Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: The Year in Review

As we close out 2011, in many ways the world looks very different than it did a year ago. From political upheavals in the Middle East, a cooling economy in China, an ongoing debt crisis in Europe, and the deaths of several of the world's most odious characters, the world has not seen such a transformative year since the end of the Cold War in 1991. Although we could have seen glimmers of all of these things a year ago, most of these changes were difficult to predict. My friend Nassim Nicholas Taleb might call them “Black Swan Events.”

Since this blog is primarily about futurism, I feel that I should go back and examine the predictions I have made for 2011 to hold myself accountable. With some predictions it is not always obvious whether they are correct or incorrect. Furthermore, self-evaluations tend to be a bit biased, and some futurists have the unfortunate tendency to go to absurd contortions to avoid admitting mistakes. In this post I will try my best to avoid that, but will rely on my readers to keep me honest.

By 2011 – Near-field communication comes equipped in many new smartphones. Mobile payments become even more popular in the developing world, and makes inroads in Europe and the United States. (Jan. 2011)

Mostly correct

As of the end of 2011, some of the most prominent smartphones come with NFC chips, including Samsung's Galaxy series, Google's Nexus series, and Blackberry's Bold series, although in some cases the NFC chip is an add-on rather than a standard feature of the phone. Conspicuously absent from this list is Apple's iPhone, which does not yet have NFC. In September 2011, Google released Google Wallet, a mobile payment application for smartphones which uses near-field communication. As of now it is only available on Google's Nexus S phone, although Google is working with handset manufacturers to incorporate Google Wallet into other Android phones.

This year also marked the growth of Fundamo, a mobile payment system that now operates in over 40 developing countries, and its subsequent acquisition by Visa. The mobile payment industry is somewhat unusual in that the developing world is actually far ahead of developed countries on this technology.

In Europe and the US, progress has been more slow than I anticipated on the mobile payment front, although as I stated last year, we would only be seeing the first glimpses of it in 2011, rather than its widespread adoption. One of the pioneers of this in the US has been Starbucks. The coffee chain has ported Starbucks cards onto Apple and Blackberry smartphones, and customers are able to pay their bill simply by swiping their phone over a scanner. Look for similar technologies to pop up in other businesses in 2012, although I still think it will be a couple more years before it goes mainstream in the United States.

By 2011 – Internet-equipped televisions or add-ons will become popular. (Jan. 2011)

Mostly wrong

I'm going to count this one as a miss. Although internet-equipped televisions and add-ons are commercially available, they are by no means popular yet. Google TV proved to be a very expensive flop for Google, with many cable companies explicitly blocking their web content from playing on Google TV. The biggest barrier to widespread adoption of smart televisions is no longer technological, it is economic. Unless laws are enacted to prevent content providers from discriminating against platforms like Google TV, we may be waiting for several years before economic circumstances will cause the content providers to relent.

Some of the smaller add-ons, such as Boxee and Roku, have proven much more commercially successful than smart televisions have. However, they are much more limited in what they can do.

By 2011 – At least 75% of countries improve their score on the Human Development Index compared to 2010, with the biggest improvements in developing countries. (Jan. 2011)


Although you would never know it from media reports, 2011 was a year of widespread economic success nearly everywhere in the world. My prediction that at least 75% of countries would be better off was actually quite conservative. 93% of countries improved their level of human wellbeing, as measured by the Human Development Index. The biggest winner of the year was Ghana, one of Africa's best-governed nations. The biggest loser was war-torn Libya. Of the 183 countries evaluated, 171 improved their wellbeing, 6 spent the year treading water, and another 6 lost ground. These unlucky countries were mostly located where you would expect them to be: debt-ravaged Europe and the turbulent Greater Middle East. Nearly everywhere else, people ended the year better off than they started.

By 2011 – There will be a major shakeup (or a total implosion) in the top leadership of North Korea and/or Iran. (Jan. 2011)

Mostly correct

The “and/or” is what made this prediction correct. I thought this was going to be a miss, but with two weeks to spare before the end of the year, Kim Jong-il of North Korea did me (and the rest of the world) a favor by dying. At this point it's too soon to speculate how North Korea's government will change following the leader's death. His heir, Kim Jong-un, is unlikely to be able to wield total power like his father.

Surprisingly, Iran has been relatively stable this year. With all the simmering anger in Iran following the aborted 2009 election protests, it seemed likely that Iran would emulate its Arab neighbors in protesting its government. Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, reportedly has terminal leukemia, but there does not seem to have been any major leadership changes despite a year of palace intrigue. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spent much of the spring boycotting his official duties amidst a very ugly public spat with the Supreme Leader, who clearly does not trust Ahmadinejad any longer.

By 2011 – Tablet computers account for at least 13% of the US personal computer market. The market will become competitive with several new tablets seriously challenging Apple’s iPad. (Jan. 2011)


The first sentence is undeniably correct; the most recent estimates I can find for 2011 indicate that tablets accounted for about 17% of the PC market this year.

The tablet market is certainly more competitive now than it was a year ago, but most of the Android tablets continue to disappoint. The sole exception is Amazon's Kindle Fire, which has been an instant hit. It doesn't exactly “challenge Apple's iPad” as I predicted, because the two tablets are aimed at very different markets: the Kindle Fire is priced at $199, whereas even the cheapest iPad will cost $499.

By 2011 – Gaming (led by Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect) will begin to become gesture-based, rather than controller-based. (Jan. 2011)


Many games have been created for Xbox Kinect which rely exclusively on gestures. This technology is especially useful for exercise and sports-related games. Look for it to continue to expand in the coming years.

By 2011 – The migration of computer files from the hard drive to the cloud will begin in earnest, as people become more willing to allow third-parties to store all of the content on their computers via the internet. (Jan. 2011)


The big winners of the race to the cloud are Amazon, Verizon (Terremark), and IBM. The file hosting service Dropbox, which enables consumers to store their files in Amazon's cloud and easily work with files on multiple computers, has been one of the year's blockbuster startups. Some estimates indicate that it now has over 50 million users.

By 2011 – Voice Over IP services, such as Skype, become popular on smartphones, thus portending the eventual demise of traditional voice-telephone services. (Jan. 2011)


Voice Over IP services have not yet caught on on smartphones. I think my error in this prediction was that I underestimated the difficulty of using Voice Over IP on 3G smartphones (I confess that I hadn't actually tried it on my own 3G phone at the time I wrote this prediction). 3G phones tend to be too slow to get good reception on an internet call, resulting in garbled and spotty transmission. Even people with 4G phones will be hindered unless the person they are calling also uses a 4G phone (or their computer). Until 4G smartphones become ubiquitous - which should happen within the next few years - traditional voice telephony will probably remain the dominant method of making calls.

By 2011 – At least one company offers genome sequencing for $1,000 or less (Jul. 2010)

Mostly wrong

I thought that attaching a specific dollar figure to this prediction would make it easy to evaluate and leave little room for interpretation, but I overlooked the fact that there are different kinds of genome sequencing. The price point is different, depending on how thorough one wants the analysis to be. At the lower end of the spectrum, Google-affiliated startup 23AndMe offers basic genotyping for $159, which includes a DNA analysis of a person's ancestry and their likelihood of acquiring various diseases with a clear genetic component. However, this service is not very robust. “Full genome sequencing” is considerably more expensive. The leading company for full genome sequencing, Illumina Technologies, currently charges $5,000 (or $4,000 for bulk orders). This is a price cut of more than 50% since this time last year, but we'll have to wait a while longer for the elusive $1,000 genome.

By my count, that's 5 correct or mostly correct, 1 somewhat correct, and 3 wrong or mostly wrong. I think that's a decent record, and it will be the benchmark I try to beat for my 2012 predictions, which I will be posting in the next few days. I am also interested to hear from my readers if I was too easy or harsh in grading my own predictions. Do you think I erred in any of my self-evaluations of my predictions? If so, which ones and why?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Welcome to Earth, Population: 7 Billion

This month, the global population will surpass 7 billion people, for the first time in history. Predictably, this milestone has sparked a discussion of overpopulation and sustainability. Pessimists are quick to point to the historical trend. Two thousand years ago, the global population was a mere 200 million people. Even by 1900, there were only 1.6 billion of us. But during the 20th century, population growth exploded as modern medicine dramatically increased life expectancies all across the world. Even people in the shortest-lived countries today (Afghanistan and Zimbabwe) live longer than those in the longest-lived countries did in 1800 (United Kingdom and Netherlands).

The unfortunate side effect of that amazing record of progress has been an ever-increasing population, consuming more and more resources from our planet. Many have questioned how long this can continue. As early as 1798, Thomas Malthus argued that growth in population was outstripping growth in the food supply, and this would inevitably result in widespread famine. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, which predicted that overpopulation would soon cause mass starvation, destroy the environment, and lead to widespread war.

So far these predictions have failed to materialize, and it is unlikely that they ever will. Concerns of global overpopulation are overblown. There is plenty of room for everyone; we could fit the entire world’s population into the state of Texas, and the population density would be no greater than New York City. On the question of food security, the Malthusian predictions have always failed to take into account technological development. When Malthus made his original prediction, he completely overlooked the Industrial Revolution that was beginning to unfold around him, making the production of food much more efficient. When Ehrlich did the same, he overlooked both the Green Revolution that increased the production of food threefold, and the invention of new birth control technologies which reduced the rate of growth in the population.

In fact, population growth peaked in 1968, just as The Population Bomb was hitting bookshelves. Although it has not yet stabilized, the rate of growth continues to decline. Some parts of the world are already losing people; the fertility rates in Europe, Russia, and East Asia are well below the replacement rate. The United Nations projects that the global population will plateau by the end of this century, between 10 and 15 billion people.

Even the upper end of the UN’s projection is not unsustainable; if we have 15 billion people by the end of this century, we will easily be able to feed them all, with plenty of food to spare. The population doomsayers will continue to be wrong for the same reason that Malthus and Ehrlich were wrong: they ignore technological developments that allow the production of much more food. The coming Genomic Revolution will play a huge role in this process. Not only will it soon be possible to genetically engineer crops that produce a much higher yield in a given amount of space, it will also be possible to breed crops that can grow in much harsher climates than is currently possible, allowing for the widespread production of crops in parts of the world that were previously considered off-limits. The drought-ravaged Sahel Zone of Africa could one day be a breadbasket. Cold climates like Canada and Russia may one day be able to grow coffee.

Additionally, the development of in vitro meat production will soon mean that it is no longer necessary to raise large herds of livestock when meat can be more efficiently grown in a laboratory. This will free up a huge amount of the earth’s farmland and fresh water, which would otherwise be required to feed the animals. These technological developments – as well as others which may not even be anticipated yet – will undoubtedly allow us to continue feeding our growing global society.

Although global overpopulation is not a problem, the problems of specific regions of the world should not be minimized. South Asia is the hardest hit by overpopulation. India has 1.2 billion people crammed into an area one-third the size of the United States. Bangladesh has 150 million (half the population of the US) packed in an area smaller than Florida. In both of these cases, the vast majority of people live in crushing poverty, with some of the highest rates of malnourishment anywhere in the world. But even here, there is some good news. Both India and Bangladesh have taken steps to get their fertility rates under control, and now their fertility rates are only slightly above the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. The era of rapid population growth is drawing to a close for South Asia, although it will still take several decades before it levels off completely.

Many Sub-Saharan African countries have a demographic problem as well, although the nature of the problem is different from South Asia’s problem. With a few exceptions, Africa is not particularly densely populated. Some UN officials and developmental economists have even gone so far as to argue that many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa are underpopulated. I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration for a region of the world that cannot currently feed itself, but there is no denying that Africa’s population is nowhere nearly as densely populated as South Asia. India alone has more people than the entire African continent. Africa’s demographic problem is the rapid rate of growth in its population. Unlike India and Bangladesh, which have finally gotten their growth rates under control, many African nations still have fertility rates as shockingly high as 4 or more children per woman. In the case of Niger, the fastest-growing country in the world, women have 7.6 children on average. In other words, the problem facing many Sub-Saharan African nations is that their population is growing faster than their ability to provide for their people.

Can Africa’s demographic problem be solved? Of course. High fertility rates are closely linked to poverty. Families tend to have more children in societies where the opportunity cost of having kids is low, where children can assist with subsistence farming, and where infant mortality rates are high enough that having extra children provides a hedge against the tragic risk that some of them will not survive to adulthood. As Sub-Saharan African countries continue to develop their economies, these underlying problems will fade away just as they did in South Asia and Latin America, and fertility rates will drop. This issue has been widely studied by developmental economists, who have concluded that the best ways to reduce fertility rates are to ensure access to cheap birth control, improve education (especially for girls), and improve health care and nutrition for infants. Many African nations are making tremendous progress toward these goals, and are already seeing the dividends in reduced fertility rates.

So when our global population officially hits the 7 billion mark this week, remember to take the doomsayers with a grain of salt. Our planet is not overpopulated. At the present time, it is a localized problem for only a couple regions of the globe, and soon it will not be a problem at all. Our economic and technological development will see to that. There is plenty of room on our pale blue dot for more people.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

In Defense of High-Speed Passenger Rail

On July 23, two bullet trains collided in Wenzhou, China, killing at least 40 people. This tragedy prompted a rare apology from the governing Chinese Communist Party, and drew international criticism of high speed rail as a whole. For some observers, China’s high speed rail system symbolized the overreach of a nation in an unsustainable economic bubble, and the bureaucracy that has made the system both expensive and dangerous.

Others have questioned the economic feasibility of passenger rail in general, noting that in the United States, only the Amtrak line from Boston to Washington is profitable. According to this criticism, the United States – unlike Europe, Japan, and China – is very sparsely populated, which means that there will simply never be enough passengers to make the system profitable. In recent months, the prospect of a high speed rail network in the United States has been pilloried from the right and left alike. In California, the only serious high-speed rail project in the country has been criticized as wasteful spending by a state that is already in dire fiscal straits.

In a scathing review, The Economist claims that high-speed passenger rail could ruin America’s envy-of-the-world freight train system, with which it would most likely share its tracks. Having worked in logistics myself, I am sympathetic to The Economist’s concerns. But this isn’t a good argument against high-speed passenger rail; on the contrary, it is a reason to invest more, in order to build a separate network for passenger trains which can travel at much higher speeds.

What of the argument that the United States is too sparsely populated for passenger trains to ever be a profitable mode of transportation? After all, it’s undeniably true that large cities in the United States are much farther apart than large cities elsewhere, and therefore fewer people will want to use the trains. My response to these arguments is that the critics are using the wrong metric. Why must high-speed passenger rail systems be profitable in the first place? We have a terrific Interstate Highway System which, with the exception of a few toll roads, generates no revenue whatsoever. Yet almost no one suggests that the Interstate Highway System was a bad investment for the United States.

Fine, say the critics, but since we have such a great highway system why do we need trains? America is a nation that loves to drive. But a passenger rail system would not be in competition with highways, if it is designed correctly. Relatively few people choose to use highways for long-distance travel between major cities anyway, opting for air travel. Some critics point to the slow passenger lines that currently exist and how unpopular they are, suggesting that high-speed passenger lines would be an even bigger waste of money. But this criticism loses sight of what makes such a system appealing in the first place: Slow passenger rail systems are disliked by travelers precisely because they are slow; they offer neither the speed of air travel nor the independence of highways.

Finally we come to the standard libertarian criticism of public expenditures: Why should the government invest in a high-speed rail system at all? Airport congestion imposes economic costs on society: wasted time in airport terminals, delayed business meetings, and people choosing to drive instead of fly (which causes more highway congestion and traffic fatalities). Since the public is indirectly footing the bill for these problems anyway, why not redirect the money to high-speed rail, which would actually relieve some of the airport congestion by taking some of the customers?

The United States needs a high-speed passenger rail system. After years of neglect, America’s infrastructure is rated only the 16th best in the world. As air travel becomes evermore unpleasant and congested, high speed rail will become a necessity for traveling between cities. By the middle of this century, the United States can have an incredibly efficient three-tier travel system: For short-distance travel (less than 50 miles), we would have our Interstate Highway System complemented by a network of intelligent self-driving cars. For medium-distance travel (50-500 miles), we would have a network of high-speed rail, which would pick up and drop off passengers near the center of large cities. For long-distance travel (more than 500 miles), we would have our airports, which would be much more efficient due to the fact that there would be fewer passengers clogging the system with short-haul flights that would be better addressed by trains.

High-speed rail is not some trivial boondoggle to be mocked for its unprofitability; it is the central public transit challenge of the 21st century. If the United States begins the undertaking now with the same commitment which President Dwight Eisenhower brought to the Interstate Highway System 55 years ago, it can have a state of the art network of passenger trains by the middle of the century. Neither technology nor economics is an obstacle; only the political will stands in the way.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Big Bangs and Boltzmann Brains

This past week, I watched a fascinating TED Talk from cosmologist Sean Carroll. The question he poses is one that has puzzled scientists, philosophers, and theologians for millennia: Why does our orderly universe exist at all? The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy (disorder) tends to increase over time. This is intuitive to most of us; it’s easy to break an egg, but difficult to put a broken egg back together, because there are far more arrangements in which the pieces of the egg can be shattered than unbroken. As a result, things tend toward more chaos and disorder. But why was the universe ever orderly to begin with?

Carroll does a great job demolishing the explanation which I’ve always favored, that our universe is just a fluke. Even though individual atoms move in hard-to-predict ways we can nevertheless predict the behavior of macroscopic objects. For example, the molecules in the air and ground are constantly jostling one another, moving in every possible direction. But we don’t expect them to spontaneously arrange themselves into a car, because the probability of the molecules simultaneously moving into the correct position is extremely unlikely. But over a long enough period of time (vastly longer than the age of the universe) it will eventually happen by pure chance.

This same argument could be scaled up to the universe itself. Quantum mechanics indicates that particles are constantly popping in and out of existence at random. If you wait for an unimaginably long time, all of the particles that make up our universe will spontaneously pop into existence out of the nothingness and assemble themselves in an orderly way, in a random quantum fluctuation. Many have speculated that such a fluctuation caused the Big Bang. The length of time we would have to wait for such an event to occur is called the Poincarre Recurrence Time, and is estimated to be on the order of 10^10^10^10^10^1.1 years. I’ve always been fond of this idea, and it seems easy to invoke the Anthropic Principle here: Conscious observers will only be able to marvel over their own existence during those rare periods of time when the universe is in a low-entropy state by pure chance. But as Carroll points out (using an argument originally made by Ludwig Boltzmann over a hundred years ago), that isn’t necessarily the case. It would be far easier for an individual brain to form from a quantum fluctuation, than an entire universe with hundreds of billions of galaxies. If our existence was a fluke of an infinitesimally unlikely quantum fluctuation, we would predict that we should be lonely Boltzmann Brains floating through empty space, rather than inhabitants of an enormously complex universe. Since we do indeed live in a complex universe, Carroll therefore concludes that our universe is not merely a random quantum fluctuation.

But if the Big Bang wasn’t merely a freak random occurrence, what caused it? Unfortunately, neither physicists nor philosophers have a solid answer for this question. Carroll suspects that there must be a multiverse, in which unknown laws of nature occasionally give rise to low-entropy universes such as our own. He cites the work of Lee Smolin, who proposed the idea of the fecund universe, in which a Big Bang occurs at the singularity of a black hole and a new universe is created. This would solve the Boltzmann Brain paradox, because universes would constantly be spawning new universes through the laws of nature, but randomly-occurring Boltzmann Brains would still be unfathomably rare.

Another possibility is that our understanding of entropy is incomplete; perhaps our universe is indeed a random quantum fluctuation, but for reasons we don’t understand it’s easier for entire universes which can eventually produce conscious observers to randomly fluctuate into existence, than it is for Boltzmann Brains to do so. Perhaps the laws that govern the creation of universes tend to give rise to things like our own universe rather than Boltzmann Brains. Perhaps our universe is merely a holographic representation of a two-dimensional universe with different laws of physics than those we observe, and therefore entropy doesn’t apply at all. Perhaps our world is a simulated reality, and the simulators find complex worlds more interesting than lone Boltzmann Brains. Or perhaps we are indeed Boltzmann Brains, and for some reason don’t realize it.

Whatever the reason we live in an orderly universe, our understanding of physics is slowly making it possible to weigh the different theories to see which are the most likely. As our understanding of cosmology continues to improve, perhaps we will one day be able to understand what (if anything) caused the Big Bang. If Carroll’s multiverse theory turns out to be correct, perhaps it will vindicate the Hindu concept of cyclical creation and destruction: Universes are born, die, and are eventually reborn in different forms.

Watch the short version of Sean Carroll’s talk here. If you’re interested in the full hour-long lecture, watch it here.

Monday, May 30, 2011

How to Eradicate Malaria

On April 25, 2011, the United Nations observed World Malaria Day by setting an ambitious goal: zero malaria deaths by 2015. Few diseases have contributed more to the misery of mankind than malaria has. At its apex in the 19th century, malaria was responsible for over half of all deaths in some of the hardest hit nations like India, and was endemic to temperate and tropical zones alike. Over the last 150 years, dramatic progress has been made. Malaria has been completely vanquished in the United States and Europe, and sharply reduced in Latin America and South Asia. But Sub-Saharan Africa remains a problem, as it tragically does for many infectious diseases. Today, malaria still kills nearly a million people per year. It is responsible for 20% of all child fatalities in Africa, making it the second-biggest killer in Africa behind HIV/AIDS. Even these high figures probably underestimate malaria’s true consequences, because one of the symptoms of malaria is to weaken the immune system and increase the viral load of diseases such as HIV/AIDS. The disease also makes it difficult for nations to escape poverty; developmental economists John Gallup and Jeffrey Sachs estimate that economic growth is reduced by 1.3% per year in countries with widespread malaria.

Why has malaria remained so troublesome in Africa, even while declining elsewhere? Malaria has always been a disease of poverty. In impoverished countries, many makeshift homes do not have screens, doors, or windows to keep mosquitoes out. Additionally, poor people are often unable to afford malaria treatment, which can cost the equivalent of several months of income in some African nations. If it is left untreated, malaria does not simply run its course and disappear from the body like many diseases do. Instead, it goes into dormancy and can strike again months later. Malaria can become a chronic, lifelong problem for some of its victims who do not have access to treatment. In societies in which a large fraction of the population carries malaria (even if it is dormant), mosquitoes are more likely to acquire the disease each time they bite, and therefore more likely to transmit the affliction to new victims.

In spite of the depressing facts surrounding malaria, there is good reason to believe that malaria can be eradicated in the near future. The UN’s goal is probably overly ambitious, but perhaps only by a few years. A number of trends are converging to make it possible to eliminate the disease. The use of mosquito bed nets has become much more common in many African nations. In Rwanda, 56% of young children now sleep under a bed net, compared to just 4% a decade ago. In Kenya, 46% do so, up from just 3% a decade ago. The mosquitoes which carry malaria tend to be nocturnal and prefer to bite indoors, which is why insecticide-coated bed nets are so effective. Those who use bed nets are only half as likely to get malaria as those who do not. It is likely that within the next couple years, many African nations will have enough bed nets to cover their entire at-risk population.

In 2007, the World Health Organization announced its intentions to resume spraying DDT in malaria-endemic countries. Once the scourge of environmentalists, the chemical was banned in the late 1960s. However, it is still the most potent known insecticide. Many scientists now believe that DDT’s harmful effects may have been overstated, and in any case, eradicating malaria is a higher priority. The spraying of DDT to fight malaria is now supported by many prominent green groups, including the Sierra Club and Environmental Defense.

The cost of treating malaria victims is quickly dropping, offering hope that soon medication will be affordable to people in Sub-Saharan Africa. An initiative by European governments, called the Affordable Medicines Facility for Malaria, aims to reduce the cost of treatment through a combination of concessions and price reductions from pharmaceutical companies, subsidies from European governments, and donations from the private sector to reduce the cost of antimalarial medication to just 5 cents. The effort is already paying off; production of antimalarial medicine has risen from 5 million doses in 2004 to 160 million doses in 2009. Curing people quickly helps the victim and society alike; if people are quickly treated, mosquitoes will be less likely to acquire the malaria parasite each time they bite, and therefore less likely to transmit the disease to others.

Additionally, the search may finally be drawing to a close for the elusive malaria vaccine. In 2009 and 2010, scientists tested a vaccine among several hundred children in Mali. It proved to be effective at preventing malaria for at least one year, although additional tests will need to be conducted before the vaccine can be manufactured for public use.

The widespread use of bed nets, the resumption of DDT spraying, the increasing availability of treatment for victims, and the emergence of a possible vaccine are all coming together simultaneously to make it possible to rid the world of malaria once and for all.

Although the overall prevalence of malaria remains high, these figures mask an important insight: efforts to eradicate malaria are subject to a positive feedback loop. Once the number of infected people (or infected mosquitoes) drops below a certain threshold, it will be more difficult for additional people to become infected, which will reduce the number of infected people and infected mosquitoes even more. This will cause the malaria parasite population to crash, and can occur very quickly. The history of malaria in the United States is a good example of this. In the 1940s, malaria was still common in much of the southern United States, especially in the Mississippi Valley. In 1946, the Center for Disease Control was established with the explicit goal of eradicating malaria. A mere five years later, the disease was gone.

Will the World Health Organization be able to replicate this achievement in Africa, and meet the UN's goal of zero malaria deaths by 2015? I think that's a few years too optimistic. But due to the rapid reduction in malaria and the positive feedback loop which will aid eradication efforts, it isn't implausible. In 2005, the World Health Organization estimated that there were 350-500 million cases of malaria, but just a year later the number of cases had fallen to 247 million. By 2009, there were only 82 million cases. Such a rapid dropoff indicates that malaria is indeed in terminal decline. By the end of this decade, malaria can be rare or extinct, rather than the scourge that it is today.


By 2020 - There are fewer than 5 million cases of malaria annually, and fewer than 15,000 deaths.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Book Review - "Disrupting Class" by Clayton Christensen

Clayton Christensen’s book, Disrupting Class, is a fascinating look at how disruptive new technologies will soon transform the dismal state of the American education system. By far, the most intriguing aspect is the potential for online education to completely upend traditional schools and dramatically improve education.

Some of the biggest problems with schools are often lost in the contentious political debates over teachers’ unions, vouchers, and merit pay. Often, the underlying problems are completely ignored because they seem intractable. The traditional classroom model – where one teacher instructs 25 students – is antiquated and ineffective at addressing students’ needs. As Disrupting Class illustrates, each student has unique learning styles and abilities, which are completely ignored in traditional schools.

In brick-and-mortar schools, where there are vastly more students than teachers, education cannot be customized to individual students. The instructor tries his or her best to teach according to the learning style that reaches the most students, but those who march to the beat of a different drum inevitably fall through the cracks. Classes invariably move at the same pace despite the fact that students do not learn at the same pace. An instructor teaches a unit, the students are tested on the material, and the entire class moves on to the next unit, regardless of the performance of individual students. As a result, the advanced students are bored in school and want to move faster, while the struggling students fall farther and farther behind as their knowledge deficiencies accumulate.

Disrupting Class envisions a future where these things are no longer problems, due to interactive online education that is far better than today’s education software, which far too often is nothing more than glorified flash cards. In the online classes of the future, each student will be able to learn at his or her own pace, and won’t advance to the next unit until he or she has mastered the material from the current one. The concept of awarding letter grades for classes might be replaced by measuring how long it takes a student to earn an A.

Additionally, online education will allow for classes to be customized to the student’s particular learning style. The debates over whether one particular teaching style is better than another, or whether charter schools are better than traditional schools, will vanish. When each student can learn the material in a manner tailored to his or her own needs, we will finally recognize that no single teaching style or type of school is best for all students.

Although the book primarily focuses on the American education system, the international implications of disruptive education technology are possibly even more profound. Salman Khan, the founder of the Khan Academy, stressed this point in his recent TED Talk. Online education offers the possibility to turbo-charge the human development of countries where access to education is still a problem. Far too many children in the slums of developing countries have little access to education of any kind. The proliferation of online education – which should roughly coincide with the proliferation of smartphones and tablets in much of the developing world – will open up vast new worlds of information to students in the most remote parts of the planet, where local teachers are unavailable, unknowledgeable, or expensive.

Disrupting Class gets its name because, in Christensen’s view, these educational innovations will largely take place outside of traditional classrooms, and eventually supplant them entirely. In the infancy of online education, teachers will use online education to supplement their in-class curriculum, or use it to allow students to take classes that are not offered at the school. Over time, education software will play a larger and larger role in classrooms until the schools themselves are no longer necessary. Students might continue to gather with their local friends in a building called a “school” to learn, but classes will be determined by learning style, ability, and personal interests rather than by school district. Teachers will instruct students entirely via computer.

How long will it take until online education is widely adopted? Not long, by Christensen’s estimate. He notes that online education is following the same adoption pattern of many other disruptive technologies, such as digital photography, which start off very slowly but suddenly become dominant once they reach critical mass. According to Christensen, in the United States in 2000 there were 1,000 students in classrooms for every 1 online learner. By 2007, this ratio had dropped to 100 to 1. If this trend continues, online learning will command a sizable chunk of the market (10%) by 2014, and gain a majority by 2019. Shortly thereafter, our 170-year-old model of classroom-based learning will come to an end.

Projections from "Disrupting Class" by Clayton Christensen

My sole criticism of the book is that it is a bit too broad. Christensen primarily focuses on online education, but devotes short sections to other innovations like new methods of evaluating teaching styles, and teaching highschoolers the necessary parenting skills they will need to one day raise successful children of their own. Although these are certainly interesting ideas worth exploring, they felt a bit out of place in a book primarily about the disruptive nature of education technology. I would have liked to see these chapters replaced with more information about online education, which is, after all, the main focus of the book.

Disrupting Class is thought-provoking and charts a very plausible course for would-be developers of online education tools. The future of education will inevitably be online. The advantages are just too numerous to ignore.

4/5 stars

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Space Travel: Science Fiction's Biggest Underachiever

In 1968, futurist Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, which quickly became one of the most popular science fiction novels of the 20th century. In Clarke’s vision of tomorrow, mankind in 2001 would have ring-shaped space stations that rotate to provide gravity, permanent lunar colonies which people routinely visit for business meetings, and fully-functional (if evil) artificial intelligence. The zeitgeist of the late 1960s, at the height of the space race, was one of unbridled optimism in the future of space travel. Just two years before Clarke’s novel was published, Star Trek had first premiered. It seemed inevitable that we were destined for the stars.

Looking at the world around us, it is easy to be disappointed at how space travel has progressed. The world today looks nothing like Star Trek, or even 2001: A Space Odyssey. After the Apollo missions ended in 1972, something strange happened that few futurists anticipated: mankind stopped exploring space, and turned inward to focus on problems at home. NASA’s budget was slashed. To the extent that space exploration progressed, it was done almost exclusively by robots rather than manned missions. If we were able to go back in time to the late 1960s and tell people that we would indeed have a permanent space settlement today, they would almost certainly envision something far grander than the International Space Station.

Why were the space enthusiasts wrong? The biggest obstacle has been political, not technological. In my opinion, political trends are much more difficult to predict than technological trends. From a 1968 perspective, the US and USSR were locked in a Cold War that would soon extend far above the earth’s surface. It was much easier to forecast the trends in space technology than to predict that the USSR would throw in the towel on the space race by the mid-1970s, and cease to exist at all soon thereafter. With the collapse of the USSR, the impetus for a space race has disappeared. No nation is willing to spend large sums of money exploring space without the threat of a rival beating them to it.

In light of this political reality, the exploration of other worlds seems to be permanently on hold. I do not envision this changing any time in the next couple decades. Although President George W. Bush called for the United States to return to the moon by 2020 and NASA stated that a permanent manned lunar base would be operational by 2024, it is highly unlikely that these goals will be fulfilled. The US is simply not motivated to do so.

Additionally, the economics of space travel have changed significantly since the Apollo missions. Due to advances in computer technology, it is now much cheaper to send robots to explore other worlds than it is to send human astronauts. Robots don’t need food, water, and air to keep them alive, and don’t need a return trip to earth. They can do almost everything a human astronaut can do, and can wirelessly transmit the data back home. Indeed, NASA has had some great achievements exploring our solar system, but the pioneers have all been robots.

It is possible that the private sector will be able to pick up part of the slack left by governments. SpaceShipOne, the first privately-owned spacecraft, claimed the Ansari X Prize in 2004. However, private space travel will never progress beyond orbital missions for super-rich adventure-seekers until there are some fundamental breakthroughs in rocketry. It currently costs $10,000 to send one pound into orbit, because rocket fuel itself is responsible for 90% of the weight of a rocket. As long as fossil fuels are the standard propulsion technology, human space travel will continue to be unaffordable for most people. Futurist and theoretical physicist Michio Kaku suggests that rockets could be powered by lasers instead of by fuel. Lasers on earth could fire at a water tank, vaporizing the water and propelling a rocket upward. Since the thrust would come from the ground instead of the rocket itself, it would eliminate the need for fuel and make rocketry 10 times more efficient.

Although this technique has been demonstrated to work in prototypes, it will be a long time before it can be applied to something as large as a rocket. Although many emerging technologies few people have imagined will suddenly take us by surprise, I think that space travel is something that will continue to disappoint us for many years.


As of 2025 – No human being has set foot on the moon since the Apollo missions.

As of 2035 – No human being has ever set foot on Mars.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Democratic Threshold

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, futurist and political economist Francis Fukuyama wrote a book in 1992 entitled The End of History and the Last Man, in which he theorized that nearly all nations would soon become liberal democracies. Since all competing global ideologies had been defeated, Fukuyama felt that it was only logical that the people of all nations would soon demand freedom from their leaders and live in peace happily ever after – the end of history. Since 9/11, Fukuyama’s predictions have frequently been derided and ridiculed for such a spectacularly inaccurate and overly-optimistic view of the future.

In light of the democratic revolts currently spreading across the Arab world, Fukuyama’s theory merits reexamination. Was he wrong, or just a few decades premature? Is liberal democracy the inevitable final stage of development, and if so, what kind of conditions are necessary for it to thrive? It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of the moment – the collapse of communism must have been just as exhilarating to democrats as the (possible) collapse of Arab autocracy is today – but we must bear in mind that the crystal ball is always murky. It is unclear how far the current wave of revolutions will spread, or what the ultimate outcome will be. Charting “the end of history” based on recent current events is never a good idea.

Fortunately, we need not make wide-eyed predictions based upon what we wish were true. There is plenty of statistical data to analyze. The relationship between the economic success of a nation and its level of democracy is very strong. Nearly all countries with a GDP per capita (adjusted for purchasing power parity) of at least $10,000 are at least partially democratic, with the vast majority being full-fledged democracies, as measured by The Economist’s Democracy Index. However, the statistics don’t show us which is the cause and which the effect. Does an affluent society make people more willing to demand their democratic freedoms, or does democracy bring about affluence? There have been many autocracies which have grown their economies very quickly – South Korea in the 1970s, Chile in the 1980s, and China today – but they always seem to democratize around the same time they become wealthy. This suggests to me that an economically empowered people are more likely to demand democratic empowerment; and just as importantly, governments are likely to accede to their demands. In my view, a GDP per capita of $10,000 is a Democratic Threshold. No nation can economically develop past this level without transitioning to at least partial democracy.

But there is one group of countries that is a large exception to this rule. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight and Thomas Friedman at Foreign Policy Magazine have both pointed out the toxic effect that oil has on democracy. Indeed, the statistics bear this out. With the exception of Norway and the Netherlands, every oil-rich country (where oil exports account for at least 5% of GDP) is much less democratic than other countries at the same level of development without oil. Qatar may have a higher GDP per capita than the United States, but it is far less democratic. Oil breeds corruption and autocracy.

Taking oil-rich countries out of the mix, I have charted the relationship between democracy and economic development:

A few autocracies are nearing the $10,000 GDP per capita Democratic Threshold. A few others including China are not there yet, but are growing so fast that they will most likely reach it within a decade. Some countries have not reached the Democratic Threshold, but score far lower on The Economist’s Democracy Index than one would expect, given their GDP per capita. Nations falling into these categories are the ones best primed for some serious progress toward democracy. What countries would those be?


GDP per capita (PPP)

Democracy Index

Expected DI

Democracy Deficit






North Korea






































































(Disclaimer: Obviously I’m not saying that these countries are all poised to become liberal democracies overnight, merely that there is the potential for substantial progress. North Korea, for example, has set the democratic bar so low that even modest efforts toward democracy would be a major step forward.)

The three Arab states on this list – Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan – are in the midst of serious challenges to their authority. It’s no coincidence that these three countries, and not other Arab states, are the epicenter of the protests. As I write this, Tunisians have successfully deposed their dictator in the Jasmine Revolution. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has declared he will not seek reelection this fall, although his prospects of remaining in power even that long look pretty bleak. Jordan’s enlightened King Abdullah has just dismissed his government and has wisely pledged to institute immediate democratic reforms.

The other countries on this list are an assortment of communist holdouts, rogue nations, and states dominated by a larger power. If China becomes democratic, for example, it could send shockwaves throughout the region and lead to the collapse of North Korea, Burma, and authoritarian regimes throughout Africa, which depend on China for their survival.

Fukuyama’s theory seems to be supported by the statistical evidence - liberal democracy is indeed the end of history. Once countries surpass the Democratic Threshold – approximately $10,000 GDP per capita – they almost invariably develop some form of democracy. Those that make a conscious decision to keep their people impoverished may be less likely to transition to democracy, but economic stagnation can lead to other forms of revolt due to public dissatisfaction. This leads to a paradox for authoritarian governments: They will quickly fall out of favor with the public if they can’t produce a strong economy, but prosperity will ultimately lead to their downfall in the longer term.

I can’t say that I agree with some of Fukuyama’s idealistic, neoconservative foreign policy recommendations for spreading democracy, but I do agree with his idea of “democratic determinism.” Countries without oil are ultimately destined to become democracies as they become wealthy. And even the petro-states have hope. As soon as the world transitions to alternative sources of energy, their economies will no longer be strangled by oil and it will no longer serve as a drag on their freedom. Democracy is coming to a country near you. It’s only a matter of time until we reach the end of history.


By 2013 – Cuba has made substantial progress toward democracy relative to where it stood at the beginning of 2011.

By 2016 – Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan have made substantial progress toward democracy relative to where they stood at the beginning of 2011.

By 2018 – China has made substantial progress toward democracy relative to where it stood at the beginning of 2011.