I picked up a copy of Where’s My Flying Car (kindle edition) on a whim after reading some interesting reviews online for the book. I was curious to see how these would stack up against the genuine article. I’m not sure that I should have lent my curiosity such latitude. The book itself is in need of a good editor to rein in the excesses of the author and in particular some of the more meandering sections which became quite tiresome. In the spirit of my other reviews I will focus this one on the good aspects of the book as opposed to what I didn’t like. That being said, I need to get some things out of my system first. Unfortunately, there were some literary tics that were just tpp hard to ignore and must be addressed. I’ll then try to spend a lot more time on what I found interesting about the book itself because there are some interesting sections.
The following all detracted from the reading experience and I found that, ultimately, they hurt Hall’s arguments as well.
- “It is possible” - Hall has an annoying style where he writes a high level about a potential physical phenomenon, handwaves away all of the difficult and challenging bits about it and then laments that we don’t have it with the phrase “it is possible”. It’s highly irritating.
- All Regulations Bad - Hall is a libertarian, as such, all regulations bad, all private enterprises good. The only reason we don’t flying cars has to do with regulations.
- Did you know that Nanotech makes everything amazing and rainbows? Hall is one of the founding members of the “Foresight Institute”, an institution dedicated to promoting Nanotech within society. As such, everything basically devolves to Nanotech but presented in a top level superficial way. Did you know that Nanotech could replace the entire capital stock of the United States in a week? Hall does, he did it in a back of the envelope calculation and now it’s gospel. I don’t mind the focus on Nanotech itself but it does get tiresome.
- Did you know Richard Feynman said Nanotech was possible in the 60s? Hall clearly has a hard on for Feynman and he name drops continuously an approach Feynman discussed in a lecture in 1959 called “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” to give scientific credence to his thoughts. The problem with taking an off the cuff thought experiment as your guiding philosophy is that sometimes off the cuff thought experiments don’t work. The fact that Hall is referencing a 60 year old thought experiment somehow makes this worse and potentially shifts the book towards “crank” territory for me.
- Golden Age Science Fiction is the best thing since sliced bread: Science Fiction is still Fiction. Just because someone dreams something up doesn’t mean that it’s possible or realistic. Science Fiction is not Science.
- Climate Change isn’t bad - The IPCC said that Climate Change would only detract economic growth by 2-3% and therefore we can ignore it. Of course, this is based off a government funded study which Hall isn’t in favour of in general? Having his cake and eat it too perhaps? (I’m misinterpreting deliberately to showcase some of the absurdity here, Hall also doesn’t appear to have any experience in managing real world risk here. In the case of Climate Change it’s not the knowns that will get us but instead the unknown systemic effects that might do us in.)
Okay, now that I’ve got all of those out of the way I can move on to what is actually interesting about Hall’s line of thinking. As always in these reviews this is what I personally found interesting about the work. This isn’t necessarily the novelty of the thoughts itself, mostly my personal take on it.
We need to move up the energy curve not down
This was the key takeaway from the book for me, it’s something which I think I’ve always implicitly “got” but it’s good to see it outlined explicitly. The reason we should want to move up the energy curve is not that it helps us do the same things that we’re doing now but instead because it enables an entirely new class of applications that were previously impossible for us.
Fig 1: Applications can be thought of as having both a raw energy requirement and an energy density requirement, different energy sources have different characteristics and certain applications are simply not possible with “lower quality” energy sources (Produced by myself)
These new applications will only be possible if we have access to reliable, low cost, high density power supplies in excess of what we currently have today. In this vein, renewable energy coupled with chemical batteries is potentially a false start as it will restrict us to our present level of technology when in reality we want to move past it to the next step. As Hall discusses, this requires a dynamic and functioning nuclear technology industry that is innovative and able to produce a wide variety of products.
As an example, if we take the example from the World Nuclear Organisation and assume capital costs had remained (i.e. no learning curve) at the French PWR level or the South Korean level then costs would be around $2,000 USD/kWe. This is staggeringly cheap when viewed over the lifetime of the asset and implies that most of the cost that we incur is unrelated to the fundamental technology. At a cost of $2,000 USD/kWe you could decarbonise the Australian electricity grid for ~60-70 billion USD (100 billion AUD). This is a one off cost less than what Australia spent on the Job Keeper programme as a form of pandemic response. Makes you think what might have been.
The key takeaway, we’re not just building a “better horse” when it comes to different energy supplies. Instead, we’re enabling a whole new class of applications that we couldn’t have before when we move up the energy frontiers towards higher order energy sources. This potentially leads to the interesting dynamic that energy conservation is self defeating and we may end up in a death spiral by pursuing it versus a focus on expanding our energy use.
Regulations should be considered carefully
This is something which should be drilled into anyone. Regulations have a cost both in terms of making things more expensive but also in terms of setting the bounds of what can be done. Every time we introduce a new regulation we incrementally make ourselves poorer (in first order terms) as well as prevent something from happening in the first place. As such, it is beholden on us to carefully consider what regulations we apply and we should always assess whether the regulation’s benefits outweigh both the first order costs we incur as well as the second and third order restrictions in the possible solution space that occur.
Fig 2: Regulations don’t just restrict the current solution space, instead, they often dictate the potential solution space as well. This restriction occurs through the effect of directing effort and energy away from the avenue of inquiry towards other pursuits. (Produced by myself)
If they don’t, then we should look at repealing or replacing them. Regulations by themselves should be viewed as a necessary evil and not something that we should reach towards as a first approximation. We should use this power sparingly and only when we’re sure it will do more good than harm. Regulations are a hammer and they don’t just impact the here and now, they also guide where we’ll end up in the future.
Failure of Nerve and Failure of Imagination
Hall distinguishes between two different failures of the contemporary world. The failure to stick to the path (Failure of Nerve) and the failure to continue to dream (Failure of Imagination). Of these, the Failure of Nerve is particularly concerned as it implies that there are things that we know how to do, we just don’t because we’re too afraid to do them. In this vein you can throw things like supersonic flight, nuclear power, gene editing, GMO crops and other novel advances that have received public backlash in recent years.
What often stops these avenues is of course cost. Supersonic flight and nuclear power have both required huge amounts of resources to get off the ground, gene editing too relied upon Government largesse for a bit. The private sector is essentially unable to fund these developments due to the large amount of overhead required.
The Failure of Imagination on the other hand implies that as a society we’ve stopped trying to dream big. Instead, we’re too ensconced in our modern consumerist culture to dream of the future. We don’t have any aspirations to “go to Mars” for the sake of going to Mars. In the Failure of Imagination Hall sees all of our current spending on social programs versus on fundamental research and technology. It is the Futurist’s lament. We could have had a better future if we but dreamed it.
A counter argument that stands out to me is that in absolute terms we’ve never spent more on universities and the sciences. We’re pumping out so many Ph.Ds that we have an glut and our institutions cannot absorb them. Potentially what Hall is lamenting here is the lack of money we dedicate towards truly imaginative projects that could revolutionise society? Potentially, politicians don’t want society to be revolutionised?
Marketing is all important to the success of a particular technology
Hall is a “Futurist” and, from what I can glean from his writing, a techno utopian Libertarian. As such, he laments the fact that scare campaigns against various technological sources have worked over time and the oft cited “cultural malaise” that the West appears to be going through (is this actually true?). How true this is I won’t discuss. What Hall cannot (is unable to?) see is that how a technology is marketed often has more to do with its success than it’s relative merits unless those relative merits are so large so as to be self evident. For something to be self evidently better it cannot be 5% better or 10% better. To the average person this is irrelevant. For something to market itself it needs to be 1000% better (or 10x), a whole order of magnitude difference. Think the first iPhone versus an old flip phone. When something is 1000% better it will tend to market itself and adoption is rapid.
As such, when we’re not dealing with situations that have such self evidently improvement attention must be paid to marketing them to the general public. This is the price of democracy. Society gets the final veto over any advance that we make through their elected officials. If society as a whole is against something then it’s doomed to failure before it even begins and societies are fickle, we’re influenced by advertising. Like many Futurists, Hall seems to idealise some kind of technocratic society where we’re scientifically managed by the best and brightest of us (I’m assuming that he includes himself in this group? Or, potentially he’s referring to algorithmic control which just punts the problem back to the algorithmic designers. I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader the chance to go back and read through examples of algorithmic bias). After spending time with a lot of scientists I don’t actually think this would be a very enjoyable experience for a lot of people.
Setting aspirations higher
This is related to the “Failure of Imagination” above but is worthwhile of a discussion on its own. One of the pieces that stood out to me throughout the book was how low the aspirations of our modern discourse actually are. As a society we’re obsessed with how much money we pay our nurses versus whether we can make them superfluous by banishing disease (hopefully it should be clear that I’m anti-sickness not anti nurses here). We’re obsessed with adding just one more road rather than reinventing our transportation system wholesale. We’re obsessed with a marginal benefit to social benefits rather than with trying to radically improve the lives of the working poor. Our aspirations themselves are low and have been beaten lower by experiences over time.
This comes down to a general problem statement. Rather than trying to think about how to manage problems through our political space we should be thinking about how to excise them from society completely. Rather than complaining of the difficulty of a particular process we should be trying to think of ways to radically solve the problem in a cheaper more efficient process. We should be trying to use technology to radically improve our lives and solve problems in an innovative setting rather than using the political space to redistribute around outcomes we don’t particularly want.
This is something that I think I’ve been guilty of in the past and something I’ll need to think about more in the future. This might just be an example of my personal philosophy though, I want a bigger pie rather than a more equally divided smaller one.
Problems need to be tractable
One element that I didn’t see discussed much within the book, except tangentially, is the amount of resources required to tackle a particular problem. Perhaps one of the challenges that we’re facing today is that everything that we want to advance requires so many resources that progress is essentially out of reach of most people and can only be advanced through sustained collective investment.
This leads systems like University grants as we try to manage scarcity and all of its resulting problems. Something to think about here, perhaps our problems need to be tractable to someone with limited resources if we want advances to be made? The scientific advances of the industrial revolution were a lot cheaper than the advances of the nuclear age because they were closer towards Engineering problems rather than Science problems. The classical example of this is the steam engine was developed before the theory of how it operated but a nuclear power station required a working theory first.
Ultimately, the book is a tedious read but it has some good points. It should be 200 pages shorter and much more tightly edited. Some of the concepts are interesting. A 3/5, potentially even a 2/5 due to the writing style. Could have been a 4/5 with tight editing. The concept itself is good.
- The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen
- What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly