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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Diamandis and Kotler reply

Maybe I was too pessimistic

From the Ideas Market Blog at the wall Street Journal:

Last month, the Review columnist Matt Ridley discussed a new book called "Abundance," by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, which argues that the future will be "better than you think." (Diamandis is founder of the X Prizes, which reward breakthroughs in technology, medicine, energy and other areas.) One driver of progress, the authors say, is "dematerialization," defined by Ridley as "a reduction in the quantity of stuff needed to produce a product" (think of computers that grow ever smaller but more powerful). Ridley largely endorsed their vision of greater returns on improved technology, but offered a few caveats:

[C]ertain growing problems-such as caring for children and the elderly, or policing, or repairing freeways-won't experience much dematerialization or deflation. And as dematerialized goods and services like communication get cheaper, these problems will increasingly dominate budgets, damping the acceleration.

The authors have submitted a response to that objection: "This may turn out to be the case," they write,

but there are certainly indicators that say otherwise. Take the DIY biology movement. The rapid acceleration in biotechnology has dropped the cost of a state of the art lab from over a million dollars just ten year ago, to less than ten thousand today. Taking advantage of this fact, DIY biologists are now beginning to solve real world problems. The winner of the 2008 IGEM competition (an MIT sponsored synthetic biology competition) built a vaccine against the virus that cause the most common form of ulcers. This type of syn bio DIY innovation is certain to have serious impact on the health and welfare of both the young and the old.

There's also the recently announced Qualcomm "Tricorder" X Prize, which bestows $10 million dollars on the first team able to design a handheld device able to diagnose disease better than a board certified doctor. This will certainly help slash healthcare costs here at home, but in parts of the world where doctors are in short supply, this will bring a revolution in quality of care to children, the elderly, and everyone in between.

Then there's robotics, where open source initiatives are already dematerializing costs. With a rapidly aging baby boomer population and nursing home price tags averaging between $40,000 and $85,000 annually, elderly care could easily bankrupt the nation. But many experts feel that robotic nurses are a fantastic solution (check out this Reuter's video; or this article).

Or consider Matternet, a Singularity University spin-off attacking both of Ridley's aforementioned problems-healthcare and freeway repair-simultaneously. Taking advantage of the fact that military-grade autonomous drones have dropped in price by nearly 99 percent over the past decade (radical demonetization), without much loss in functionality, Matternet is planning an AI-enabled network of UAVs and recharging stations housed in shipping containers scattered throughout roadless parts of Africa. Orders are placed via smart phone. For villages disconnected from the global transportation network, this means that everything from replacement parts for farm machinery to medical supplies can now be shipped in via a drone-for less than six cents per kilogram-kilometer.

There are other examples, of course, and ones that speak to Ridley's other concerns. Dematerialization in autonomous drones has already impacted policing (as has dematerialization in video surveillance technology). Autonomous cars, meanwhile, threaten to dematerialize much of the transportation industry (taxi cabs and buses for starters). While these vehicles won't banish the need for freeway repairs, they can be made several tons lighter than existing gas models, so will vastly reduce roadway wear and tear (and the need for freeway repairs).

None of this is to say that there won't be issues ahead that will bog budgets and decelerate "official" progress, but with the newfound power of the DIY innovator we no longer have to wait for "official progress," for governments or large corporations to solve our problems. We can start to solve them ourselves. Which is, after all, the point.