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Potential shocks and surprises.

Potential shocks and surprises.

Summary: this paper considers just a few of the many shocks and surprises which we may encounter on our way to 2030. Plainly, one can list an endless succession of events, from the catastrophic to the wonderful. If there is a nuclear war or if we are hit by a large asteroid, then plainly all bets are off. It is not, on the whole, very useful to discuss such downsides as they offer very limited practical insight into daily issues. Rather, we have considered outcomes that interact structurally with what we know exists, doing so in ways that put a new spin on events without implying catastrophe.

Setting aside discontinuous events, therefore, we see that three kinds of issue present themselves. First, there are the result of new, or newly strengthened connections, where a string plucked here makes a figure dance over there. Second, there are realisations of 'upside potential' that our natural pessimism tends to discount. Third, there are technological and other leaps of capability which enhance our options and create new degrees of freedom. These sections contain a number of intrinsically disconnected issues to which it is hard to give narrative coherence.

The consequences of new connections

The consequences of new connections

On propagating shocks

The 1998-99 Asian economic crisis was masked by the boom in the West. Nevertheless, billion of dollars were destroyed as nation after nation found that their national statistics were either misleading or hopelessly wrong, and that their foreign indebtedness was extremely high. Many, such as Indonesia, are still recovering from this shock. This said, many nations have had banking crises and bubbles: the stock traded on the market in Japan was valued at around 45% of the entire world's securities in 1987, just before its crash. The World Bank lists banking crises going back to the beginning of the century that destroyed more than 10 years of GNP growth.

Japan's crash appears to have swallowed a generation's worth of growth. However, it did not bring down the world system, or even much affect its growth. By contrast, a modest Russian loan default brought LTCM, the Nobel-laden blue chip Long Term Capital Management to its knees. The US Federal Reserve essentially gave away US$3.5 bn to prop it up and prevent a domino collapse of the word system, already affected by the Asian crisis and uncertain about the sustainability of the boom.

LTCM was trading US$125 bn on the basis of $5 bn equity. Today's hedge funds are trading with much larger equity. The UK FSA estimated that European funds had around $250bn of equity, and that something in the order of $800bn of equity was involved world wide. At a relatively modest gearing of 3:1 - nowhere near the 50:1 used by LTCM - that is $2.4 trillion or so, about 20% of US GNP. Such funds a operate on tiny margins, and so the volume of trades are immense, often on derivatives and other complex instruments that relate to all manner of time frames.

Instability could come from a combination of events. One is the so-called "long tail" event, when the normal distributions assumed by the automated trading systems that are used are thwarted by a statistical anomaly that causes them to behave oddly. A more likely possibility is a combination of false accounting and simple bad accounting. Vast sums are whirled around on the basis of clearing mechanisms which are not at the same level of sophistication as the means of trading. Theft is not impossible. Third, over-concentration is possible, in which too much depends on assets which are simply unable to bear he strain, and which have been sold as derivatives of derivatives without thought as to how risk is being parceled around. A failure of one of these key-stones - Microsoft, let us say - could bring down the entire edifice. This time, even the Fed would be unable to intervene in sufficient strength.

Pyramids of bubbles: an insider view

There are all sorts of new ways to slice'n'dice returns from credit instruments such as bonds or a bank loan. You use this to offer a deal which pays, for example, that you will get all the interest paid by this instrument, unless US Treasury yields go above 6% for more than 20 days in a row, in which case all the interest comes to the issuer. Create a large number of these instruments with different credit ratings and bundle them into a package.

A new instrument is then issued which pays out a fixed coupon of 5% a year from the package, scheduled to absorb 80% of the projected interest payments from the package; and a different new instrument, that pays out anything left over. Then we could combine a number of these risky different new instruments, and... Now remind me what it is that you actually own? And where it is? And who's done all the back office paperwork?

There is no limit to the inventiveness of Wall Street in dreaming up stuff like this. They can then trade it amongst themselves (not for long, because it requires that Goldman is smarter than Morgan Stanley); trade it with smart clients (if they can find some to play); or best of all, trade it with dumb clients. The dumb clients are entities like insurance companies, which are absolutely desperate to find things that give them a slightly higher yield than the low levels that they can get in the conventional marketplace. There are trillions of dollars of this stuff being traded, and the market has grown immensely in just the last five years.

Ripples in a chain: China

The exceptional economic growth of China has inflated the price of oil, minerals and other primary commodities. Many companies and countries have invested heavily in primary capacity as a result of this. Markets have bid up the price of many primary producers.

A considerable number of activities are geared around high expectations on Chinese performance. In the event of an economic turn-down in China, this investment could be disappointed. However, the economies of the hydrocarbon-producing states - and particularly that of Russia and its former dependencies - that are extremely dependent on continued high prices in order to sustain political order and to pay their debts.

On an international pandemic

Diseases have spread across national boundaries for as long as human communities have had contact with each other. The Black Death (1347-1353) killed up to half of many of the communities which it affected, and left Europe with ruined and depopulated villages which it required a century to regenerate. Arable farming was replaced by less labour intensive sheep rearing; the political order was scattered in many countries and altered in others; and a first attempt at what, two hundred years later, was to become the Renaissance was aborted.

World population is heading for 9 billion, versus perhaps 100 million at the time of the Black Death. There were only two cities of more than a million people in 1900: by 2020, there will be around 200 of them, many with squalid infrastructure and poor hygiene. Aircraft will ferry people between each of these on a daily basis. The scope for a pandemic is, therefore, considerable. Organisations such as the WHO and US CDC maintain a continual scan for emerging diseases. It remains the case, however, that about one patient in three reporting to the London Hospital for Tropical Hygiene can be cleanly diagnosed, one in three can be given a generic diagnosis - 'a flavivirus' - and a third remain a mystery.

A teaspoon of soil contains a billion organisms in about two million species. If each divides once in an hour, then around 8 trillion 'experiments' are conducted in the course of a year within it. Multiplied by the number of teaspoons in the relevant human biomass, effluent, agricultural top soil and potable water - and by the decades ahead - it seems probable that something will learn to enjoy eating humans. The current concern about H5N1 bird 'flu is an example of this, although birds are genetically a long way from humans and it is the virus burden of rodents - such a rabbits and myxamatosis - where we should look for novel emergent diseases.

Studies on bird 'flu suggest near paralysis of economic structures, with GNP declining by 9-12% in the consequence of a moderately severe attack that abates after six months. The intense impact is due to the connectedness of modern economies.

Traditional economies are dependent on relatively short and simple supply chains: the corn is cut and brought to market, the miller grinds it, you bake and eat it. A comparable flow in the modern supply chain might involve three continents, a complex industrial structure and a network of distribution that required uninterrupted supplies of everything from drivers to fuel. An interruption in any of the critical paths brings the entire system to a halt. One sick peasant will mildly upset the flow of grain, but the failure of the traffic signals for London would bring the entire structure to a halt. Complex industries rely on infrastructure the way that farming relied upon the climate: it just has to be there if things are to work. If electricity fails, everything else comes to a halt. If people in lean teams cannot come in to work, the same thing happens.

On international terror.

One issue that has dominated headlines for the past five years is that of the use of terror as a political tool. This has been discussed in some depth here. States always have and always will use terror as a part of their power projection. Non-statal users of terror who seek political advantage will limit their strikes to whatever makes their point and polices their followers, but which does not tip their negotiating partners into extreme responses. By contrast, those who seek to change the nature of humanity - to change our value systems, for example - genuinely believe that it is better to be dead than Red (or intoxicated by Western values, or an experimenter on animals.) They are not seeking a political negotiating position, and they will tend to use whatever force comes to hand. Disproportionate aggression confers validity on a weak cause: "you'll care if I've got a nuke."

Such individuals may moderate their views over time, as youthful self-importance and exposure to other ways of thinking erode their certainty. Such groups are always going to be with us, however, and as the world couples closer together - and as rejectionists have more forced onto them to reject - so we can expect more to form.

Attacks from these groups are handled through intelligence, an extremely difficult process in nations where privacy laws apply and where due process is required in law. Whilst it is hard to abort projects that are in train, it is relatively straightforward to see how to weaken their thrust and lessen their number. That is by weakening the outrage that drives them, strengthening the resolve of nations to clamp down on such activities as are planned in their borders and hindering the operations of and infiltrating such movements as do exist.

France has recently announced that it will consider nuclear responses to any nations which actively support terror on French soil. The US has never ruled out such an option, and has demonstrated its willingness to intervene at all other levels. The UK is also involved in direct actions. The nature of the threat - and, frankly, the Western stakeholder groups who see this as a welcome replacement for the cold war - all imply a continued pressure on nations which through incompetence or malevolence, offer support to terror-using groups. Knowledge-mining tools will continue to record and scrutinise transactions in all media, and to build relational networks that reflect both actual patterns of influence and the generic behaviour that signals that something is amiss. All-spheres power projection will continue. Banks accounts frozen or filleted, disinformation propagated, individuals tracked and influenced, deflected, detained, perhaps harmed.

In addition, there will be a growing technology that is aimed to rib such movements of their supporter base. Recruits are drawn from communities which have a strong collective sense of grievance. That is not at all the same thing as poverty, but everything to do with narratives constructed around real or perceived oppression. Ways to weaken these narratives by introducing other, diluting and attractive world views - and initiatives to lessen real grievances, to offer alternative life plans - will go a long way to vitiate this. The use of the popular media as a means of gently distracting people from an official truth in their community is evidently powerful the world over.

It is harder to deflate the leadership of such movements. Many combine authoritarianism and a strong sense of self-importance with their mission. Most have no other way of supporting themselves, much as the resolution of the IRA situation in Ireland revolved around 'pension plans' for elderly terrorists. The leadership may or may not be drawn from the spear carriers who were discussed above, but it is common for them to come from a more educated stratum. Doctors and engineers appear to be particularly favoured at the moment. They are processed and promoted through a network of like minds, who exchange ideas and mutual indoctrination. Political prisons are factories for ideological leaders, bringing like minds together with time on their hands and outrage burning bright. The key to management here is early identification, tracking, turning key individuals and the like. The rivalry between splinter groups offers a useful lever and a natural conduit for such manoeuvres; but it is all deeply time consuming and innately uncertain in its outcome.

It can be argued that terrorists are an unimaginative bunch. They focus on bombs and aircraft when they could do deep economic damage in less spectacular, more systematic ways. It reveals no secrets to say that the India Red incident - in which toxic aniline dyes were substituted for natural pigments in foods - affected tens of thousands of products and cost tens of millions of dollars to rectify. Food and other chains now span the globe, and who knows what is in this or that product?

More deeply, however, the brief Premiership of Uri Andropov of the USSR showed what an intelligence officer can do when given the reins of power. An investment in pressure groups got the EHR (enhanced radiation weapon, neutron bomb) dropped by NATO. Similar expenditure prevented the deployment of the Pershing tactical missile and nearly prevented the cruise missile from being based in the European theatre. The HER was a specific counter to Soviet armour superiority; the Pershing was developed as a bunker buster, directed as Soviet command and control centres; the cruise missile sent the message that inexpensive systems would defeat whatever investment the Soviets could throw at antiballistic missile systems and at bunker hardening. A small investment countered billions of US R&D, its military planning and its technical advantages. Similar sums spent to undermine the sources of superiority in the industrial world - biotechnology, artificial intelligence, transpersonal intelligence - could have an equally devastating affect.

The ideological war that uses terror is and remains a war of ideologies, and the tools of propaganda, misinformation and populism remain at least as potent in it as the bomb.

Unexpected but realised potential

Unexpected but realised potential

This section is concerned with pleasant surprises. Unhappily, it is short.

On a development surprise

The targets for 75% literacy set by the UN seem likely to be met by 2030, meaning that some 6.5 billion people will be able to read, write and do basic arithmetic. At a guess, two to three billion people with have higher order qualifications: more than there were people alive in 1900. The information technology of the time will connect people with capabilities to those with problems to solve with little regard for frontiers, and probably none for language. This could lead to a development surprise, whereby individuals, firms and lose affiliations of interest transcend the limitations hitherto imposed by geographical isolation, state controls and poor institutions. One sees something of the sort occurring in the remittance sector at present, whereby nations such as Egypt receive inflows from natives who are working overseas, and making far more than the inefficient state allows them to achieve in Egypt itself.

A consequence of this is both lower costs for commerce in general - because labour supply has expanded, because the bulk of it has costs in low income areas - and so a boost to profits. It also stimulated demand. On the potentially negative side, those without skills to compete will see their wages fall to parity with this new work force. Companies will see extremely sharp competition, both as entry barriers fall and as the number of new ideas that are in play increases.

Plainly, such a consequence could provoke mercantilist and protectionist sentiment in vulnerable groups, firms and nations. The result is exemplified in Argentina, which was the Western hemisphere's most educated and wealthy nation until Peron's populism and the nationalist economic theory called "import substitution" shuts its doors. It has declined in relative terms ever since, despite rich natural resources, a finely educated population and a cosmopolitan outlook.

On the empowerment of the elderly

Age is a biological process and like any such process, it should be susceptible to management. The DNA and cellular components of a newly born child are as old as life itself, and a middle aged mother gives birth to a child which sheds her maturity. It is possible to reset the clock, although we do not know how to do this in a whole organism; and indeed, we do not know what is entailed in aging. It might be that a regenerated brain has all of the information which is stored in it - that is, all of you - erased, for example.

What is more probable than a magic treatment for aging is a gradual rolling back of the more egregious affects of aging, such as autoimmune attacks on the joints and nervous tissue that present as arthritis, encephalopathies such as Alzheimer's and vascular lesions. Solving these piecemeal may not prolong life, but may much increase the quality of it.

For present purposes, this has several affects. First, the elderly can contribute to the economy for longer, and be dependent on it for less time. The result is to expand the work force with experienced people, to increase consumption and to lessen dependency. The 25-30% of the population who suffer dementia at some stage in the aging process would both be spared the indignities of this but also place less of a burden on the state, the economy and young people who can be deployed to other activities.

Second, the elderly become an aggressive political force that fights for rights to participation, for a safe and quiet society, for systems of transport and housing that suit their needs. They do not go 'meek into that good night'.

Third, related to the last point, the nature of consumption undergoes a significant shift. Disabled and poor elderly people are easy to ignore, but a vibrant market of people with no debt and with disposable money to spend create a new kind of demand. One primary area where this demand will be expressed in the medical field. One is happy to leave one's house to one's offspring when "you can't take it with you", but not when you can avoid going by spending a few hundred thousand dollars on sophisticated interventions that deliver a further decade of life lived at a high quality.

Unexpected leaps in capability

Unexpected leaps in capability

This section is concerned with the new things that we may suddenly be able to undertake, much as evolving life could suddenly resolve and image, hop or fly. As with evolution, however, the seeds of the future lie in the past, and we can see much of what may happen latent in what we already know. That said, there are some areas in which we may be surprised by ourselves...

Technical capabilities

The word "technology" has unfortunate connotations of widgets and gadgets to many readers, yet just-in-time delivery or public hygiene are technologies. We have experimented with the word 'tekne', form the root word in Greek, but this has also failed to convey the concept of new capabilities won through thought and insight to readers. So we will stick with technology, but ask people to realise that we use this in a broad sense!

Advances in widgets are interesting to exercises of this sort only when they change the game in some way. No doubt Moore will persevere with his famous law, and computers will continue to crunch and recall more and more for less and less. Conduits will bear ever-more information. The interesting issue is when this takes one into new terrain.

As an example, consider the issue of bandwidth for commercial television. At present, there is a gross shortage of content and the hundreds of channels are filled with the banal and the repetitious. A small increment of bandwidth and compression brings a new domain, however, which is on-demand programming. At this point, channels become irrelevant, and the user or their agent buys entertainment or information from a database. As soon as this happens, channel brands and channel-focused advertising ceases to be relevant. Users buy a "BBC" branded program because they trust the brand, or because it reviewed well, or because a friend recommended it. It comes free with advertising, or for pay without it, or for some smaller payment for a little advertising. Advertising is focused at the profile of the purchaser. Programming is sponsored b advertisers who want to generate new material for the kind of person that they wish to target: the entire dynamics of the industry is altered.

Here are a number of changes in technology that may alter what we do and how we think about things. Some of them are extreme - that is, not at all certain in the time frame - but none of them are impossible.


We shall have a clear idea of how the brain hosts awareness and performs cognitive tasks for it. This being so, a number of things will follow.

The uniqueness or otherwise of the human experience will be defined. There are ethical dimensions to this: for are dogs self-aware? Cows? What rights does this confer on them? If humans with mental impairments are demonstrated to have less awareness than some animals, what lessons should we draw from this? If the quality of awareness is universal - that is, if being you feels subjectively just the same as being me does, and if we can take the equivalent of a videotape of experience to prove this objectively and subjectively - then how individually sacred should we treat these many copies of 'me'?

If it is possible to make interventions into the cognitive state of well humans should we do this, perhaps eliminating minor neuroses, perhaps augmenting desirable features such as social confidence? Should we do it for people with mental illnesses? How should we treat totalitarian states which alter their people for loyalty, competitive abilities or focus at the expense of the 'whole person'? If other nations offer such interventions and our citizens take advantage of these for purposes of economic gain or simple entertainment, then how should we react to this?

Equally, if we know what makes cognition work, then why not apply this to artificial systems? The commercial potential for aware systems that can perceive many dimensioned problems or vast data fields synoptically is huge. No human trader could stand against them, no army defeat their generalship. At another level, middling skills - legal counsel, writing comedy, tasks of assessment and monitoring - can be replaced by a thinking box; or something that comes down a fibre optic when needed. This would be both economically enabling and crushingly hard for those who were unable to keep up with this.

Networks of people and artificial systems, embedded in the information technology and data structures of the times, could themselves become independent of their component parts: in a slow sort of way, become semi-aware and self-governing. Companies and societies are a 'single-celled' precursor of the equally primeval organisms that arise from this.

Evolution in biology takes a long time because biological systems reproduce relatively slowly and the editing for the best is a haphazard process. A mutation which approaches a global optimum can still get sat on in the egg, or eaten when tiny a dozen times before it survives to reproduce. Not so systems which are self-aware and self-scrutinising, and which can spawn new versions of self-design at computing speeds. Any such system of the sort discussed above would tend to self-optimise, and to do so extremely rapidly.

To one way of looking, the period around 2030 could be delivering change which defies the insight of any human commentator, and at a pace which challenges comprehension. There is a school of thought which sees this as an advance to what is called a 'singularity', at which all the established rules fail and a new way of seeing and thinking is required. People who subscribe to this view - often called "ectopians", or those desiring birth outside of the womb - assert that through various processes of self-improvement and augmentation, at least some humans will transcend biological frameworks altogether in favour of an information substrate that allows greater freedoms, including freedom from mortality itself. Their 2030 has self-aware corporations, augmented humans and growing cadre of trans-humans, all accelerating to a singularity that entails who-knows-what. The reason that the night sky is silent of alien radio signals is not that life is uncommon, or that they are shy of us, but that technology-using awareness stays in a biological framework for as short a time as possible.

If this seems far fetched, please recall that we can now track a thought in a living brain in real time, and locate fine concepts - such as relish in another's downfall, or empathy - in small sections of its tissue. Self-governing systems are now used routinely in order to optimise engineering structures, minimise risk and find trading strategies. Learning systems called neural networks are used to assess credit risks, filter spam and a host of other tasks. In essence, a learning system has to find the dimensions in which a system varies, define what it wants to optimise and then "hill climb" towards this. Collections of organisms, computer and social networks, product design and market mechanisms all in their different ways perform these tasks without their processors being aware of what they are doing. What is discussed above is simply more of the same.

On physics

There are a number of extremely important trends running in physics and in the materials sciences. Most feel that a unified theory of space-time, energy and matter will be in place by 2030. It is helpful to review how odd this insight may be.

Current insight has conventional matter as making up only 4% of the universe. Dark matter, something that feels only gravity, makes up about a further quarter of the energy in it (and recall that mater and energy are interchangeable concepts.) There are some strong theories as to what dark matter could be, and we do at least know that it is a gas of particles that revolve around with and stabilise the galaxies. It is streaming through you as you read this. The rest of the energy in the universe - about 70% of it! - is a sort of springiness in space, called quintessence or dark energy. We have no clear idea of what creates quintessence, but it appears to be accelerating and may rip atomic constituents apart about a billion years in the future: the Big Rip, to compliment the Big Bang.

The nature of time flow is another mystery. It is a dimension just like any other, except that the moment of Now is plunging through space time at the speed of light. However, the partition of this between the special dimensions and time depends on one's vantage point. Standing upright in a gravity gradient, one's head experiences the flow of time faster than does one's feet. Time keeping at Denver laboratories in the US has to be adjusted to time kept at sea level. A person close to a black hole would see all of the future pass in a flash.

Conventional matter is confined to a subset of the whole universe - a 'brane - whilst another 'brane lies about 15 cm from us in a direction in which we cannot see. Collisions between these 'branes may create the Big Bang. Each Big Bang generates arbitrary conditions and so an infinity of universes may have been generated, each radically different and layered on ours in a time like direction. We happen to live in one where conditions are suitable for life to evolve. Variations in relevant constants by one part in one followed by 120 zeroes would make this impossible. We see what we can see.

The two 'branes have separate properties. Gravity plays itself out chiefly in this remote space, whilst other matter is confined to the 'bulk' 'brane. In both, particles are perhaps nodes in networks of information flows, perhaps best seen as vibrating strings. The qualities of a particle - its location, energy, identity - is innately uncertain, so that it can 'mix' several states of being together. Nevertheless, a celestial bookkeeping is strictly observed, although transitions which follow these rules occur from time to time, allowing particles to alter their relations with their peers. Particles which have their identity entangled can be separated, and the celestial book keeping will ensure that when one is studied, the other shows complimentary properties, without apparent communication between them. Computers that work from these ideas can, in principle, execute many parallel versions of a given calculation - say, weather forecasting - on the same piece of matter at the same time.

All of this is very strange, and quite unlike our experience, which is printed onto this like a photograph onto paper. But paper is really made of sugar molecules all joined together in chains and squashed into a mat. And the sugar molecules are really just particles that have fallen into a minimum energy configuration that keeps them stable for now; and close, so that interactions amongst them and celestial book keeping retain their individual identities. Most of everything is nothing, save space time and a seething of virtual particles that flicker out of nothing in response to field gradients and randomness.

So, 'physics' surprises.

The dose of weirdness given above is intended to show how much space there is for sudden revelations from this field. A new energy source. A completely new way to compute, to move information around or to secure information. Underpinning this, however, are techniques for shaping and moving matter and energy of exquisite precision, pointing to devices of remarkable capabilities.


The generic term for these are 'nanomachines'. All biological systems are, in effect, nanomachines, and some commentators wonder why non-biological nano-machinery is though to be so important. There are two reasons, one rooted in what the technology may be, the other in what it can do.

Biological systems are all constructed in the same way, from linear chains of charged molecules which fall together like magnetised wire to make the tools and structures around which lesser molecules cluster. This is a messy solution which no intelligent designer would select, but which is what dropped out of early chemical evolution. It limits biological systems to energies which do not disrupt these gently-adhesive structures, typically up to a few electron volts. This is not enough to do interesting chemistry or information manipulation, and so life is restricted to a narrow temperature range, to slow chemical processes and to very indirect information processing. By contrast, a re-thought system that used stronger bonds could operate faster, hotter and with higher energy information processing. They could, for example, use diamond as their basic construction material, and light as their chief mechanisms of internal communication and computing.

These robust little structures have useful properties. They can get into small spaces and make bigger things which have extremely complex structures. (For example, glasses with negative refractive indices, where a flat sheet can be a lens of immense resolving power and endless zoom capability. Or for example, grain-sized computers produced at the industrial scale. Or, interact with biological system at their own cellular level of scale, delivering anything from non-invasive surgery to direct read out from the nerves making up the living brain.)

By analogy with biological systems, they might also be able to reproduce their kind. The utility of this is not at all clear, and most would be factory-made with a short life span. Concern about nanotechnology revolves around escapes of such structures - the 'gray goo' apocalypse - around its potential toxicity if inhaled, and its military use. Self-reproducing systems do not need to be small, of course, and von Neumann- who proposed these ideas - imagined machines that would colonise the Moon and planets, building more and more complicated hierarchies of machines until the system was ready to do something useful. (The other answer to the question of where all the aliens have gone is that they have sent machinery that self replicates, observes and then dispatches new seeds to likely stars. They are here as observing nanotechnology, and - it being embedded in your nervous system and broadcasting in modulated neutrinos or some such, you are on Arcturian prime time, or rather and emulation of your mental state will be, as you read this.)

Energy surprises

Other physics and mathematics-related surprises will include better catalysts, better flow and process control, better scheduling, finer searching and classification of data and so forth. The issue of catalysts is interesting because the world abounds in methane - natural gas - and a catalyst that can take that to a partial oxidation product such as formaldehyde will radically alter the energy and chemical industry, as well as the geopolitics of energy. Energy from the strong force - nuclear energy - will also advance, giving safer fission reactors and, one hopes, practical fusion units. This may not come from the 'squeeze, heat and hope' technologies on which present ambitions are pinned. Variations on inertia confined fusion (ICF) show promise. Pervious versions trapped the fuel (deuterium-tritium) between converging light beams, so reaching high temperatures and pressures. This has proven technically challenging using light, but schemes which use heavy ion beams from conventional particle accelerators are advancing rapidly to generating as much energy as they put into the system. A down side of the deuterium-tritium process is that it releases a fast neutron, which has to be absorbed if the energy is to be used. This is a thermal process, and so innately inefficient, and will lead to radioactive waste and brittle structural materials after some period of operation.

Another chiefly ICF approach - much in the news now that the Russians and Chinese have advanced it as a reason to mine the Moon - is the use of Helium 3. This is an extremely rare isotope of Helium, which as the property to fusing to the common Helium 4, plus two protons from which energy can be extracted by making them whirl in a magnetic field. (They release microwaves when they do this, which can be efficiently trapped and converted directly into electricity. ) Unlike the deuterium-tritium process, this releases no neutrons and there is no radioactive waste. Helium 3 is essentially absent on Earth - each gallon of seawater contains only enough of it to generate the energy contained in a gallon of petrol, and it would take much more energy than that to purify it to a useful form. However, the Sun emits Helium 3 in the solar wind, and perhaps 500 million metric tons of it have accumulated on the Moon's surface. Forty tons of Helium-3 would yield energy that is equivalent of all the electricity used by the US in 2005, so it has the potential to be a real resource is this form of fusion can be made to work.

A somewhat neglected aspect of most discussions of energy is that of storage and transformation. Energy demand is "peaky", and capacity has to be installed for these. Consequently, capital stock is often underused or not used at all during the troughs. Near-market storage allows much cheaper infrastructure, although it can lead to other increases in working capital. Any form of storage is important when intermittent sources of power are to be used, as characterises many renewables.

It is, however, extremely difficult to store electricity, particularly in relatively small quantities or at high levels of efficiency. The demand for small portable devices such as mobile telephones and computers has driven battery development very far, to the extent that its power-to-weight ratio, if not its costs, are coming into line with the all-inclusive costs of building, fuelling and operating a chemically-powered vehicle. Lithium polymer batteries - which can assume any chosen shape in manufacture - can now reach 200 watt-hours per kilogram and take a full charge in around 3 minutes. This is relatively puny when compared to what a kilogram of gasoline delivers, but still allows cost-performance characteristics that are satisfactory for compact cars.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, hydrocarbon-powered cars are ludicrously inefficient - only about 15-17% of the energy put in turns into useful locomotion. Braking energy is lost as heat. Engines running cold or at low power demand - the state of most car engines for most trips - use disproportionately more energy. Electrical systems, by contrast, convert power at over 90% efficiency, do not "tick over" when the vehicle is stationary and are normally as effective cold as warm. Electrical systems are also cheaper to build. Compare the complexity of a petrol engine and its connections with the wheels, braking and steering with an electrical system: the latter needs four integral motors with one moving part - one to each wheel - to handle power, braking and possibly steering. Maintenance is modular, weight is much lower; and so forth. Braking can be used to regenerate batteries, adding to energy efficiency. A new generation of multi farad capacitors can handle brief surges in power demand and supply, meeting the responsiveness of a petrol engine.

Similar schemes can also work in static applications. They need not use batteries. One approach uses electrolysis to generate Hydrogen, and a fuel cell to burn this back to yield power when needed. (This is, in fact,a battery, but seldom seen as one. Much the same applies to Hydrogen powered vehicles, but with the two parts of the battery separated, perhaps leading to safety issues.) A second uses flywheels. Advanced materials and the use of high temperature superconductors - in sophisticated applications - allow considerable amounts of energy - kilowatt hours - to be stored in a flywheel of modest proportions. "Farms" of such devices can hold substantial amounts of energy. Flywheels can be run up using - for example - solar cells, or simply off-peak power - and then run down when electricity is needed. Plainly, this is ideal for remote locations - isolated villages, for example - and the key to success will be reliability and issues of maintenance. All energy storage has innate hazards, and one would want to be sure that explosive bearing failures did not occur in one's basement.

Other technologies include "super capacitors", mentioned above, metal-air fuel cells and complex regenerative batteries which pump Sodium sulphide and bromide through a cell that has a membrane, across which ions are exchanges. These these batteries have potentially enormous capacity, are very flexible and have long lives. They are also complex and require careful management. Metal-air batteries have been discussed here, under Aluminium-air fuel cells. They have huge potential when combined with the use of offshore ocean thermal electricity generation in order to smelt the resulting Aluminium oxide - for example - back to the metal.

On environmental surprises

The issue of energy is closely tied to many considerations of human impacts on the environment, as discussed here. It is now more or less an 'official future' that greenhouse gas emissions will lead to global temperature rises, a more energetic and changeable climate and to substantial changes in biological equilibria. If climate locally becomes hotter, wetter or the opposite, then the ecology that it supports will alter. Dire threats have been issued that tropical diseases will march north, that mass migrations will march virtually everywhere.

What might surprise us? First, we might come up with a "fix" for the issue of carbon emissions. This is unlikely to be one big solution, but rather a myriad of changes: to energy efficiency, to distinct ways of adding value that consume intrinsically less energy, to different ways of laying out cities and living in them. We may find new energy sources, as above; but it is more probable that we shall find end-of-pipe solutions to carbon emissions that are cheap, effective and portable to the chief new emitters of carbon, the developing nations. (Low economic performance amongst these nations, or high energy prices, will contribute to a lessening of their potential emissions.) This said, estimates of the scale of substitution, plant retrofit and the time scales of energy suggest that this is not a bet on which to place one's shirt.

Second, for issues related to the matters discussed here, the greenhouse may not have anything like the impact which models suggest; or may have impacts that are very much greater. There is now a good insight into the climate of the past half million years, and the chief thing to note from this is its extreme variability. We are currently living in the warmest and most stable period in recent history, the Holocene, and this bubble of warmth has been the nursery from which human civilisation emerged. There is no consensus as to why it is warm at the moment, although various factors to do with the Earth's orbit and inclination to the Sun have a role to play in this. Ocean currents, which spread cooling and heating more evenly than does the Sun or lack of it have had a great role in modifying the climate, and it is clear that they have been implicated in variability and periods of cooling in the past. The North Atlantic conveyor has now been made famous by Hollywood, but it is oscillations such as the Niño system that have had the greatest short term impact on climate. Factually, we have no idea what governs the metastable balances that exist amongst these currents, and we have no idea when or whether they will change their configurations. The relatively mild alterations that can be expected from initial greenhouse warming will affect only surface layers, taking much longer to impact on the deep ocean. Whether this rolling set of changes will have profound or negligible impact is not known. Whether the onset of change will be swift and self-reinforcing or tardy and self-damping is also not known. Smooth evolutionary patterns are, however, extremely unlikely.

Third, the impact of these issues on human affairs may be less a matter of direct damage - of hurricanes and droughts - than by way of erratic harvest, widespread hunger and migration. The 22-year climate cycle that affects the Southern Saharan countries can be tracked in sediments as bands of soot (fast plant growth and the burning of it) and bands of sand (bare land that is eroded by wind.) These go back half a million years, reflecting human practices and a stable cycle of feast and famine. What we may see is much more widely spread impacts equivalent to Ethiopia or Sudan, exacerbated - as are these events - by political instability, hoarding and poor distribution. Policing this - and introducing bio-engineered crops and effective irrigation practices - may need a firm hand, much investment and an attitude that takes responsibility rather than one which closes doors.

The technology of 2030 is likely to be as far ahead of ours today as we are ahead of the 1950s. It is, therefore, dangerous to take too negative an attitude. Could we throw up an orbiting ring of dust from the Moon in order to shield the Earth from the Sun, and so reduce heating? Perhaps. Could we develop organisms that fix carbon and sequester it - diamond shelled copepods, graphite plankton? Very likely. Will we see a supply-side surprise in energy? Almost certainly, probably coming from fundamental physics.

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