This may come as surprise to people in Washington (or perhaps
not), but the sequester is hardly a topic of discussion in Silicon Valley. Indeed, it’s not even a trending topic on Twitter. That is how unimportant short-term government decisions are to innovation. While lawmakers battle over taxes and fiscal cliffs, entrepreneurs are busy solving humanity’s problems so that we can go from debating how we distribute scarce resources to discussing how we equitably share the bounty we are creating.
In his bestselling book, “Abundance”, my colleague, XPRIZE Chairman and CEO and Singularity University founder Peter Diamandis, tells the story of how aluminum went from a rare metal to something we casually wrap our food in. When the king of Siam hosted Napoleon III in the 1840s, writes Diamandis, the people working for Napoleon were served with silver utensils. Those working for the king received gold. The king himself got aluminum-the rarest metal at the time. Aluminum was so valuable because it was extremely difficult to extract from bauxite-though it is one of the most abundant elements on Earth. Then came electrolysis technology, which used electricity to liberate aluminum from bauxite, driving down aluminum’s value.
Vivek Wadhwa is Vice President of Innovation and Research at Singularity University and Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University. His other academic appointments include Harvard, Duke and Emory Universities as well as the University of California Berkeley.
(Joe Scarnici/GETTY IMAGES FOR TRANS4M) - Inventor Dean Kamen attends Will.I.Am's annual TRANS4M Day Conference focusing on TRANS4Ming America in 2013 on February 7, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
It isn’t just aluminum that has become abundant — so have electrical power, refrigeration, television, telephones, cars, and air conditioning. Two hundred years ago, kings and queens didn’t have these luxuries. Today, many people who are classified as poor in the U.S. do. This prosperity has not reached most of the developing world yet. But the proliferation of mobile phones shows what is possible. Within ten years, their numbers have gone from zero to nearly 1 billion in both India and China. Even some of the poorest villagers own them.
We are also making headway in solving the global water crisis. According to the World Health Organization, water-related diseases are responsible for more than 3.4 million deaths, making it the leading cause of disease and death around the world. There are predictions that countries such as India, China, and parts of the Middle East will run out of water and that wars will break out over supplies. This seems paradoxical: 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is water, and sanitizing and converting seawater is as simple as boiling it and condensing the vapor. The problem is the cost of energy — it is prohibitively expensive to do this in any significant quantity.
Two exciting solutions to the water problem are already working and ready to scale.
The first is a product by Dean Kamen called Slingshot. Kamen is the inventor of the Segway personal transporter, an insulin pump, and many other breakthroughs. Slingshot is a vapor-compression water-purification machine that can produce about 30 liters of pure distilled water per hour using the same amount of power as a handheld hair dryer. It can transform dirty water from any source: rivers, oceans, and even raw sewage. Slingshot has been under development for more than a decade and was recently tested by Coca-Cola in five towns in Ghana for six months in 2011.