At the last week’s Future in Review conference in San Diego, there were all sorts of bright ideas about improving technology and the world. Here are the best. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.
The Economist has called the annual Future in Review conference—known as FiRe—“the best technology conference in the world.” In its seventh year, 150 members of the tech elite and future enthusiasts—a near oxymoron in the current economy—met at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. As the old saying goes, “I’m interested in the future because I’m going to spend the rest of my life there.” So I joined them.
Australia’s national broadband will put the country into the forefront of the Internet age, with enough speed and bandwidth to run an international business out of every Aussie home.
This year’s theme, with appropriately empowered defiance, was “Shaping the Rebound: Technology Driving Economics.” These are not folks who believe in the inevitability of trends that can overwhelm them—they believe in creating the trends themselves. The unofficial slogan of the gathering is “we help you change the world.” As physicist and author David Brin put it, “It’s capitalism in its best light.”
The founder of FiRe is Mark Anderson, a Perry Mason-looking dude from Washington State, who is also the CEO of the Strategic News Service, the first Internet subscription newsletter, which counts Bill Gates and Michael Dell as devotees. Anderson’s predictions have had a way of coming true over the years. But FiRe is not a guru gathering; it’s a collection of heavy hitters in sometimes narrow niches from around the globe. Mark just plays ringmaster to the circus.
Here are the five best ideas and innovations I saw at the conference:
Test Drive a Tesla: The premium electric-car maker Tesla is thriving while our traditional automakers are dying. By aggressively investing in the high-end next-generation technology that the Big Three either ignored or actively subverted, Tesla is hiring (while others are firing) and has waiting lists (while Detroit can barely give its less-imaginative designs away). After test-driving a Tesla Roadster, it’s easy to see why. It’s not just a sports car; it’s a spaceship. The drive is almost silent, with a low-level Star Trek hum, but punch the accelerator and the torque pushes you back into your contoured seat, going zero to 60 mph in under 4 seconds. It’s got power, performance, and control—and with 240 miles to a full charge, it can more than meet the needs of an average American driver. This is a win-win innovation—the kind of invention that makes you think it can really change the world.
Weapons-Free Nuke Power: Talk about win-win—how about clean nuclear power with no potential of nuclear-weapons proliferation? That’s what a company called Thorium Power promises. It’s a basic and plentiful chemical element that offers a safer alternative to uranium. With the highest burning temperature of any metal and a radioactive half-life of 70 years, thorium has the potential to reduce the danger of meltdowns and help solve the Yucca Mountain problem of disposal. In an era of Iran and North Korea pursuing nuclear proliferation, the real potential is in allowing the spread of nuclear energy without the fuel being reprocessed into nuclear weapons—thorium can’t be reprocessed into weapons-grade material at significant levels. Before you get too excited, the technology hasn’t been successfully used yet—a thorium-powered plant in Russia is set to be on-line in three years—the company’s stock trades for less than $1 and the nuclear industry is notoriously resistant to change. But with the clean-energy benefits of nuclear power increasingly accepted, the potential of this plug-in alternative to address the still unanswered problems could be a long-term game changer and peace-promoter that dovetails well with the instincts of the Obama administration.
National Broadband in Oz: The “tyranny of distance” has long been a complaint of our best allies in the Southern Hemisphere. But the new government in Australia has announced a $43 billion investment initiative that will bring high-speed broadband Internet to 90 percent of all homes, schools, and workplaces. With speeds up to 100 megabits per second, that’s 100 times faster than current average speeds, and it will catapult Australia into the forefront of the Internet age, with enough speed and bandwidth to run an international business out of every Aussie home. The immediate sell is job creation coincident with the national instillation, but the real long-term economic benefits are just being seeded. And compared to the more scattershot, less long-term infrastructure-driven investments in our $787 billion stimulus package, the Aussie bet is the one that really reflects the audacity of hope.
The China Conundrum: There is no doubt that China is on the rise but the really interesting question raised at FiRe is at what cost. A bipolar world where the U.S. and China drive the global economic resurgence out of the Great Recession seems likely, but Mark Anderson asked whether free trade or free markets can exist in competition with a still unfree nation like China. If workers can be compelled to produce goods at little or no cost to factory owners, doesn’t that undercut the ideal of free-market competition in fundamental ways? How will the lack of transparency, presence of pollution, and low long-term quality be priced into the bottom line? Riots inside China are on the rise and, while there is great potential for increased economic cooperation in the short term, market Leninism cannot be the model the world follows in the 21st century. Not if freedom is considered the highest aspiration of civilization. One Chinese-American executive got a good laugh when she said that China was becoming more capitalist as America was becoming more socialist. But no one laughed when she admitted that even half-a-world away, she did not feel comfortable publicly criticizing the Chinese government.
Behold, the Gigabyte Age: A gigabyte is the speed at which the human eye processes data to the brain, making life look seamless. It’s what researchers under the direction of Larry Smarr at the University of California, San Diego’s Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology have been developing with high-speed, high-resolution live-streaming super computing that can effectively fool the eye into seeing no distance between you and the people you’re speaking with and seeing in real time, even if they are on another continent. Time and distance effectively shrink, and massive computing becomes possible. Another breakthrough is in the increased accessibility of “cloud computing,” which Glen Hiemstra of Futurist.com believes will “bring wider access to high-level mobile computing, with greater data security and less cost.” Broad access to much higher-speed computing—the rise of the Gigabyte age—may seem like a luxury now but it will feel like a necessity soon.
Viewing the future in review offers an empowered perspective on global trends. It’s an invigorating shift from the victim-of-change mind-set that can preoccupy many people in a recession. But it was also a counterproposal to those folks who are looking for the government to solve all our problems for us. It’s a reminder that government can be an effective catalyst for change, but not a control. As individuals, we still need to aim for the change that we want to see in the world.
John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast and is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.