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On Dematerialization: Our Response to WSJ Columnist Matt Ridley

On WallStreetJournal.com, the science writer Matt Ridley has penned a very interesting article on some of the ideas discussed in Abundance. Here are a few additional thoughts.

Ridley examines deflation, which he describes as a form of economic growth created, at least in part, by dematerialization. Here’s his example: “If the cost of, say, computing power goes down, then the users of computing power acquire more of it for less—and thus attain a higher standard of living.”

Of course, these days, dematerialization has shown up in dozens and dozens of industries—banking, cameras, stereos, encyclopedias, music, books, etc. Yet despite such progress, Ridley feels there are limits: “[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.”

This may turn out to be the case, 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.

  • Ctowns1024

    Ridley who is himself a techno-Optimist makes the same old
    mistakes that pessimists do. He Forgets that dematerialization has already
    taken effect in things such a building sky scrappers, roads, bridges etc.  We are using les materials to make any given
    unit of production today that we did 50 years ago. When Buckminster Fuller used
    to ask people, how much does your building weigh, everyone thought back then
    that he was a little nuts, today he is right on target. The new Xtopia being
    built in Shanghai
    will be using modern techniques and materials.  Ephemeralization, as Bucky liked to call it,
    is effecting everything, even cars weighs less and have less metal in them then
    only 10 years ago.


    It seems the old ways of thinking sticks with us even when
    we are fans of the new paradigm.

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