Advancing Technology Continues to Drive Future

Published in UT San Diego, March 24, 2014

Incoming! Enemy ships. Get in the bunker.

These words may have once echoed on Craig Irving’s Point Loma estate where there is a real World War II bunker facing the Pacific Ocean, but on a calm night a few weeks ago, the message was not one of danger from the past but rather a view of optimism and opportunities for the future.

Mark Mills, CEO of Digital Power Group and a recognized expert on energy, technology and communications, spoke to a small group about “the future” and what we might expect in the next couple of decades.

Herewith a distillation:

Mills focused on energy. The U.S. is currently the world’s largest natural gas producer and will soon be the largest oil producer, he said, so the threat of “dependency on foreign oil” is not likely to be significant. In fact, Mills suggested that our country might soon be an oil exporter. Imagine if the United States became the OPEC of the 21st century.

And the key to energy is technology. It is not as if we have discovered new oil locations; rather it is that we have figured out how to extract the product more efficiently. In effect, we are going “back to the same wells” with better technology to extract the product.

The increase in America’s gross domestic product is driven by the information and technology revolution. Silicon Valley meets Houston, and energy potential increases.

When asked what could impede or impair this trajectory, Mills said: “government regulation and political self-destruction.” Right or wrong, his point of view is concise.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the silicon transistor and the 25th anniversary of the Internet. Today we make more silicon transistors than we harvest grains of wheat.

Mills argued that the advent of plumbing and the working toilet did more to transform societies than the iPhone. His thesis is that transformations going forward will be incremental, not revolutionary. Transformational change takes decades — they are not just another app for the phone. The world of drugs and genomics will experience major transformations, he said, and this will increase life spans. Methuselah, look out.

Everyone gets the impact of massive computing power. In the past 30 years, it has increased 200,000-fold while the cost has dropped a millionfold.

Mills contended that innovative small companies use that power the best. Look at Sperry, Digital Equipment and Wang, big computer companies 30 years ago, that don’t exist anymore. As we see over and over again in San Diego, innovation tends to bubble up in the startup — and Forbes has recently named San Diego the No. 1 “best place” to start a company.

Mills lit up the room when he discussed the transition from distributed computing to “intuitive computing” — defined as computing that disappears into the fabric of our society. This is a mind-bender for me. Intuitive computing just exists where and when you want it as if it reads your mind. And on that note, I will go no further. After all, this guy is a futurist and I am a poor slob venture capitalist.

He touched on big data — we have so much that humans can’t make sense of it. We are now in the era of the zettabyte. A zettabyte of dollar bills stacked would reach from the Earth to the sun back and forth 1 million times. Try to wrap your head around that one.

Finally, he was asked about the stock market and Tesla. If he were an investor, he would short the stock — he muttered something about batteries and a shortage of lithium.

His closing comments were upbeat. “The 21st century is the American century in a lock,” he asserted, as long as we do not shoot ourselves in the foot.

I will steal from Hillel, a famous Jewish philosopher, who said, “If not now, when?”

Rule No. 346

You can’t be sure, because after all, that’s why it is called the future. But don’t bet against it.

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