back to the future: how to get a hint of the significance of a new invention

In order to understand the technological significance of an invention, it is sometimes better to go back into the past, rather than trying to project into the future.  Science fiction is horrible at looking what will happen in the future, with our limited imagination and limited understanding of the present, we are just no good at seeing around the conceptual corners occurring along the path of a new technology.  One thing that we are fairly good in seeing, however, is the past histories of well established technologies.  

It is familiar ground, and when we look back on it, especially from a new perspective of detachment which can occur when we are beginning to displace that old technology, we can note how different the new is from the old.

Let’s say a new style of paperclip is developed.  In order to understand its technological significance, one should understand the difference it presents in functionality or economic productivity,  One can ask why paperclips exist at all and how their introduction changed things.  In order to understand their significance, for that matter, in order to understand the significance of any invention, it is important to understand what difference it makes.  We understand things by comparison and contrast.  However, we have an inherent difficulty in conceptualizing the changes when a new technology is introduced.  We are in the middle of things, and cannot see clear of them.  Going back in time allows us to get clear and see the differences in a before and after situation.

With an established technology, it is hard to understand how much it makes up our way of living.  As the fish said, “what’s this ‘wet’ that I keep hearing about?”  With a new kind of technology, we are caught up in the novelty and both overestimate it and under estimate it.  When the child in us has a brand new hammer, everything starts looking like a nail.

How significant will cold fusion be?  Well, we have never had anything like it before.  It has the potential to fill the broken promises of nuclear energy, the dealbreaker for fission being the toxic fuel and especially the waste.  Cold fusion also promises to be compact, for those of us who feel that there is too much centralization (and control) in our society, the possible plentitude of cold fusion plants hints at a plurality, a diversity of people managing the energy resources, not so much a centralized authority.  With a diversity it would longer be ‘one size (mis)fits all.’  

Solar offers that kind of diversity of sources, and so does wind and combustion, which after all is just solar turned into managable forms.  The whole energy history history of the world, except for nuclear, geothermal, and to some degree, tidal, has been solar in one fashion or another.  How far back do you have to go in order to not be relying on solar?  (besides the deadend of fission)  I think I would look to the undersea vents where life began in the first place.

Most inventions are incremental improvements on other inventions.  Cold fusion, on the other hand, when/if it gets going, will not only be quite a jump technologically, but also socially.  I include ‘if’ there because the flower is just starting to open, it hasn’t gone into full bloom yet.  Or in other words, while we can be quite positive about the potential, we shouldn’t count our chickens just yet.

3 Replies to “back to the future: how to get a hint of the significance of a new invention”

  1. Becareful with historical analogies. LENR is a transformational technology, meaning it likely won’t have a firm historical presidence.

    “Total replacement of fossil fuels for everything but synthetic organic chemistry.” –Dr. Joseph M. Zawodny, NASA

    By the way, I am not yet convinced that our current ossified political situation can yet usher in the Age of Nickel without first trying every other wrong option. Just for the record, I am fully prepared to spread LENR technology to India, China, and other countries, so our “leaders” will be motivated to not just try to stifle LENR to maintain the status quo.

    Hopefully, both Defkalion and Leonardo will start pumping out tons of LENR generators from their factory floors this year, and put a stake through the heart of any notion to stifle this silver bullet clean energy technology.

  2. LENR Ni+H have many characteristics that you capture well, and more.
    like nuclear energy if have density and capacity to be cheap and big.
    but it is clean, and can be small.
    it allows decentralized solution, but unlike solar or wind does not impose it.
    it is very dense, and independent
    solar and wind energy is much less dense and impose much higher investment, thus is costly. unlike LENR.

    another very big advantage of LENR (Ni+H) is that the fuel is not a critical point, a bit like Uranium, but even more easy to find. There is no geostrategic problem , unlike oil.

    it can be mobile unlike nuclear/geothermic, wind… solar can be mobile, but in practical case not, because of low density.

    LENR fuel have a very high density, higher than oil, but the engine is big because of hydrogen safety, and thermal engine. finally the density for daylyusage is the same as car engine with fuel tank…
    but autonomy is no more a problem (year instead of day?), since the fuel is very very dense.

    for now the only limit of that energy is thus the engine downsizing, below the “car engine/home heating size”…
    I won’t be surprised if soon there is a motorbike hybrid engine with LENR .
    maybe even a bike assist engine (heavy but powerful and huge range).

    for smaller engine like toys, phone, laptop… it will be hard.

    one big advantage of LENR is that despite the weight of the engine, the autonomy is gigantic.
    once a plane/drone can fly hybrid with LENR, you can expect it to fly for months.
    so for car, boats, warship, buses, trucks, space probe

    it can change many facts, like allowing war drones flying like satellites, or allowing bike-assist for long range, filling the gap between moped and bikes…

    s to make the executive summary.

    this energy can be retrofitted from car-engine/homeheating size to nuke reactor size, where and when you want, fixed or mobile, without disadvantage.
    those characteristic won’t be a revolution, but will reduce cost of today’s systems, make most much simpler.

    it can allow very large autonomy (months) where it has never been possible, for fixed or mobile devices. this can make a revolution on some domain, allowing new usage (long fly drones, no stop ships)

    it can also make possible upsizing and downsizing of energy plant, allowing nuclear size plant without strong needs, and allowing nuclear quality energy home-sized. electric grid will adapt to the mentality of the population (individualist or centralized)…

    by the way it will kill many future, expensive or investment energy like : solar, wind, nuke, clean coal, geothermic, non conventional oil/gas, …
    old nuke, classic oil will survive for some time, waiting for dismantling.

  3. I have the gumption to make one specific prediction. Past attempts at prognostication by others are entertaining.
    However I can look at biology and definitely say that just like any other organism, if we find another energy source we will use it to breed up. We will fill the niche.

    And the Report to the Club of Rome (the “Limits to Growth” report) has done the modelling. More energy means we can go after lower grade ore bodies such as oil etc.. In scenario 2 resources are doubled and pollution causes a precipitous collapse of population.

    I shall allow myself on prediction. We will be forced off world. There will be orders of magnitude more people living at L3 and L4 than on the surface of the planet in 100 years time.
    Gerrard K O’Neill’s plan will be fulfilled. We will be freed from the tyranny of a finite planet. We will embrace the Void.

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