Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Next Echelon-Level Break-Through

Portable phones existed for, well, over a century now--depending on how you count them (a claim of a "wireless telephone" started in 1908--and mobile phones existed on trains and via military radio for decades)--but what we think of as a 'cell phone' started in 1983 with a giant Motorolla brick and really came into its own in the late 1990's when pre-paid devices became available in 1995.

When looking at "the future" the question is not "When will my life look like the Jettsons?"--That isn't going to happen--the question is what will the next technological breakthrough be that changes my daily life in some fundamental fashion. We'll add to this: in a way that kind of feels like science fiction. That might not be a real technical measure--but let's face it: if we're not getting flying cars and jet packs, we want something that feels like a big step forward.

Examples can include:
Here's a picture
From Here
The point the Omnivore is making isn't that consumption is spreading faster (although that's what the Atlantic article that graph came from said)--it's more that with a certain periodicity we see advances come that change our lives in significant fashion. Where computers and the Internet changed how we understand the world cell phones changed the ebb and flow of daily life and work in fundamental ways. While things like iPads and Netflix and VCRs certainly modify our lives--and things like microwaves have an even larger impact--stuff like radio, refrigeration, and the Internet alter society.

The Omnivore would count the home computer, the Internet, the cell phone, and then the smart phone as a set of breakthroughs that have defined the modern-age. The computer for enabling the Internet, the cell phone for enabling ubiquitous instant communication, and the smart phone for merging them.

What is the next thing that might operate on that scale?

It isn't the electric driverless car--although, you know, that could come close.

How Do New Inventions Develop?

If you Wikipedia the history of any great invention--the car, the computer, the cell phone, whatever--you see echoes of them decades before a modern-looking version appeared. When something that is remotely modern looking (a Model T in 1908 appears, it's still a few decades before a VW Beetle appears: 1938, and then a decade--and another world war--before modern looking things start to become common: 1946 for the modern American car industry).

Here's a graph showing the amount of time necessary for tech to get into 1/4th the population:
We should pause to note that the Vox article this chart came from was deemed bullshit by another tech-writer who makes some good points--namely that tech-adoption is hugely influenced by government regulation--that a lot of these things require infrastructure--and that describing adoption in raw numbers doesn't account for the split between haves and have nots--which is probably even more important in terms of looking at this.

However, what The Omnivore is interested in looking at is the general space for both the maturity and penetration of the technology: how long from invention do we see it in approximately a current/mature form? At what point is it cheap enough that enough people can have to leverage network effects, effect wide-scale change, and really integrate into society at large (and that includes unforeseen uses like teenagers texting each other while sitting on the same couch).

Looking at the above, The Omnivore assesses that it takes about 15 years for technologies that need a lot of infrastructure to catch on once there is a "killer app" for them (some application that ordinary people--vs enthusiasts--see value in). The Mobile Phone required pre-paid plans to move into the low-credit-rating demographic. The World Wide Web required actual useful web-pages and, probably, an increase in computing power.

Interestingly, the PC doesn't require infrastructure or regulation--but it took the longest of the three to catch on. This was due to the high price-point and lack-of-ease-of-use--but it was also due to early PC usage being a hobby rather than a tool.

What this all means is that given the rate or new technologies--let's say 12 years from visible maturity (meaning we see something on year zero that gives us a clue what the tech will look like when 'mature'), what do we see today that could become viable by, say, 2025 that would change our lives dramatically?

Well, how about . . .

Printing Your Own Electronics

The Omnivore has been supremely unimpressed by the 3D Printing trend. In case you aren't familiar, the idea is that you a kind of "printer" that, instead of printing on paper, prints 3D plastic (more or less). It runs its nozzle back and forth using a computer program to determine where to lay each layer and, in the end, you get a plastic toy--in one color (two colors costs a lot more--and color mixes gets to industrial costs). If you want to fill your bookshelves up with plastic skulls, this technology is a godsend.

To be fair, the real applications--the industrial ones--are aerospace, automotive, and medical. There are, today, industrial-powered 3d printers using materials far better than plastic to build plane parts, car parts, and some medical uses. These are at use in industries that are heavily regulated and thoroughly tested--so the technology can be used to build real, hard-core machines.

The home-printers are now firmly in the enthusiast stages though, even if the industry was at 1.15bn/year in 2013 and projected to reach 4.8bn by 2018. Still, in terms of changing society, that ain't much. The Omnivore stakes 2025 as the year that 3D home printing is mature. Let's look at a provisional time-line.

Printing Circuits

In order for 3D printing to be something that ordinary people want to use, it'll need to do one of two things--either print fabrics (clothes) or print useful devices (electronics). While we might get closer to printing clothes if the technology goes that way, The Omnivore thinks the big win is the ability to print electronic devices. When might we see that?

Granted, It's Probably Not Going To Scare Al Qaeda . . .
Of course that drone doesn't have complex capabilities like GPS or sensors--and if it did, those would have to be purchased off-the-shelf and integrated by hand. To break into the space of printing something that's more complicated than a 1980's coffee maker, you're going to need the ability to fabricate actual microchips.

This brings us to . . .

Nano-Scale Printing

285 micro-meter race car model
While it'll probably be decades before a home printer could catch today's advanced clean-room chip fabrication plants, what if a home device could make a chip that competed with what we had 10 years ago? That would, by 2025, give us home-created electronics comparable to what we have today--that seems valuable. How far off are we?

Well, Nanoscribe is a 3D printer that uses laser beams to align materials and rapidly create objects of 30 nanometers or larger. Today 3D printing can be used to print lithium-ion batteries smaller than a grain of sand. This technology is possibly the precursor to the consumer-creation of complex electronics at home. Of course the same technology that creates a circuit board isn't going to create a heavy-metal part of a car. The variance in technique and materials we're seeing here is pretty great--so to "print" an iPad at home would take stuff we don't see today, right?

How about . . .

3D Graphene Printing

Graphene is a wonder-material: a million times thinner than paper, more conductive than copper, 200 times stronger than steel, and potentially transparent, it is a two dimensional grid of carbon atoms in a hexagonal configuration. graphene has applications everywhere--it's what plastic was in the 50's upgraded for the cyber-age.

One major possibility is batteries--next generation batteries that could be printed as part of the fabrication process. It may be able to make microchips--it exhibits some of the same properties as silicon. It could be used to make industrial strength mechanical parts, unbreakable screens, and very light-weight casings (in addition to electronics, batteries, and so on). Now, much of its promise may not pan out--people working on graphene computer chips have had serious setbacks--but the number of graphene patents in the UK, a useful measure of potential promise, has multiplied rapidly. Graphene may not live up to its breathless promise--but it appears capable of creating low-power LED displays.

How far are we from printing graphene?

Well Graphene 3D lab has a prototype that prints graphene. They are also selling Black Magic graphene spools that are a hybrid that can be used in Voxel8's device to enhance its capabilities.

If graphene or a hybrid can be used to create electronic components like LEDs, touch-screens, batteries, and circuitry, that combined with nano-scale printing would round out the necessary capabilities to create consumer electronics.

The Home 3D Fabricatior

Imagine a device the size of a washing machine (the Jonses have one the size of a refrigerator). It takes tanks of "3D Toner"--not terribly expensive (mostly carbon and ink)--and it hooks up to your computer via wi-fi. You download a design from any of a number of websites and minutes later it opens to give you either the complete item or some easy to assemble components.

You want an 80" high-def TV? Sure--it prints a stack of "cards" that snap together, seamlessly to create the screen. You want . . . a car? it's like 2k in toner--but you get single-part engines (the electric motor and batteries are all one piece) and then a slew of snap-together-and-seal body parts. It takes like a weekend of solid work to assemble it--but the car is light, has 3 wheels, is certified safe, and can hit 70 mph.

It can print tablets, cell phones, lap-tops, and so on. They're not as good as what you can drone-order from Amazon--but they're an order of magnitude cheaper. They're roughly analogous to what you could get in 2015.

Things like coffee makers, refrigerators, exercise machines, and even furniture (with a faux-leather-like finish) can come out of the machine IKEA-like. You want an overhead fan? About 15 USD (in adjusted dollars) in toner.

Oh, and your fabricator? It'll manufacture its own upgrades. When some new technology becomes available you can download the specs and create new parts for itself. Maybe even a whole other fabricator (take that, Jonses!).

Of course the practical uses are what sell it--but for the masses? There is tons of experimentation going on--anyone can now design consumer-grade electronics: just mix and match pieces from the Internet (sure: they aren't all compatible--which sucks--but people are working on standards). Kids can custom-design their own smart-phones. People can produce their own drones--with sophisticated controls. Clothing can be fabricated with a wide array of "materials"--everyone is their own fashion designer. In 2025, everyone has their own logo.

Is this really possible? The Omnivore thinks that it's one or two evolutionary steps away--and given the current technology and adoption curve of 3D printing, some version of this seems inevitable (although perhaps not the home-printed iPad--if graphene circuit printing doesn't work out as well as we might hope).

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