Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts we’ll replace fossil fuels in 20 years

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      Ray Kurzweil’s ideas of what the future will look like, though seemingly fantastic, are not the kind of vague and subjective prophecies as those of Nostradamus.

      Kurzweil has been amazingly accurate. In the early ’80s, when barely anyone knew what the Internet was, he accurately predicted the capacity of today’s World Wide Web. In 1990, he suggested that a computer would beat a human in chess by 1998 (it happened in 1997), and foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union due to advances in communications technologies.

      He’s by no means perfect—one prediction was that by 2009 we would be interacting with our computers using only voice commands, not the ubiquitous keyboard—but he is more accurate than not.

      According to Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, technological progress follows an exponential-growth pattern.

      One of the effects of this growth has been that technology is democratizing. The tools of communication and media production—computers and recording devices—are increasingly powerful and cheap. A student in her dorm room can make a Hollywood-like movie with a $500 camera and a $1,000 computer. A group of thousands of Obama celebrants can converge on the White House in minutes by texting and tweeting with their cellphones.

      Kurzweil refers to these transitions from one technology to another as paradigm shifts, and they occur because at some point with every technology there is pressure to come up with a replacement.

      Sometimes this impetus is practical. Take the development of computers. At some point, vacuum tubes couldn’t be made any smaller, which triggered the invention of transistors. In 1968, Kurzweil told the Straight, he was purchasing one palm-sized transistor for a dollar. Today you can get 300 million transistors that are almost too small to see for that same price. As we reach the point where transistors can’t be made any smaller, computers will be constructed using a new technology, “self-organizing, three-dimensional objects like carbon tubes”.

      Sometimes the pressure to change technologies comes because resources are too limited to supply the exponential growth, which is why Kurzweil believes that energy is about to transition from being an industrial technology—relying on fossil fuels and other nonrenewable sources—to an information technology. There is 10,000 times more sunlight than we need to power the Earth, he said, if it can be captured and stored in something like nano-engineered fuel cells.

      “Within 20 years,” he said, “we’ll have largely replaced fossil fuels.”

      As for the waste left behind by the old industrial technologies, Kurzweil said that information technologies will help with that, too. After we move to environmentally-friendly, renewable forms of energy, there are already ideas for how nanotechnology can be used to clean up the negative environmental impact from industrial technologies.

      “We’ll be able to recycle physical products using nanotechnology to reorganize the molecules which are useful to be used in the new devices we need,” Kurzweil said.

      “If we can reorganize matter and energy at the molecular level, we can really recycle things quite usefully.”




      Mar 5, 2009 at 7:21pm

      I just hope Mr. Kurzweil is factoring in the energy required to create nano-engineered fuel cells. Where's that going to come from?