October 12, 2007

Future and past productivity improvement

There is a post at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) about how if nanofactory level nanotechnology is created that there will not be nano Santa Claus creating a post-capitalist society with abundance for everyone.

The CRN post goes onto discuss the Dale Carrico prescription of a guaranteed income in order to redistribute the bounty to everyone. I have questioned the specifics of the implementation and the expected benefits of a major income redistribution via a guaranteed income method. I have also researched the existing levels of taxation, welfare states etc... There is some financial means to implement those programs and a case can be made that we do not know that it would be inferior to replacing current wasteful uses of those funds. I question going beyond the range shown to be not extremely problematic in current successful modern countries. Complete income redistribution and taxation over 50% seems to be clearly problematic (Cuba, old Soviet Union, Maoist China).

I agree with the first part that a large productivity increase does not mean more stuff and bounty for everyone. Just as the productivity and wealth gains of the 1820-now did not mean everyone got rich. It did mean that many more did have the opportunity for better lives. But some countries ended up being left behind and many people not do well in countries which did well overall.

An interesting historical analysis of productivity growth is in this online book about Technology and productivity.

The great growth of productivity is correlated with 4 great inventions and the spreading availability of them. They also spawned and were the source of follow on inventions and process improvement.

1. Electric light- longer productive day
2. Electric motor and combustion engine
- faster, more flexible movement, powering mass production and industry
3. Petro refining, chemicals, plastics, pharma
- rearranging matter into more productive forms
4. Electricity and electronics for entertainment, communication and info
- started markets had more impact than later improvements. being able to send a telegraph was replacing pony express and couriers was a bigger leap than phone vs telegraph etc...

Information technology from 1950s onward and the Internet from 90s onward have created a productivity growth surge which so far has been less than the early big 4 inventions.

The believe that there a revolution in materials is continuing and is delivering a larger increase in material capability than early petro, chemical, plastics and pharma. This is not molecular manufacturing (MM) dependent as it is already occurring. MM would help to accelerate and enhance the distribution of the effect and would allow for more flexible and powerful applications. The material revolution is micro and nanograined metals which are several times stronger, carbon nanotubes and materials with properties which are enhanced by controlled design at the molecular level.

I believe that supply of material and energy can be massively transformed by development of access to space resources and with new energy technology such as nuclear fusion and/or mass produced nuclear fission and/or massive amounts of solar power collection. This would mean enhanced energy availability and energy density. Also, a doubling of energy available and elimination of many energy losses via usage of superconducting wire, superconducting motors and thermoelectronics. Again this is not molecular manufacturing dependent but would be accelerated and enhanced by molecular manufacturing.

Vastly superior automation, robotics and production also would have a transformative effect. There is the application of devices like the iRobot vacuum cleaner and now window cleaners. There is the development of effective robotic driving of cars (DARPA challenge). We already have had robotic assembly lines, but the widespread application of robotic driving and Halo video conferencing could free up a lot of unproductive commuting time. Also, the automation of functions outside of the factory would spread the productivity boost around to other parts of the economy.

However, as in the past the boost to factory productivity primarily benefited the factory owner and shareholders. Some factory workers had some of the benefits after they unionized and captured them with collective bargaining. These new boosts in productivity are being captured by those companies and individuals with a business plan that leverages them.

I believe that new technology will enable productivity gains that are larger than the big 4 inventions of the past and which will have their absorption and effect into the economy in shorter elapsed timeframe. Existing societal and national structures and institutions will likely adapt to the extent that they have with past increases in productivity and wealth.

The current state of affairs means that massive increases in production and massive drops in cost do not diffuse to many parts of the world economy. The decrease in computer PC prices by 40-100 times since there introduction and for computers in general of 10,000 times and increase in their power did not provide benefits to many people in Africa and Asia. The recent $100-150 laptop effort has been an attempt at addressing this.

Economies will need to restructure and many new radical process improvements will need to be made to fully capture the benefits of new technologies. Individuals will need to recognize opportunities, risks and make the correct choices to capture benefits and avoid negative effects.

I see the future situation as not a nano-Santa Claus but a series of massive sales at Walmart (with more new and better stuff at lower prices and tomorrows prices often lower than today's everyday low prices), where you still have to find a way to make your money (salary, business, investment whatever) and then elbow your way past the other shoppers to get the best bargains or arrange for internet orders and delivery (which means you have to have a good connection, a computer, electrical power and the supplier has to not have their website swamped and their fulfilment systems and processes working).

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