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Monday, March 21, 2011

Ray Kurzweil: Solar Will Power the World in 16 Years

I can’t decide whether to love or hate technology predictions. They do help to get conversations started and to generate thoughts about the future and how to prepare for it. But technology trends are so unpredictable that sometimes prognosticating even six months out can be precarious.

So I was intrigued when I came across a solar power prediction post from the Think Tank blog on Big Think. The post discussed an interview with predictor extraordinaire Ray Kurzweil. The crux of the interview is that Kurzweil believes that solar power is on an exponential curve upwards in usage. Despite the fact that solar power only currently supplies less than 1% of the worlds power, its output has been doubling every two years. He thinks this upward trend will continue and within 16 years, solar power will meet 100% of the world’s energy needs.

Solar power does seem to be the most promising alternative energy out there, but this prediction seems to be slightly optimistic. Maybe solar energy conversion technologies will continue the trends of increases in efficiency along with decreases in price. But the technology to move around power will also have to also be improved. In the United States, power would need to be piped from sunny areas like the South and Southwest to darker areas farther North.

I don’t buy into the doubts about batteries though, this area is already undergoing dramatic technological improvements. Supercapacitors should be developed in upcoming years which can be charged or discharged very quickly and also store large amounts of power.

I do hope Kurzweil is at least partly right, and that solar power does keep steadily increasing to meet growing demands with clean, renewable energy. But getting back to the idea of predicting technologies 15, 20 years in the future. This is either a foolproof plan to look foolish when the endpoint of the prediction finally comes around, assuming that someone actually remembers the prediction made at that point, or an attempt at generating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Often, these predictions tend to have an ideological bent. Something like, if only society would adopt X strategy, world peace and happiness will surely follow in short order. Therefore it would be ludicrous not to follow X strategy, so unless everyone falls in line with the predictor’s world-view, they must be against world peace and happiness.

This example is hyperbole of course, but when you break down some of these predictions, and follow some of these predictors for a while, the hyperbole is often not that far off. While I don’t disagree with the end goals of Kurzweil in this instance, it is hard to argue against alternative energy from an ethical standpoint, I’m usually skeptical when I see technology predictions, especially ones so far in the future.

1 comment:

  1. A followup, IBM has also released some predictions, as part of their 5 in 5 initiative, outlining bold technology predictions for the next five years. A difference between the IBM predictions and Kurzweil's is that IBM views its predictions as 'stretch goals,' things that most likely won't happen in the specified time-frame. They make the predictions as conversation starters though, a way to get people thinking about technologies that IBM thinks will make an impact.

    This set of predictions includes holographic conversations projected from mobile phones, laptops and cell phones powered by kinetic energy, traffic jam prediction technology for cars, and cities powered by the heat thrown off by computer servers. For the full story see Bloomburg Businessweek -