Technology

5 questions for Neal Stephenson


With help from Mohar Chatterjee

Welcome back to our regular Friday feature, The Future in Five Questions. Today we’ve got Neal Stephenson, the sci-fi author who coined the term “metaverse” and now a Web3 entrepreneur in his own right. Read on to hear his thoughts on a future of cheap energy and water, better ways to reach space and DIY drone warfare.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What’s one underrated big idea?

Desalination. It’s an incredibly obvious, kind of simple process. Nothing is more basic than having water to drink, so it’s kind of hiding in plain sight, but coupled with cheap energy from photovoltaics it’s going to make big changes in the world.

When you look at how much water, or a lack thereof, has shaped where people live and how people make food, the notion that we might be able to engineer ways to get fresh water in a new way could be revolutionary.

What’s a technology you think is overhyped? 

I’m going to go with an oldie: rockets. It’s just a historical accident that chemical rockets became our only way of putting stuff into space, and if we had started at a different time we would have ended up doing something that works better.

One alternative would be beaming energy from the ground to vehicles, using lasers or microwaves. That seems like a doable project right now. There’s nuclear propulsion, which I think is probably never going to happen at scale, because it’s politically impossible, but even something as simple as constructing a very tall building or a tall tower and using that as a launch platform, or as a way to accelerate things up upward, could really change the economics of spaceflight.

What book most shaped your conception of the future?

If I had to pick one, I would say “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel.” It’s set in the fairly near future, where a teenage boy wins a spacesuit in a contest and fixes it up and suddenly adventure beckons. There’s a lot of nitty-gritty detail in the book that felt very real to me at the time. There’s a classic scene where he and another person are trying to walk across a part of the moon in spacesuits, and they’re running out of air, and they’re trying to swap air canisters, but the threads don’t match, so they’re trying to improvise fixes with tape. It’s a very tense scene, but it has a verisimilitude about it that you didn’t always see with science fiction of that era.

What could government be doing regarding tech that it isn’t?

We have a problem with projects taking very long periods of time to complete because of paperwork and regulatory barriers, and the way that a lot of the environmental regulations that were put into place for very good reasons, in, you know, in the 1970s, have become weaponized by people who have zero genuine interest in environmental issues. They’re just a weapon they can use to create delays and make things slower and more expensive.

It creates a situation where the old generation of technology can’t be replaced by new stuff that would be much, much better, and it’s catching up with us now with the whole carbon issue. We need to conduct major engineering operations to get carbon out of the atmosphere and prevent unimaginable catastrophe, and it’s going to require building a lot of big things.

What has surprised you most this year?

The conduct of the war in Ukraine. It’s a truism that militaries are always ready to “fight the last war,” and they’re never ready for what happens when a new war breaks out. Most people who are paying attention have understood that drones and other new technologies are going to change the way wars get fought, but we’re seeing it unfold and mutate in real time in Ukraine.

These guys are taking old Cold War grenades and disassembling them, and putting on homemade fuses and attaching 3D printed fins and dropping them out of consumer-grade drones, to a significant effect on the battlefield. I was just watching an interview with someone the other day where he said that everyone thinks that war is about shooting at each other with guns, but if you’re shooting at each other with small arms, it means something’s gone seriously wrong.

Earlier this August, the Chinese supercomputer OceanLight became one of the finalists for the Gordon Bell prize, commonly known as Nobel Prize of Supercomputing.

OceanLight fascinates computer experts because it was developed almost entirely in stealth mode from old 14 nm chips, rather than relying on state-of-the-art processing units from Intel or AMD.

It also illuminates a big challenge for Western efforts to constrain China’s cutting-edge tech development. OceanLight was built despite years of sanctions restricting Chinese access to state-of-the-art computing hardware.

I sat down with William Gropp, the director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, to discuss what OceanLight’s astonishing performance means in the race for future computing dominance between China and the United States.

Turns out, even on the bleeding edge of innovation, economic incentives are king. American supercomputers usually rely on the fastest processors on the market. Without access to those processors, China was forced to tweak a much older kind of semiconductor technology until they could hit peak processing speeds without burning out.

OceanLight’s evolutionary predecessor, the Sunway TaihuLight, was built by “very ruthless engineering design, in the sense that the processors are not designed for a mass commodity market,” Gropp said. The hardware in OceanLight is similarly optimized for one purpose alone: to join the ranks of the world’s elite supercomputers. Unlike their American counterparts, OceanLight’s developers aren’t expecting their hardware to do double duty as a gaming or a laptop processor.

To meet the memory challenges of the older hardware it uses, any software that runs on OceanLight needs to be very carefully written. But that, too, might create a kind of competitive threat by incentivizing coders to write more efficient software, Gropp noted.

“People need to remember… the US is not the only place that understands how to do these things,” the NCSA director said. “We do need to be very careful about restricting access to technology because it will spur people to step back and innovate as a reaction.” — Mohar Chatterjee

One of the biggest climate tech innovations of this century has been the development of “direct air capture” — technology that siphons carbon dioxide right out of the atmosphere. The tech, often called just DAC, is one of corporate America’s easiest options (in theory) for hitting those zero emissions targets they keep talking about.

And yet… there’s the money problem.

Check out this July talk by two pioneers of direct air capture technology, Jan Wurzbacher and Christoph Gebald, whose Climeworks company runs the world’s biggest DAC plant. (Don’t worry — you don’t have to watch the whole thing. I suggest starting at minute 7:19).

While Wurzbacher and Gebald are — as expected — big cheerleaders for the technology, they also highlight the grueling and expensive journey behind developing viable, commercial DAC facilities.

They estimate needing between $30 to $50 billion (yes, with a ‘b’) in annual investment between 2030 to 2050 to hit their target: increasing DAC capacity to pull 1 billion tons of CO2 out of the air annually. For context, the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change estimated that several billions of tons of CO2 would need to be captured and stored annually to make a “significant contribution to the mitigation of climate change.”

For perspective, the Climeworks founders point out their investment needs are only between 5-10 percent of current global investments in renewable energy. We’ll wait to see whether the public and private entities relying on carbon offsets to meet their climate pledges will be moved to open up their checkbooks. — Mohar Chatterjee

Stay in touch with the whole team: Ben Schreckinger ([email protected]); Derek Robertson ([email protected]); Mohar Chatterjee ([email protected]); Konstantin Kakaes ([email protected]); and Heidi Vogt ([email protected]). Follow us on Twitter @DigitalFuture.

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