While trying to keep pace on the explosion of technological progress in the world today I come across and share many spectacular headlines. Judging by the headlines, it seems there is some sort-of magic breaking down every problem we face in the world today, but most of that magic is just marketing hype unfortunately. I always try to blunt the hype by reminding everyone that the devil is in the details and that “more efficient thingys”, “faster widgets”, other seemingly fantastical advances are only “in the lab” and mass manufacturing is often times a long way off.
Why do we get the hyped-up headlines? Because behind the scenes there is money to be made on hype. Private start-up up companies want to catch some venture capital money so they try to spin their technology in the most positive light. Even University press releases are sprinkled with sensationalist wording at times because they want to highlight how their campus is the best for this or that field of research. This was brought home to me recently because I have a couple of aquaintances that were recently involved in Silicon Valley start-ups in the biotechnology field. One company was developing some very advanced technology and they were able to generate enough enthusiasm for their potential product to raise 30 million dollars. There was a lot of promise, but in the end, they were unable to make the technology work. The other company worked under the radar and actually did develop a novel biotechnology that worked but they were unable to generate enough hype to raise money and grow their company. Hype can make a difference.
This also occurred to me when I read this recent alternative energy article. The headline was “An Electric Car That Actually Goes Far?” This headline was repeated across many outlets. The sad news is that there is not an electric car that actually goes far. The headline should have read “Lithium Air Batteries Get Closer to Reality”. Researchers in the UK have developed a new way of building lithium air batteries that remove some of the more unstable parts. I have covered the progress of lithium air batteries in the past. As was the case in the past, progress and research continues but lithium air is not ready for prime time. Not now, not in the near future. I think you could safely bet that we won’t see the technology in widespread use for another 3 years but more likely closer to 10 years. By the way, IBM’s lithium air battery technology is not expected to arrive commercially until 2020 at the earliest.
Another related and seemingly hyped-up statement came from the CEO of Tesla motors – Elon Musk. He is betting that electric cars are going to be more than 50% of cars on the road within 12 to 15 years. Most people think the number will be closer to 1% in that time frame. Then again, most people have a hard time grasping the nature of exponential progress. It seems like things are going very slow at first and then – whoooomp – all of a sudden the technology arrives en masse. It happened with many technologies in the recent past, such as computing and the Internet. It is easy to analyze our current fossil fuel reliance, our current manufacturing processes, our current transportation network, and come to the conclusion that electric cars are a long way off as the main mode of transportation. However, what we fail to see are potential breakthroughs in technology (like batteries) and sudden shifts in societal attitudes. I suspect that is what Mr. Musk is anticipating when making his bold prediction.
Have a good Monday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.