Saturday, February 07, 2009

The slow march of technology

I had some dental work done recently. I had crowns put on four teeth in the back of my mouth, two on either side. Since crowning teeth is a one-way trip, I did some research before I went forward with it. While reading about crowns, I also found information about dental implants. Implants are fake teeth, but unlike old-fashioned bridges or dentures, which receive support from the patient's other teeth and gums, implants are actually screwed into the patient's jaw. The actual tooth that extends above the gum line is typically made of porcelain and is indistinguishable from a natural tooth.

If you think about it for a minute, implants are pretty amazing. They're completely artificial aftermarket parts for your body that work at least as well as the original equipment, and unlike natural teeth, they can't decay. Losing teeth will always be a drag, but now you can have them replaced.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, I read a lot of books and magazines that made predictions about what life would be like in the near future. There would be moon bases, and artificial intelligence, and supersonic airplanes cruising through the sky, and flying cars, and abundant cheap energy from nuclear fusion.

Obviously pretty much none of that came to pass, but it's not hard to fault the writers of that period for making such predictions. The world had changed drastically in their lifetimes. They witnessed the arrival of television, the proliferation of the automobile and the construction extensive road networks (including the interstate highway system), the breaking of the sound barrier and a reduction in intercontinental travel time from weeks or days to hours, and new skyscrapers reaching ever-greater heights, and the development of the atomic bomb and nuclear power. The United States was landing human beings on the moon. It was reasonable to think that airplanes would keep getting faster, that the scientists who mastered fission would figure out fusion, that buildings would continue to climb higher, and that that human beings would travel to farther planets and perhaps even to other stars.

As it turned out, there were practical issues that got in the way. Supersonic aircraft are loud and inefficient. Fusion turned out to be really hard. Mile-high skyscrapers are disproportionately expensive. Moon bases are useless, and other planets are just too far away. And civilization in general turned away from the industrial-age quest to build bigger, taller, faster. Instead, we spent the next decades focused on information and communication. We're not traveling to the stars yet, but if you're reading this, you almost certainly have your own Star Trek-style personal communicator that you can use to reach pretty much anyone in the world from anywhere you happen to be.

However, something that I've noticed over time is that people are still working on the bigger, taller, faster stuff. It's showing up. It's just taking a little longer.

Something that you may not realize is that for the past eight years, without interruption, human beings have been living and working in an orbital space station. Spacecraft launched from, well, let's call them spaceports, in Florida and Kazakhstan take new people and supplies up to the station and bring returning folks home. As of this writing, these spacecraft have made a total of 77 trips to the station and back. The space station has undergone continuous expansion and now looks like something out of a science fiction movie. Really, have a look at it. But it's real. That's pretty amazing. As for the science that goes on there, we don't hear too much about it, and maybe it isn't going to change anyone's life. But the research isn't the story; the story is that launching people into orbit and keeping them there for months at a time has become routine.

Nobody's built a mile-high skyscraper yet, but there's one that's a half-mile high called Burj Dubai. It dwarfs by a considerable margin anything previously built by human beings, neatly ending all the debates over whether it's more important to have the tallest building or tallest "free-standing structure" or tallest structure of any kind and whether or not antennas count toward building height. It's made of reinforced concrete instead of steel, so it doesn't have the problems with flexing in the wind that a supertall steel building would have. It's only recently that engineers have been able to build anything even approaching this height using concrete, but it's the future of construction. And Burj Dubai isn't an isolated case of extreme construction; in recent years, supertall skyscrapers have been built or at least started in Taiwan (Taipei 101), China (Shanghai World Financial Center), Malaysia (Petronas Twin Towers), Russia (Russia Tower), Chicago (Chicago Spire), and New York (Freedom Tower). Saudia Arabia is planning the first true mile-high skyscraper, and Kuwait is building a Burj Dubai-class structure. Could people eventually start building gigantic archologies, buildings housing entire neighborhoods or even cities? We're a long away from that. But at least after a half-century, the 100-story barrier has been decisively broken.

On the nuclear energy front, scientists have been diligently chipping away at the engineering challenges of fusion power. Just last year work was completed on the first fusion reactor engineered to generate more power than it consumes. The reactor, which has a name that only a bureaucrat could love--the National Ignition Facility--can only generate fusion power in bursts, but is nevertheless an important milestone on the road to commercially viable fusion power. Meanwhile work has begun on another reactor, one with an equally-bureaucratic name: International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER. ITER is designed to be an honest-to-God fusion power plant, producing 500 megawatts of power for up to 1,000 seconds. It won't actually generate electricity, but if the engineers can keep the reactor going for 16 minutes, it's easy to imagine the next reactor going for 16 hours or 16 days.

Something that all of these projects have in common is that they're all money-losers. The ISS, NIF, and ITER are government-funded research projects and therefore are expensive and wasteful almost by definition. The Burj Dubai is ostensibly a commercial enterprise, but it is clearly a monument to excess built at the height of a real-estate boom in a country where the line between private and government funding is blurry. It remains to be seen whether it will ever able to produce a return for its investors.

But on the other hand, the Internet was originally a government-funded research project too. Governments also used to be the only players in the rocket-launching business, and now there are several for-profit corporations that will put your satellite in orbit for you. So maybe we're just in an engineering lull. After all, when people watched Star Trek in the 1960s, they probably didn't think that inside of 50 years they'd have personal access to communication equipment that puts anything on the Enterprise to shame. (Captain Kirk's communicator can only reach his other Enterprise crew members. Lame.) Perhaps 50 years from now, people will be thinking, wow, that Mr. Fusion power plant from Back to the Future looks so clunky compared to what we have now!

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