Friday, January 04, 2013

Thirteen for '13

I don't do New Year's Resolutions. I haven't in quite some time. I've found that making up an enormous To-Do list of improvements all at once tends to set me up for failure. It's much better to make those improvements as I notice that they're needed, no matter what the calendar says. That said, the beginning of the year is a good time to take stock, and try to figure out where we're headed.

With that in mind, here are thirteen predictions and observations. Not all of them are for 2013. But they're all things that I expect, and fairly soon.

One: Soon, our cars will more or less drive themselves. It's already happening on a small scale. Where it gets interesting is when it starts to happen on a larger scale. What will happen, when thousands, even millions of self-driving cars hit the roads for morning rush hour? The obvious answer is that the car computers should be talking to each other, so that they can collectively de-conflict one another's routing. Centralized routing would work, in principle. But it would be dependent on a centralized processing system, and network, and the associated infrastructure. It would be far more efficient, and far more robust, if each vehicle were to be in contact with the few dozen or so in its immediate vicinity. That would be enough to co-ordinate lane changes, mergers, and getting on and off a freeway. That information would then automatically cascade up and down the roadway, because each car would be in contact with a different dozen or so, meaning that as traffic becomes congested, a car that's just now leaving the owner's driveway knows to plot a different path to the office that day. Best of all, there's no one point of failure that can be exploited or attacked. It's going to take some time to debug the system until it works properly, but I'm confident something like this will be in place before I retire.

Two: What's more, those cars will probably be electric. An important threshold was crossed last year that you might have missed if you weren't paying attention. The Motor Trend Car of the Year for 2012? The Tesla S, an electric sedan. Hybrids have won a permanent place in the automotive market now, where they were a novelty only five years ago. All-electic cars will soon follow suit. The big problem has always been the batteries: how to get enough of them, how to hold enough power for a decent range. The technology has gotten steadily better, though, and as more of them are recognized as simply being good cars to own, public acceptance will come. Because although gasoline is a convenient energy-storage medium, no one really loves it. An economical, reliable electric car with decent range will be welcomed, once it's available.

Three: Which leads us to the third point, going all-electric offers a significant set of challenges. I've written at length about this before, so I won't belabor the point again. But there are some encouraging signs out there. The Navy has been quiet about progress on the Polywell project, but what has been released seems to indicate that things are going about as well as they expected. To wit: the results match the theory, and the Navy has continued to supply funding so that the work can continue. There are good things happening in superconductivity research as well, although nothing that would make the headlines. Also, solar panels are getting cheaper all the time. Again, this isn't anything that I expect to break this year, but all the pieces are coming together. We'll have the tools we need, by the time we desperately need them.

Four: We will find an Earth-like extrasolar planet, and soon. At least we will, given a sufficiently generous definition of Earth-like. I'm going to define the term as a rocky planet, within a habitable zone, with mass and surface gravity within plus or minus 10% of our own. Within my professional lifetime so far, we've come from not even being sure that binary stars could even have planets, to finding planets in the star system next door. The techniques get better by the year. Instruments get more sensitive, capable of peering farther and farther into the cosmos, and also of finding smaller and smaller things nearby. We now think that the Milky Way Galaxy holds at least 100 million planets. Given that we also think that the Milky Way holds between 100 and 400 million stars, we now think that planets are at least as numerous as stars. I've written about the Drake Equation before, and I see little reason to revise ... much. I'm starting to wonder if the fraction Fp might be much closer to 1 than it is to my old guess of 0.5. If so ... then we might be able to find a pen pal out there, after all. (Since, by my estimates, N goes from 1.4 to 2.8 if Fp goes from 0.5 to 1.)

Five: 3-D Printing, coming to a corner mall near you! Again, this isn't something I expect for 2013, but I do expect distributed manufacturing to be part of the Next Big Thing. Consider: a shoe company that doesn't have to have factories, or warehouses, or any of that stuff, because the stores themselves have a 3-D printer that makes the shoes as the customers order them. They don't have to ship shoes, they ship raw materials and design patterns. They could undercut Nike and Reebok by 50%, and still make higher profits. Just about any retailer that deals in a line of relatively simple products could take advantage of this technology to radically streamline their logistical chain. To say nothing of the corner auto parts store, who can make weird parts to order, when the customer needs it. Need a water pump for a '53 Studebaker? Sure, pal, but it'll take us an hour or two to print one up...

Six: Two words: Google Glasses. Augmented Reality is coming, with all the benefits and horrors that will entail. But this is really only the next step on the road we've walked as a species ever since we started using fire, a quarter of a million years ago. We shape our tools, then our tools shape us, in an endless recursion.

Seven: Last year, we saw humans plumb the depths of the oceans, and the upper limits of the skies. The most awesome thing about this is that these efforts weren't sponsored by governments, but by private citizens. Don't misunderstand me, I'm no anti-government fanatic, but I think it's just incredible, and a beautiful thing, that the technology of exploration is becoming so democratized. And this isn't the end, not by a long shot. Last year, we saw a privately-financed spacecraft rendezvous with the space station, and begin routine cargo deliveries. This year, the deliveries continue. Next year, or the year after? Seats, man. We're that much closer to being able to buy a ticket. And how great is that?

Eight: I think it's worth mentioning that Elon Musk is responsible for two of the items on this list: the Tesla S sedan, and the Dragon spacecraft. Pay attention to this man. He's building a big chunk of the future.

Nine: The Great Gatsby is coming to the big screen. I'm conflicted ... On the one hand, did we ever need a Gatsby movie? But on the other, if done right (and this one looks like it might be), it could be great. (No pun intended.)

Ten: The Dallas Cowboys won't get any better until they get a new General Manager. Being that the current GM, Jerry Jones, is probably not going to be fired by the owner (also Jerry Jones), the odds of that are the same as the number of R's in "Fat Chance".

Eleven: And yes, it's going to suck to have to face RGIII twice a year for the next ten to fifteen years.

Twelve: The fallout from the Lance Armstrong scandal has been impressive, but the story's not over yet. His former boss, Johan Bruyneel, was also charged in the same matter, but has elected to go forward with arbitration. His case will be heard sometime this year. It will be very interesting to see how that turns out. Lance got all the publicity, but Bruyneel was central to the whole thing. He was the one who knew how to dupe the testers. We know who, what, when, where and why, but we don't yet know how. And that will be a crucial fact to have, going forward.

Thirteen: It's way too early to start handicapping 2016, but let's start throwing some names out there anyway. Hillary Clinton has the inside lane to the candidacy, if she should want another run at it. I don't see a challenger of sufficient stature to make a real contest of it, unless Joe Biden should want a go at it as well. On the Republican side, a lot of the big guns that sat out last time will probably start testing the waters over the next year and a half. We'll also see some newcomers throw down for it, as well. The "It's His Turn" rule says that the nomination is Santorum's to lose, but the fierce desperation of having lost two in a row does seem to change the rules. And of course, a great deal depends on what goes down over the next two years. It'll be interesting to watch them begin jockeying for position.

Happy New Year, everyone!

No comments: