Imagine a world in the not too distant future. A world powered mostly by renewable energy and flooded with devices that know your preferences intimately. A world where ownership of consumer products and goods is based on necessity and not on materialism. Where products are cherished and used for longer periods of time because the more you used them, the better they get. Faulty products are easily repaired, and new parts enhance existing functionality or provide new capability. All of the above is very possible.
There are three tectonic changes taking place in the world today that are accelerating us towards this future:
- Reducing cost of Renewable Energy
- Improving capabilities of Edge Computing
- Increased interest in the Right to Repair movement
It seems to me that Renewable energy is going to be such a big deal for humanity in the coming years. The pace at which these technologies are improving year on year is just astounding. This progress has allowed renewable energy to become cheaper and cheaper at a rapid rate. This is evidenced in the cost of building various types of electricity generating plants and their cost of keeping them running, a.k.a Levelised Cost of Electricity.
In the western hemisphere, renewable energy powered 47% of the UK’s energy needs in Q1 2020. This smashed the previously quarterly record of 39% set in 2019. Offshore windfarms provided a majority of this renewable energy to the UK. The UK’s goal to nearly double its renewable energy capacity from 33 Gigawatts to 64 Gigawatts by 2030 is on track to be achieved by 2026, spurred by a wave of mostly wind power investments.
In the eastern hemisphere, India the third-largest fossil fuel emitter has set a target of raising its renewable energy to 175 gigawatts (GW) by 2022. Through 2018- 2020, the country took very rapid strides to shore up its renewable energy efforts which stand at 90 Gigawatts at the end of 2020. To
meet significantly exceed its renewable energy goal by 2022, India has awarded contracts to the tune of 600 Gigawatts in June 2020. The companies selected have agreed to sell solar power back to the grid for a record low of ₹2 (£0.02) per kilo watt hour. Similarly, the Hornsdale Power Reserve in Australia — the largest lithium-ion battery energy storage system in the world with a total output of 100 Megawatts — has been playing a significant role in grid stability since its installation in 2017. It has single handedly saved consumers AUD116 million (£65.66 million) in 2019, a big jump from AUD40 million (£22.72 million) savings in 2018.
The year 2020 has seen a significant increase in semi-conducter chip design innovation. The processor performance gains we see in the most recent ARM designs from Apple are truly amazing across all performance benchmarks. Companies such as TSMC and Samsung are on the forefront of this 5 nanometer chip fabrication process. This fabrication process, along with the new System on Chip designs we see from Apple are allowing computing device manufacturers to create devices that can perform billions of calculations faster than their predecessors, while using lesser power than is traditionally required.
These performance improvements have allowed manufacturers to create devices that are powerful and use little power. This capability has given a fillip to Edge Computing. Manufacturers have started deploying Reinforcement Learning capabilities in their devices which learn how consumers are using their devices and tailor the experience specifically to their usage.
Products such as the Apple Watch and Tesla’s self-driving feature learn the routines and preferences of their users over time in order to tailor the usage experience of the product specifically to that user. In 2022, the 3 nanometer fabrication process is going to further help improve the capabilities of Edge Computing in our products and services.
Right to Repair
As the pace of innovation on energy storage improves and as manufacturers start building products that get better to use over time thanks to reinforcement learning, there is a real opportunity for consumers to breathe new life into their old products. We are already starting to see this with vintage cars, which are being converted from their internal combustion engines to electrical powertrains — making them faster and more responsive to drive.
Manufacturers have noticed this and are starting to adopt practices that keep us locked into our existing cycle of consumerist & materialistic attitudes — planned obsolescence. One way to do so is to make it increasingly difficult to repair our products. Instead, manufacturers would prefer that we junk our products in favour of buying new models regularly. Today, this is solved by companies releasing products with marginal improvements that become obsolete a few months down the line! E.g. iPad Pro 2020.
While companies will try and keep us in their annual purchase cycle, my hope is that this takes us back to more modular designs. The Right to Repair movement is starting to gather steam and is going to become such a big deal. Communities such as Makerfaire, where tinkering with products is encouraged are going to hold huge sway for the Open Source Community enthusiasts in the coming years. With the wide availability of reinforcement learning in edge devices, being able to swap out just the compute or storage parts is going to be really empowering. This will improve our ability to use products for a longer period of time. We are seeing some of this in force today. E.g we can now recycle older ASUS routers to create mesh networks.
The combination of decreasing energy costs + better & cheaper computation and storage + the increasing consumer awareness around planned obsolescence are taking us into a world were the next few years will bring rapid changes to the way humans interact with technology. Furthermore, these changes are going to be tectonic — nearly comparable to the technological and societal changes the steam engine or the internet brought to our modern civilisation.