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David LePoireRSS Feed of this column.

Dave explores the connections between energy, the environment, and technology. He currently works at a U.S. national laboratory on a variety of environmental science and homeland security projects... Read More »

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For most of human history, technology changed very little during a person’s lifetime. Certainty, their life was not constant with the hard agricultural life being interrupted by war, disease, and famine. However, very few new technologies would come into their life. In contrast, tremendous change occurred throughout the 20th century as planes, cars, electricity, radio, and computers enter during their lives. In my life, I have also experienced rapid change, but it seems a bit different, more quantitative than the qualitative change seen by my grandparents’.

News concerning Artificial Intelligence (AI)  abounds again. The progress with Deep Learning techniques are quite remarkable with such demonstrations of self-driving cars, Watson on Jeopardy, and beating human Go players. This rate of progress has led some notable scientists and business people to warn about the potential dangers of AI as it approaches a human level. Exascale computers are being considered that would approach what many believe is this level. 

How would one detail in the past affect how technology and science evolved? The a recent blog I highlighted the unique role of fossil fuels in a transition from one energy sustainable society to another future potential society. I constructed the metaphor of this current transition as launching a rocket into orbit. The topic of what might have happened if oil never formed was addressed later.

Technology development and use is one of the distinguishing human characteristics.

How would one detail in the past affect how technology and science evolved?  This question comes up at many scales- sometimes personal introspection on what might have been or larger scale concerning world historical events.  It offers a way to do a thought experiment concerning the important aspects and how they are connected. However, the results might only be insightful but not definitive  because any  real experiment  can never be done.

Metaphors are an important way to facilitate understanding of new processes.  This metaphor is constructed based on the similarity of a rocket’s and civilization’s  transition from one stable state to another at a higher level accomplished using a limited supply of fuel.  For example, fossil fuels enable the transition from sustainable pre-industrial society to another more advanced sustainable society.  However, to realize this potential, society must transition to a sustainable energy supply since fossil fuels are dwindling. A major question is whether this global transition can be completed at the same time that global development continues to improve lifestyles and economic opportunities.