World on Fire – Notes and Impressions from FiRe 2009

Guest blogged by Glen Hiemstra, Founder & Owner,

Last week included four eventful days at the annual Future In Review conference put on by the Strategic News Service. This year, the last at San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado [FiRe 2010 is moving to the Terranea; future FiRe locales aren’t yet scheduled – Ed.], was the best of the five I have attended, of the seven that have been held. (Full disclosure – I am on the planning committee, offering my thoughts as a futurist consultant and speaker.)

What began as a high-level conference about the 5-year future of technology has become over time a 360-degree look at the issues and challenges facing the world, the near-term potentials in technology, and the need for concerted system-wide action to produce a more just and prosperous world. This is quite an evolution and has made the FiRe conference one of the most influential global events each year.

You can read more about FiRe 2009 here, and also learn how to register for FiRe 2010, which will be held in the Los Angeles area (Palos Verdes) next year.

FiRe is the kind of conference that begins early each day and runs more or less non-stop till late evening. Thus this report hits only the highlights, for me.

Two themes dominated the program – “earth in peril” and “technology driving the economic rebound.”

Here are tech innovations discussed in the general program that seemed particularly important…

…The Cloud. This concept is subject to hype and is dismissed by many for that reason. Simply defined it means the ability of servers to hold all personal data and to run applications so that personal computing machines can go back to the future as terminals that access the cloud. In practice it may mean that you could walk up to any terminal, anywhere, and access your own “desktop” that actually resides in a variety of servers. One Cloud expert explained to me that this would enable schools, for example, to resurrect obsolete computers, turn them into terminals, and provide inexpensive high-level computing to everyone. There are many hurdles to jump before this becomes a robust and stable reality, but the cloud is a clear trend in future computing.

…The Gigabit Age. A great story around the world, less so in the U.S., is the continuing installation of much-improved bandwidth via fiber and wireless. We learned about an economic stimulus project in Australia, for example, to replace copper wires with fiber to something like 90% of all buildings and homes, enabling Australia to leap ahead in the information economy by providing net speeds dozens of times faster than available in the U.S. This $43 billion project would cost $350 billion in the U.S., but the U.S. is spending only $7 billion on enhanced bandwidth as part of the stimulus, a missed opportunity. In Australia, a key driver for more bandwidth is the Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder project.

…The Web Becomes the Stream. As we move beyond Web 2.0 into an ever more interactive network, in which users send as much material as they consume, via social nets and video sites, and so on, it becomes obvious that we are progressing from the Internet through the Web to the Stream. It is the constant flow of information that matters. (When Sonia Sotomayor is nominated to the Supreme Court, within about 90 seconds her bio on Wikipedia has been updated.) No static website or traditional media company can keep pace.

…Electric Cars Progressing. Elon Musk brought the Tesla Roadster for more test drives (below is my turn), but more importantly reported a just-completed agreement with Daimler to partner in producing the Tesla Motors sedan set for delivery in 2011, at half the cost of the Tesla sports model, with a 300+ mile range on a single electric charge. (Elon also reported on progress with [his company SpaceX’s] private space launch, including the contract with NASA to be a cargo delivery vehicle for the space station.)

Glen Hiemstra test drives the Tesla at FiRe 2009

Other Tech Tid-bitsMark Hurd, CEO of HP, explained why printing will continue to grow when only 20% of current printing is digital. He also noted that they build manufacturing capacity overseas so that they can manufacture close to the buyers; only 8% of their cost is labor, so cheap labor is not the driver; being close to customers is. This was interesting.

Apple is reported to be purchasing 7-inch screens; the question is for what?

Thorium Power may be the nuclear fuel of the future – it is more abundant than uranium, cannot be processed into weapons grade material, decays in about 75 years instead of thousands, and can be used in current reactor designs. Since the energy future may depend on getting energy from many sources, this may keep nuclear in the game.

A smart grid will dramatically reduce energy consumption, especially if humans become part of the “smart.” A recent test in Colorado by Accenture energy showed that installing a small screen on the refrigerator in homes that monitors electricity usage around the house and makes the numbers visible led to a 50% decrease in energy consumption. Knowing what is going on in real time makes a difference.

Calit2 “FiRe Lab” Open House at UCSD: Larry Smarr once again organized an evening at Calit2, the future of computing and telecommunications program at UCSD. I will blog about some specific things there in the future as well – highlights included progress with super-hi definition screens and real-time telepresence, life-like robotics, and the use of wide arrays of sensors to learn about geographic information.

…FiReStarters – the breakthrough companies. Each year at FiRe new companies are nominated to be “FiReStarters,” those early-stage companies with a compelling product or service and a chance to change the world. This year there were 13 companies. One of my tasks was to interview the principals in these companies for short web-video introductions. Those videos will roll out over the next weeks, and I will blog about each company separately, but here are a couple of standouts:

Smaato – bringing order and scale to the world of mobile advertising.

Blue Mars, from Avatar Reality – soon to debut a robust, multi-user, next-generation online virtual world.

SIMtone – bringing cloud computing closer to reality and making it greener.

Vesta Health Systems – developing a technology platform for a simple, strong disinfectant effective against virus and bacteria.

Earth in Peril

The second and dominant theme at FiRe 2009 was “earth in peril.” This was kicked off by the opening dinner keynote from Professor V. “Ram” Ramanathan. Dr. Ramanathan is a distinguished researcher in climate science and global warming. His databased explanation of where global warming is now was sobering to all, even those most knowledgeable on the subject. His program title, “Practical Strategies for Solving the Climate Problem,” was intriguing, and he delivered. It turns out that while CO2 is the biggest long-term problem in that we are producing so much, and it is so long-lasting in the atmosphere, the other greenhouse gases offer some hope of faster success in reducing global warming. Methane, soot, and other greenhouse emissions are easier to reduce, and what is already in the atmosphere dissipates in months or years, not centuries. Thus, if we can eliminate these greenhouse gases soon, the impact will be immediate, and will buy time for the more difficult problem of reducing CO2.

Beyond climate change, there was a major emphasis on the health of the oceans and ocean species. Roger Payne and Lewis Douglas from the Ocean Alliance reported on new research showing chromium to be a problem pollutant in ocean species. Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society reported on the battle with the Japanese over whaling. And film director Louie Psihoyos presented a premier showing of his documentary The Cove, winner of Sundance and Cannes festival awards. This powerful film highlights the plight of dolphins and the secret industry that kills them. The film opens theatrically in August 2009.

CTO Design Challenge – The Global Water Shortage

A final feature of the FiRe event has become the “CTO Design Challenge.” Chief technology and information officers are given a problem to solve, and a couple of days to solve it. This year the challenge was the looming water shortages in and around San Diego [and the world – Ed.] The team did an outstanding job which we will report more fully as well, but a highlight was the idea of covering canals with anti-evaporation covers, and those with solar cells to collect energy to run the pumps and provide excess energy from an already established right-of-way. Great idea.

Final thought – best FiRe yet. Join the party next year.