The human condition is improving at an exponential rate.” – The Lonely Realist

The human condition has improved more over the last 100 years than it did over the prior 5,000 years. Think about what that means. Then consider that the next 25 years will see far greater improvement. That’s the virtue of progress.

The driver of progress is knowledge fueled by an open market in information. Sharing of information begins with education. America owes its success in large part to its public education system, constructed to further a competent citizenry to support America’s democracy. The better and broader an education system, the deeper the knowledge base. Better educated societies are more prosperous and healthier than their counterparts. A healthy educational foundation means that there is more information to share and more enthusiasm to share that information. Freedom of speech and the absence minimization of censorship have fueled information sharing in America. That more freely shared information resulted in a deep and relatively uniform American knowledge base, which led to greater innovation, higher productivity, and widespread prosperity. Lubrication for each – education, information-sharing and knowledge-building – required capital, which has been a specialty of American democracy. Because of the success in allocating capital to education, information-sharing and knowledge, progress has been compounding at an ever-increasing rate. Whether the printing press, the steam engine, polio vaccine or the semiconductor, knowledge coupled with intelligent capital allocation has led to higher living standards and better human health. That’s progress!

Progress depends on technology, the definition of which is “the practical application of knowledge.” A massive amount of capital has found its way into 21st Century technology, two of the most promising of which are artificial Intelligence (AI) and alternative energy. A regular TLR theme has been that the compounding of successive agricultural, industrial, technological and biotechnological revolutions has seeded changes that will fundamentally enhance the human condition. AI and alternative energy are heralds of a dramatically improved future.

Take AI. Today’s AI accesses virtually all human knowledge and applies it to tasks intended to enhance living standards, increase life-spans, and fuel growth. Chat GPT4 – the fourth generation of ChatGPT, itself unveiled only last Fall –, marks merely a beginning. Catastrophists fear where AI may lead, worrying that it may result in the creation of a Skynet, the evil computer behind The Terminator, or to similar Frankensteinian monsters. Fortunately, those fears were recognized decades ago by scientists who anticipated the creation of intelligent robots and developed the four Laws of Robotics that should be baked into artificial intelligence applications: First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws; and Fourth Law: A robot may not harm humanity or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

AI represents profound human progress, recognizing that progress necessarily entails disruption. A variety of human tasks undoubtedly will be automated away, perhaps quickly. (It is worth noting, however, that the countries with today’s highest rates of automation have the world’s lowest rates of unemployment.) If so, obsolete jobs will make way for workers to pursue new occupations in much the same way as the Industrial Revolution replaced farmers and craftsmen with factory, transportation and service workers. Today’s Luddites nevertheless will try to slow down halt progress by lobbying for government protection … and elected officials most certainly will oblige in order to secure votes (for example, at a recent Congressional hearing, Senator Blumenthal declared that his “biggest nightmare” is the job loss that AI could cause) … and, as in Florida, to pander to interest groups’ calls for limits on the flow of information and education. That will slow knowledge-building. Progress after all is a messy business. People, however, will adapt.

Just as AI will disrupt business and labor, climate change already is disrupting the energy industry …, and it is energy that is essential for human progress. Without it, there is no heat, no industry, and no technology. Throughout history, progress has been dependent on burning fossil fuels, wood or whale oil or coal or gas or oil, all of which have seen gradual exhaustion and disruption. The current disrupter is climate change, which has led governments to focus their budgets on subsidizing solar, wind and battery power. An overlooked energy source is fusion, which has the potential to radically change the world by generating an inexhaustible supply of energy …, and do so within the next few decades. Skeptics abound because of the old joke that fusion power always is 30 years away. After all, it’s been 30 years away for the last 30 years. That joke now appears outdated.

Fusion development companies are attracting billions of dollars of investment. The Fusion Industry Association has some 34 members. Whereas fusion energy research previously was solely a government-funded experiment, and a poorly-funded one at that, for the first time ever it now is a privately-funded industry that is pursuing the development of fusion technology on a large scale. It’s important to recognize how much this reflects an entrepreneurial belief in the likelihood of success. Surprising, no? Although the current belief is that successful development of a commercial fusion reactor is likely decades away(?), private industry is betting that successful technological breakthroughs are within sight. Recall that SpaceX, founded in 2002, was viewed at the time as a quixotic adventure, attracting private investments of only $61 million. Fusion technology has found far greater funding – $5 billion in recent years …, excluding government-funded projects. With technological development and technology funding progressing at an accelerating pace and with increasing pressure to find fossil fuel alternatives, it may be that the world is approaching a true energy breakthrough. Progress indeed! The “Father of the Tokamak,” a reactor for producing a controlled fusion reaction, summed it up best: “Fusion will be ready when society needs it.” Society needs fusion now. Recent developments suggest that fusion may be closer than many believe.

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Finally (from a good friend)

1 Comment
  • jeffcsiegel
    Posted at 08:20h, 28 May

    Right on!

    Just last year war-related energy costs were killing Europe. This week Finland had their cost of energy actually go negative. They recently turned on an expensive and long-delayed nuclear fission plant. That plus hydro and some other plants means they now have an abundance of energy. Georgia recently turned on the first new US nuke plant in decades. The UAE has 25% of its energy needs being met with new nuke plants. The new nuke plants while too expensive to build are 60 years safer in technology than old plants, produce no carbon and cost little to run. Private enterprise driven smaller and cheaper nuclear fission plants are likely in the next decade.

    Containing and sustaining a fusion reaction as hot as the sun is harder than we thought, but we’ll get there. With working fusion we will have unlimited no-carbon power. Enough to power processes that cool the planet and pull carbon out of the air, if that’s what we want to do.

    The future is bright.

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