Times of India: Solving humanity’s grand challenges

Many people are fearful that the future will be one of shortages and scarcity and that because of a burgeoning population and dwindling resources, our future is grim.

This couldn’t be further from reality. This is the most innovative period in human history. Technology is advancing so rapidly that soon we will be able to solve some of humanity’s grand challenges. Imagine a world with unlimited food, water, and energy — in which we prevent disease rather than cure it and in which our lifespans increase along with our wisdom and knowledge. This is what is possible, not in future centuries, but in the next two decades.

This may seem like wishful thinking, but consider how far we’ve come. The majority of people in India now have electrical power, refrigeration, and television. Even the poor have mobile phones. Two hundred years ago, kings and queens didn’t have these luxuries. Yes, there is still dire poverty, but there is also hope.

Take the water crisis. Waterborne viruses are responsible for the majority of disease in the developing world. There are predictions that India will run out of water and that wars will break out over supplies. This seems paradoxical considering that 71% of the earth’s surface is water and converting seawater is as simple as boiling and condensing vapour.

Two products are already working and ready to scale.

The first is by legendary inventor Dean Kamen. This device, called Slingshot, is a vapour-compression water-purification machine that can produce 30 litres of distilled water per hour using one kilowatt of electricity. It can convert water from rivers, oceans, and even raw sewage. Slingshot was tested last year by Coca-Cola in five towns in Ghana and worked flawlessly. Coca-Cola is now testing this in dozens of locations worldwide. A device that costs a few thousand dollars will provide enough clean water to support a village of 300 people.

Another amazing — and much cheaper technology — is by Alfredo Zolezzi of Chile’s Advanced Innovation Center (AIC). This sanitizes water by converting it into a plasma state through a high-intensity electrical field. The microbiological content is eliminated by electroporation, oxidation, ionization, UV and IR radiation and shockwaves. The system has been in operation for more than three years in a slum in Santiago. The inhabitants told me that not one person had fallen ill since they started using it — in stark contrast to how it used to be.

The leading US authority, the National Sanitation Foundation, tested this device to determine its conformance to EPA guidelines. They were astonished to find that not only did it exceed their highest standards, but killed 100% of bacteria and viruses. Village-sized units of the AIC technology should cost around $500 and home units will cost much less.

Tata Chemicals is evaluating this technology. Their CEO, R Mukundan, says that a solution to India’s water problem is the “need of the hour”.

Scientists are also making progress in developing new sources of energy and new forms of storage. Imagine fuel from algae and micro-scale graphene-based supercapacitors which recharge laptops in seconds and electric cars in minutes. These are possible.

Prices of solar panels (per watt) have already dropped 97.2% over the past 35 years and will continue this trend. In India, solar energy generation is now cheaper than diesel. Most of Europe will achieve grid parity (cost of solar = cost of grid power) sooner than the US. Next decade, solar will cost a fraction of what fossil fuel energy does, worldwide.

When we have unlimited clean water and unlimited renewable energy, we can produce unlimited amounts of food. Singapore is already growing food in vertical farms. Startups in Silicon Valleyare producing egg substitutes made from plants and in-vitro meat using tissue-engineering and 3D printing techniques. We will soon be able to produce meat without slaughtering animals (yes, “vegetarian meat”). This means that we will need less — not more — land to feed the world’s population.

Similar advances are also happening in medicine, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, and other fields. The best part: entrepreneurs are developing these technologies—not governments or big research labs. Innovation has globalized and has democratized. India’s entrepreneurs are doing their share.

Not to say there aren’t risks ahead or reasons to worry. Every new technology creates a new risk. Just as we can create cures for diseases, we can create doomsday viruses. Unlimited food means unlimited consumption and obesity. Technology is already creating security and privacy concerns. Automation means fewer jobs. Existing industries will need to rapidly transform or they will perish. The future will be much more different than we think. It is for us to understand the opportunities and risks — and shape this into a positive mould.