stored; it doesn't need to care about second-by-second power availability over the cycle of a day or two, just total available power.

It's a security issue. Many parts of the world have fought or could fight over water rights. It's even happened in the US.

It's an ecological issue. Fisheries on the west coast of North America are crashing, in large part because every major watercourse on the US west coast is diverted to feed cows in California.

It's an industrial issue. For example, the semiconductor plants that make solar cells are ferocious consumers of water. Industry, as well as farmers needs water too.
posted by bonehead at 8:57 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


The water one is the standout on the list to me.
My friend, the civil engineer, says, "Water flows uphill towards money." He used to think that was hilarious, but now he is deadly serious.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:50 AM on September 11 [8 favorites]


I’m really not convinced that we have a safe place to put concentrated brine - the urge to treat the ocean as "too big to damage" as though we hadn’t learned otherwise about the atmosphere.

I am really interested in the idea that, with this, we could require every facility’s water intake to be downstream of their outflows.
posted by clew at 10:20 AM on September 11 [9 favorites]


Someone once pointed out that all exponential curves are really S-curves if you extend the axes out. So it would be useful to make some educated guesses about when Moore's Law (which is driving both the computer chip and solar cell graphs) will begin to level out.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:23 AM on September 11 [4 favorites]


What a bizarre selection for for "most important". I mean yeah, those are all important charts. But if you were going to take that tack I'd focus on these instead: (Open to suggestions on the fourth one; it'd be nice to see the trend in inequality as well as the global distribution. Also this only shows in-country inequality, not between-country.)
posted by Nelson at 11:50 AM on September 11 [15 favorites]


I personally suspect Moore's Law is something of a marketing/self-fulfilling prophecy type of law. Chip densities are a very 'bursty' process. A new .07 or .05 nanometer plant requires years of planning and literally billions of dollars. Moore I'm sure realized if the full potential of the newest chip was shipped on day one of the factory there would be big buys for a couple years and then level out, leveling proffits. So with an expectation of each year being 50% better they could limit the first few generations of a new die size and have a new super delux chip several cycles before the next massive investment. I'm sure it's vastly more complex than that curve is accelerating, GPUs and TPU's totally put Moore's law to shame.
posted by sammyo at 11:54 AM on September 11


Unfortunately, technological advances are proceeding much more quickly than societal advances.

"The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology." -- Edward O. Wilson
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:56 AM on September 11 [16 favorites]


on the nelson thread of alternatively most important, i certainly agree the top four are of questionable importance. i would think climate, trash, inequality, and depression might be nice to see side by side with original four...
posted by danjo at 12:10 PM on September 11


Counterpoint we have all the technology we need to stop the pandemic — PPE, effective vaccines testing, contact tracing via mobile phones; but we can’t. Our biggest problems are not technology issues.
posted by interogative mood at 12:49 PM on September 11 [12 favorites]


What is more, solar-desalination enables us to produce enough freshwater to irrigate billions of acres of degraded and desertified land, enough to restore them to thriving forests and create a carbon sink of sufficient scale to offset all or most of human CO2 emissions.
I'd really like to see the numbers on this. Their Medium post says that it would take 3 billion acres of new forest to counteract CO2 emissions, and that there are 4.7 billion acres of reforestable desert available. But I didn't see any numbers to back this up, since even with cheap solar desalination the land needs to be cheap or free; able to self-sustain a forest without irrigation after 20 years; not in a snowy area where dark trees absorb too much heat; and near enough to the sea for desalinated irrigation to work. It would be nice to see some calculations that there is enough of that kind of desert for this to work.
posted by chortly at 1:47 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


Regreening has interesting positive side effects: forests promote cloud formation, which offsets some of the darker albedo, and also brings more water into the area than you get over a hot, dry desert, giving a positive feedback loop. It's not just a matter of planting forests where they 'make sense' given the current conditions.
posted by kaibutsu at 3:08 PM on September 11


Seconding Nelson. When I saw this FPP earlier today I immediately expected a climate change graph.
posted by glonous keming at 3:15 PM on September 11 [4 favorites]


Some of this stuff is non-intuitive.

Trash: Trash disposal itself is not really a problem (turns out landfills have a finite life, so we are "always about to run out of landfills" when you look a few years out, but this is really just steady state). Embedded energy and CO2 vs. methane GHG in trash is actually really complex, e.g. in some calculations, it's much better to burn trash - turn it back into energy + CO2, vs. alternative of letting it biodegrade into Methane which is a much worse GHG.

But let's talk about desalination. I'm a big fan of it! (Disclaimer, I live within 50 miles of one of the world's biggest plants). The capital costs are modest, the energy can be provided via renewables, and there's basically zero environmental harm. Most plants discharge brine at about 2x concentration of normal seawater, and that's super easy to dilute. (As the saying goes: "Sea, is big, really really big ..." ) You aren't going to over-salt the sea, even on a local level.

As an aside, the amount of salt that a big desalination plant generates is mind-boggling - if you had a never ending train with boxcars being filled with the salt, it would still barely keep up. But the sea is so big, brine is hard to turn into salt, and salt is so cheap, it doesn't matter, basically. Dump it back into the sea.

Desalination is "expensive" but what this really means is 2-5x as much as regular fresh water, which puts it roughly on par with water imported from 1000s of miles away. That's a feature, not a bug.

All this tech is wonderful, but I must agree, strongly, that the tech will not save us if the anti-science people can't be dealt with. The bigger problem is people.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 3:53 PM on September 11 [5 favorites]


N-th the notion that sigmoidal functions plateau but often get breathlessly hyped as exponential functions that rocket to the moon.

Solar insolation has a maximum intensity and solar pv has several well known single and multijunction limits.

Desal is very important and inescapably energy intensive, since we've already killed the oceans via acidification and eurtrophication and thermal pollution, might as well screw with the salinity to juice a few more quarterly earnings reports.

Battery chemistries have many many limits and "too cheap to care" batteries is a huge effin red flag - batteries made from sea salt and sand would still be v expensive on the scale we need. Indeed a battery made of the inexhaustable enthalpy gap of "thoughts and prayers" vs "hopes and dreams " would still cost us billions for the terminal leads and containers.

Cheaper batteries and renewables and desal drinking water are all good things.

No amount of good things is enough to fix a system built on burning through good things ever faster so it can reward the already advantages and ignore the pollution, side effects and exploitation.

How cheap would space rockets have to be for Jeff Bezoz to not demand we piss our pants while running between tasks at work in a dangerous oven warehouse. No such number exist.
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 4:32 PM on September 11 [5 favorites]


Great and thought provokin post as usual Kliueless, i always learn a lot and whether it provokes hope anger or reflection, always worth the time.
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 4:37 PM on September 11


Chip densities are a very 'bursty' process.

Most learning processes are. The declining cost of solar is pretty ragged, over even a few years.
posted by biffa at 4:54 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


These graphs are interesting, but what do they mean for society?

Tony Seba is a researcher who studies how the convergence of technological transformations can lead to S-Curve type unexpected and rapid changes in society. He's been putting out Youtube videos a couple of times a year and it is amazing to see his videos from 10 years ago about energy and transportation and how accurate he predicted where we are now. He noticed early on the charts of the declining solar power and battery prices and predicted the rapid changes going on now of our power generation and EV expansion

One of the famous points he made was to show a picture of a street in New York that was filled with horse-drawn wagons and one or two gasoline cars. Then he showed another photo of the same street about 13 years later--it was filled with gasoline cars and had one or two horse-drawn wagons.

This street comparison is repeated in his latest video (just came out--warning: it is a research report, so it can be a bit dry).

But this new video surprised me with some of his new disruption observations. He says that manufacturing protein is getting so cheap that animal food products are likely to disappear over time. It sounds crazy, but so did his predictions of 10 years ago. (I'm not sure the significance, but he said that animal products can only supply a small number of protein types, but manufacturing can supply a vastly greater variety of proteins--I'm not sure what this means about the future of the types of food that will become available).

He also cautions that we are likely to see large disruptions in society that will make 2020 look very tame in comparison, and that we need to do lots of careful planning if we want those disruptions to be positive rather than negative.
posted by eye of newt at 5:20 PM on September 11


To follow up on my last comment, here's a report by Tony Seba's company Rethinking Climate Change

I noticed the report has two of the 'four most important charts' in it, plus a 'cost of protein' chart, which they seem to think is just as important.
posted by eye of newt at 5:57 PM on September 11


fwiw...
Towards the abolition of animal farming - "A technological solution is in sight to free us from millennia of barbarity."
So given these grim numbers and even grimmer moral realities, why am I optimistic about the possibility of abolishing animal farming? Because, as with climate change and many other problems, technological progress is changing the tradeoffs we face. Within my lifetime, it may be possible for humanity to relegate animal farming to the history books, without seriously inconveniencing our selfish lifestyles.
posted by kliuless at 6:54 PM on September 11


The notion that we need technology to get us of animal ag is truly amazing and it condenses all that is wrong with techno-optimism on social and environmental problems.


The same people who complain that vegetarians and vegans are too noisy about their lifestyle also cant imagine a non-technological way to not eat meat! And are waiting for that technology to do it for them

Maintain a liveable earth and try to have as good a life as possible in it - this is possible.

Maintain your unsusatainable good life and try to have as much earth survive your damage - this is suicide by overdose.
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 7:57 PM on September 11


The notion that we need technology to get us of animal ag is truly amazing and it condenses all that is wrong with techno-optimism on social and environmental problems.

Well the report specifically says "Societal choices matter, and technology alone is not enough"

But I'm more cynical (I think it comes with age) and think that smart societal choices will only come from strong external forces. I can't see any scenario where the majority of people volunteer to become vegetarians. But if 'techno-meat' costs 1/4 the price of real meat, then that is what you will soon find in grocery stores and fast food restaurants. And it is going to happen 'overnight' (meaning years, but very fast in the grand scheme of things).

People 'should' live a more sustainable life, but I have a low expectation that people will follow the 'shoulds' until things get really bad. Again, maybe I'm being too cynical, but companies doing something because they will make more money--now that's something you can count on.
posted by eye of newt at 10:28 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


I personally suspect Moore's Law is something of a marketing/self-fulfilling prophecy type of law.

I suspect it functioned as an informal cartel regulation. Foundries are very expensive to build, and require a very long time to achieve breakeven, with two phases: a brief phase where your process it optimal for high margin chips, and the long tail afterwards. There was always a limit to how small a gate could be made, and Moore's law suggested how quickly industry should march towards it, perhaps to extend the high margin phase. Every new chip fab Intel builds costs like 10 billion dollars, so there's a lot riding on getting it right.

Same applies to their competitors so having a publicly stated gentleman's agreement would avoid any disasters to their market caps.
posted by pwnguin at 11:35 PM on September 11


But if 'techno-meat' costs 1/4 the price of real meat

Then the health of everyone is going to be even more screwed. People are going to eat meat for breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner, and probably another meal that is going to be invented that's going to be called like a "night roast". All kinds random products will suddenly have meat in them, like bread or chewing gum. The average meal is going to start shifting to a meat entree and a meat side dish.
posted by FJT at 12:13 AM on September 12 [2 favorites]


Maintain a liveable earth and try to have as good a life as possible in it - this is possible.

Maintain your unsusatainable good life and try to have as much earth survive your damage - this is suicide by overdose.

i think that is the question technology is trying to square: "To a first approximation your actions have almost no effect on the world but a huge effect on your position in the world. When nearly all of us anchor our own rational choice in that basically correct premise, what emerges is catastrophe."

whether it can of course is another question, hence...
de-growth luddism[1,2] vs. star trek optimism[3,4]
posted by kliuless at 6:32 AM on September 12


Hmmm... My intuition for 'exponentials are S-curves in disguise' is that it's usually a matter of /populations/ measures saturating as the population saturates. The obvious example is epidemiology: A disease spreads exponentially through a population, but necessarily slows down once a large proportion of the population has been infected and developed resistance. The graph of new cases looks like an exponential until it hits an upper bound, and then flattens out to an S.

This is a completely different situation from, say, solar panel manufacturing costs. There's not really a population to saturate. Eventually we'll stop finding new ways to reduce manufacturing costs by 20%, but at the end of the long R&D cycle, the solar panels are still hella cheap. Similar for battery costs... What it ends up looking like is a decreasing exponential hitting a lower asymptote: exp(-mu * t) + b, where mu is the 'learning rate' and b is an unknown lower bound on manufacturing costs. For a /decreasing/ exponential function, the S-curve statement is kinda nonsense.

CPU transistor counts are an increasing function, so one would expect that it should actually flatten out at the top eventually. However, you can play a whole lot of Centipede with the quarters you'd win from people betting that Moore's law was dead. We seem to be very good at finding new ways to use massive amounts of compute, and the total compute available in a brain suggests there's still plenty of room for improvement.

As has been said, nothing changes in a year, but everything changes in ten years.

On the electricity side, Coal producers have been going bankrupt in the US in kind of an incredible way. The US electricity production for 2020 is almost 20% renewable. Here's some graphs over time; increases in renwables are driven by massive growth in wind energy in the last ten years, and solar is really just getting started. (There's a great candidate for your hidden S-curve, by the way: renewables are increasing exponentially until we get somewhere near 100%, where it'll flatten off by necessity.)
posted by kaibutsu at 9:54 AM on September 12


Desal is very important and inescapably energy intensive, since we've already killed the oceans via acidification and eurtrophication and thermal pollution, might as well screw with the salinity to juice a few more quarterly earnings reports.

Surely all the newly desalinated fresh water makes it back into the ocean, one way or another.
posted by Rumple at 3:38 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]


Not necessarily that ocean, within biological timescales - evapotranspiration sends it into the atmosphere, and a lot of ag water is exported in a market.
posted by clew at 4:28 PM on September 12


Humanity uses about 11 billion cubic meters of water every day. There are, if my math is right, about 1,376,452,200,000,000,000 cubic meters of water in the Earth's oceans. Even if every single drop of fresh water we used every day came from desalinated ocean water it would only account for 0.0000016% of all ocean water.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 7:18 PM on September 12


The logical flaw there is that we aren't really dealing with the entire ocean, just the bits of it near us. If we dump a ton of concentrated saline in one place, it takes time for it to flow out and disperse.
posted by rifflesby at 8:48 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]


KFC Bets Americans Want Faux Fried Chicken [ungated] - "The brand's top U.S. exec says the chain is working on a plant-based option that will try to replicate its trademark offering."
posted by kliuless at 3:36 AM on September 15


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