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Abundance for all is within our grasp

“Exponentially growing technologies will enable us to make greater gains in the next two decades than we have in the previous two hundred years. We will soon have the ability to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man, woman, and child on the planet. Abundance for all is within our grasp”.

This quote is from Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler.

They go on to say “Imagine a world of nine billion people with clean water, nutritious food, affordable housing, personalized education, top-tier medical care, and non-polluting, ubiquitous energy”.

According to Peter and Steven, the key drivers to achieve abundance for all are technological advances, the 3-D manufacturing revolution, capital from techno-philanthropists, and the poorest billion people joining the global economy. The challenge for us to comprehend this potential is that we evolved to think in a linear manner whereas technology has been advancing exponentially, as predicted by Moore’s Law.

Moore’s Law is now commonly accepted to mean that computing power doubles every 18 months. Gordon Moore made this prediction in 1965 and expected it to last 10 years. It is still proving correct nearly 40 years later but there is a view that it may slow within the next 5 years.

However, a breakthrough in quantum computing by a team at the University of NSW announced this week points to further exponential increases in computing speed. The team demonstrated the storage and retrieval of information using the magnetic spin of the nucleus of a single atom embedded in silicon. Click here to read the announcement from UNSW.

It is these types of breakthroughs that deliver the exponential acceleration of technology which will help to deliver abundance for all.

While progress is our purpose (click here to read more), abundance for all is our outcome.

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GM food: controversial still?

At dinner with friends recently, the subject of GM food elicited vehemently negative reactions from a couple of people. This caught me by surprise but according to a Deloitte survey in the US in 2010, 34% of people were very or extremely concerned about GM food. This was down from 37% in 2008.

I was surprised because I had read (and retweeted) 4 articles on GM food over the previous couple of months which had led me to believe that GM food is capable of saving millions of lives right now, reducing disease and negative environmental impacts, and ultimately making food an abundant resource so that no human being is underfed.

Admittedly retweeting 4 articles hardly constitutes in-depth research, but let me share with you some details from one article from The Guardian newspaper on Golden Rice. (Click here to read the full article).

Two million infants die each year from Vitamin A deficiency and millions more go blind. In 1999, GM rice was developed that provides a sufficient daily dose of Vitamin A in just 60 grams of rice. It is known as Golden Rice and trial production may start in the Philippines next year. The developers have waived their license rights and the Gates Foundation (Bill and Melinda Gate’s not-for-profit organisation) are funding the project.

Mark Lynas, a founder of the anti-GM movement, now concedes that the benefits outweigh the concerns. “You cannot call yourself a humanitarian and be opposed to GM crops today”, said Lynas.

Since the dinner, I have looked at the anti-GM food arguments, particularly those of Greenpeace given their influence. There are 2 main objections: the risks of tampering with nature and the risk of corporate control of food supply.

Both are legitimate concerns but making progress for the benefit of humanity is always about balancing the benefits and the risks. The story of human progress has been based on using natural resources to extend our capabilities. Capitalism, while far from perfect, has been the most successful system for allocating resources and facilitating progress.

The risks associated with scientific development and corporate ownership of critical assets should be addressed through regulation, education, and transparency. High standards of evidence should be required to demonstrate the safety and benefits of GM foods. Any attempts at profiteering through monopoly or oligopoly positions by companies should be addressed by Government intervention to facilitate competition. The challenges associated with managing the risks inherent in GM food development are difficult but not insurmountable.

For affluent consumers concerned about bio-diversity and supporting small-scale, local food production, then click here to listen to the advice of Simran Sethi in this TED talk (with an anti-GM undertone) and plant seeds / eat foods that are not part of the industrial food supply chain. The growth of farmers’ markets, artisan food makers, and vertical farms are already testament to this approach as part of the solution.

However, at the same time as enjoying the range of food available to us, think whether the prospect of saving the lives of 2 millions infants each year and improving the quality of life for millions more through the development of GM foods outweighs the risks. While demanding high standards of evidence to prove the safety of Golden Rice is sensible, the cost of delays in production is measured in millions of deaths.

Progress is the purpose

I have just read Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene, which was first published in 1976. The book has sold over 1m copies and has been translated into over 25 languages. I recommend it as a “must read”.

Dawkins extends Darwin’s theory of evolution by proposing that genes seek to be replicated and that successful genes are those that increase the likelihood of future replication. Gene combinations occur that serve the same purpose and it is this replication of changing combinations over billions of years that has resulted in the evolution of the amazing array of species that exist today.

From this gene-centered viewpoint, it makes sense that we behave most selflessly towards those that have the highest proportion of our genes (i.e. family members). However, it also makes sense that we collaborate with others to increase the probability of the survival and replication of our genes.

Accepting Dawkin’s theory, it seems logical that human progress serves this purpose of gene survival and replication. From building mud huts and sharpening flint to advancements in modern medicine and technology, the result has been to increase the probability of gene survival. Over the past 100 years, life expectancy has increased by 25 years, i.e. 0.25 years for each year that we live. For major threats to our survival, such as resource sufficiency and climate change, we must focus on technological progress to provide the solution.

The greatest threat to the survival of the gene is resistance to progress resulting in the failure to address major threats. Not only resistance but a lack of focus. It is most likely that innovation will accelerate exponentially as a result of the increasing number of connected minds, but progress should never be taken for granted. Progress is the purpose and it is in all our interests to contribute.

Malala has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize #Nobel4Malala

Click here to read my blog from November on why #Nobel4Malala is important.

@elonmusk is going to save the World (get solar to work or die tryin’)

Apologies to 50 Cent for paraphrasing the name of his first album but Elon Musk is already rich. According to Wikipedia (click here to view his full profile), his net worth in 2012 was US$2.4bn. He dropped out of his PhD course at Stanford in 1995, aged 24, to start an internet company which was sold for $341m just 4 years later. He then co-founded Paypal, which was sold to Yahoo in 2002 for $1.5bn.

Musk has committed to donate most of his wealth to charity and his foundation supports science education, pediatric health, and clean energy. He has founded 3 new companies: Tesla (electric cars), SpaceX (commercial space exploration – click here to read my blog on this), and SolarCity (solar energy). Tesla and SolarCity are listed on the US stockmarket and their current valuations are around $4bn and $1.3bn respectively. Before the age of 40, Musk was behind the creation of 3 separate “billion-dollar” companies.

As a result of his achievements, his prediction at TED2013 this week that

    solar will generate more power than any other energy source within 20 years

is worth taking seriously (click here for the TED2013 blog report on his talk).

According to the National Academy of Engineering (US), the Earth receives 10,000x the energy that we currently use from the sun. The challenge is the efficiency of conversion into electricity along with storage and distribution in order to beat the cost and reliability of existing fossil fuels.

If Musk is successful with his new companies, he can have a profound impact on humanity. Reducing energy costs would have the largest benefit to the poorest people on the planet. In addition, solar can literally save the World, by reducing carbon emissions. The Tesla S was named 2013 Car of the Year by Automotive Magazine (read their review by clicking here) but the important point is that having electric cars available once electricity is sourced from solar will accelerate the decline of oil usage. Finally, commercial space transportation will enable asteroid mining and colonisation of other planets, which could effectively provide unlimited resources.

During his TED talk, Musk said “I’m confident that solar will beat everything hands-down, including natural gas. It must, actually. If it doesn’t, we’re in deep trouble”. Get solar to work or die tryin’!

Insurance companies need to embrace DNA tests

“The genomics industry finally looks poised for its cell phone moment”, according to an article from wired.com (click here to read the article). Their point is that the cost of the hardware for genetic testing is falling rapidly, which means that applications are set to become part of mainstream healthcare.

The insurance industry should embrace DNA tests as it will provide data and analysis that will help to extend lifespans and ensure healthier lives, leading to less insurance claims.

However, the insurance industry is currently an impediment to more rapid take-up of DNA tests. The problem is that prior to receiving a quote for insurance, you may be required to disclose the results of any tests. If the results show a tendency towards a disease with a high fatality rate, then the quote may be prohibitively high. The implication is that it’s better to have an unknown risk than having the information which would allow you to adjust your lifestyle to reduce the risk.

In Australia in 2010, a medical insurance company offered cut-price genetic tests to 5,000 customers and the CEO had the test. However, in the fine print of the offer, it specified that future disclosure of the results may be required by life insurance companies. The Sydney Morning Herald covered the story (click here to read it).

The key issue is that it makes sense to have DNA tests from a young age. However, when you are young, you may not think about life insurance or may not be able to afford any, or at least sufficient, cover.

I propose that insurance companies should embrace DNA tests and offer a lifetime, escalating option life policy to anyone that takes a test. This policy would enable you to take out minimal cover at a young age but be assured of higher cover at a predetermined price later in life. It is most likely that parents would take the policy out for their children. This would give the insurance company a customer for life (no pun intended) and facilitate the expansion of DNA tests.

Why uBiome matters to me

I stumbled upon uBiome, which is a crowd-funded citizen science project, on social media (Twitter). I haven’t seen any coverage of it in Australian traditional media and so, without Twitter, it is unlikely that I would have become aware of this project. It is this sharing of knowledge among 2.4bn (and rising – click here for the regional & global internet user statistics) connected people which will facilitate the exponential acceleration of innovation.

uBiome is pioneering crowd-funding for science using the Indiegogo platform (click here to visit the site). This does not preclude the team from accessing traditional funding sources at a later date, but it shows that there is a new source of funding for science. This approach is engaging for the funders and quicker and simpler for the scientists.

Lastly, I’ll receive an analysis of my microbiome. Until I read the uBiome site, I didn’t know that the trillions of bacteria that live on and in me were known collectively as my microbiome. However, I do know that the future of medicine lies in greater collecting and sharing of data. My participation in the uBiome project is a small step for me in contributing my data for analysis. In time, I’m sure that I will provide abundant data on my body to specialists and expect preventative and regenerative medicine to improve rapidly as a result, thereby extending our lives.

uBiome represents the power of the Internet in knowledge gathering and sharing, pioneers a new funding source for science, and adds to the data and analysis required to improve global healthcare. That’s why uBiome matters to me.