Letter to Robert Gottliebsen

In over 30 years of friendship Alan Kohler and Robert Gottliebsen have lived through dramatic change. In his final column for 2013, Alan believes the pace of change will only quicken.

Dear Bob,

Mark Twain wrote a letter to Walt Whitman on his 70th birthday, May 24th 1889. Now, I’m no Mark Twain and you’re not Walt Whitman, but we’re about the same age as they were and there are some similarities about the times we live in. Here are the first two paragraphs of Twain’s letter to Whitman:

You have lived just the seventy years which are greatest in the world’s history & richest in benefit & and advancement to its peoples. These seventy years have done much more to widen the interval between man & the other animals than was accomplished by any five centuries which preceded them.

What great births you have witnessed! The steam press, the steamship, the steel ship, the railroad, the perfected cotton gin, the telegraph, the phonograph, the photograph, photo-gravure, the electrotype, the electric light, the sewing machine & the amazing, infinitely varied & innumerable products of coal tar, those latest and strangest marvels of a marvelous age.

Twain then went on to implore Walt Whitman to stick around for a while because the “greatest is yet to come”. He said he’d got together a group of 30 people who loved Whitman and who had all offered to give him a year each of their own lives so he could have another three decades to see what would happen next.

But old Walt only got another three years – he died of pneumonia in 1892 at the same age you are now, Bob: 72. Happily one of the advances that can be filed under the heading of “the greatest is yet to come” is the extension of life expectancy, so you really can get the extra thirty years that was promised to Walt Whitman.

Anyway, the reason I thought of you when I read Mark Twain’s letter to Walt Whitman is that in your 70 or so years you have also lived though a marvelous age, a technological revolution greater than the Industrial Revolution that Mark Twain was talking about, and once again the greatest is yet to come.

So I thought I’d write this letter as my final Business Spectator column for 2013 – a wrap-up of another marvelous year in the Digital Revolution.

To be honest I think economics and politics have been a little boring and predictable this past year, apart from the fact that the Federal Reserve is engaged in the greatest monetary experiment the world has ever known. There was no such thing as a central bank in 1889 and now they run the world. But the Fed’s quantitative easing has been a wonderful success, I think, and can be counted as one of the great marvels of this age.

And, yes, there was an election that has profoundly changed Australia, but the result was predictable, and predicted.

It’s really the technology I’m thinking about as I look back on 2013.

I am writing this on a device that corrects my spelling and grammar as I go. It also connects me to just about every document ever published, every book, newspaper, magazine, scientific paper, government document, including secret ones, as well as billions of videos. I can sit here and inspect any building in any street in the world, read any poem or chat to any person in the world that wants to chat to me, all virtually for free. I can watch stock exchanges in real time and listen to any radio station in the world. And in my pocket is another device that doubles as a telephone and a camera.

2013 was just another year in this incredible revolution we are living through, but if I were to pick one thing that this year will be remembered for it would be 3D printing, that incomprehensible form of manufacturing that seems certain to change the way we make just about everything.

In January, architects began working on the first 3D printed building (artificial marble, 'printed' by a huge 3D printer). It will be finished in 2014. A few days later, another team designed and tested a 3D-printed structure that can be built out of lunar rock to serve as a moon base.

In February 3D printers produced edible meals and another lot of scientists developed a 3D printer that could produce clusters of living stem cells, potentially allowing complete organs to be printed in future. Someone else produced a viable artificial human ear from a 3D printer, and a US firm built a lightweight urban car entirely from a 3D-printed plastic body that’s as strong as steel.

In March researchers successfully replaced 75 per cent of a person’s skull with 3D-printed polymer. In April some scientists built a 3D printer that can create material very similar to human tissue.

In June some American scientists used 3D printing to create microscopic batteries that can power robots that are too small to see without a microscope. In July some other researchers demonstrated a method of 3D printing liquid metal at room temperature which will allow electronic circuitry to be printed on demand. Later that month NASA successfully tested a rocket engine made from 3D-printed parts.

And then last month there was another breakthrough in 3D printing in general that reduces production time from hours to minutes.

And those were just the developments in 3D printing. Also in January was the first successful hand transplant, the first autonomous, driverless car, the first successful cure of blindness in mice, the first molecular-sized machine, a pill-sized medical scanner that can scan the oesophagus for disease, and in late January scientists finished encoding Shakespeare’s sonnets on a single strand of synthetic DNA, which they reckon can be used commercially for data storage in future. NEC and Corning developed a new form of fiber optic cable that can transfer a petabit of data per second (that’s a billion megabits, or 10 million times what is promised by the NBN).

In February American engineers developed a flexible battery that can be charged wirelessly and researchers at Duke University successfully connected the brains of two rats so they could share information.

In March Boston Dynamics released its new military robot, scientists in Britain successfully grew teeth from stem cells.

In April the first building to be entirely powered by algae was finished in Hamburg, scientists in Exeter created genetically modified E. coli bacteria that can convert sugar into diesel fuel, IBM developed a robot that combines telepresence and augmented reality to do very complex tasks remotely. In May engineers created a multi-lens digital camera that mimics an insect’s eye, skin cells were transformed into bone cells.

I could go on (and on). In June there was a report that China has developed the world’s most powerful computer – 33 quadrilion operations per second – and Google launched a fleet of balloons for beaming wireless internet all over the place far more cheaply than satellites. In August the first mind controlled prosthetic leg was created, as well as the first artificial pancreas.

In 1889 Mark Twain was able to list all of the major discoveries during Walt Whitman’s lifetime; today I can’t even list just the ones made this year.

The pace and breadth of scientific discovery, and more importantly its application as 'technology' to industry and medicine, and into every corner of our lives, are breathtaking. It is now accelerating so rapidly as money pours from governments, companies and philanthropists into universities, research institutes and corporate R&D programmes that two things have become clear: science is both totally ascendant and out of control.

I don’t mean that as a pejorative – only that there is no one controlling it. Science seems to have become a wild, bustling marketplace, a global tournament of discovery between universities and individual researchers.

So I reckon it wasn’t economic and political events that were the important events of 2013, it was this globally networked, relentless race of discovery – principally 3D printing, stem cell research and robots that can think.

The other thing Walt Whitman witnessed was the rise and fall of the Luddites, the opponents of 19th century technology who took their name from Ned Ludd, who was supposed to have smashed a couple of sock machines around 1779 and became a hero of the anti-machine crowd. The Luddites were against the replacement of human workers and became a brutal band of terrorists who went around smashing machines and assassinating factory owners.

I suppose today’s Luddites are the extreme Islamists trying to introduce Sharia law, although they seem to be against a lot more than modern technology.

These days most people understand that wealth and human progress flows from improvements in productivity, and that this is best achieved with machines.

And so as you and I grow old, the world’s vast and growing scientific resources are mostly being directed towards extending the lives of humans and replacing them, including in our own profession of journalism (computers now write articles). So we’ll all live to 150 and have nothing to do.

Is that Nirvana? It better be. It’s what the world is mostly working on.

Yours,

Alan