Why We Must Delay Nuclear Power

Most of us still ignore its disturbing weapons proliferation potential.

Everyone who thinks nuclear fission is sufficiently safe to use at increased scale today needs to upgrade their simulations. Unlike fusion power, it isn’t. Many ecomodernists who see next gen reactors as a key part of the solution to climate change may not be convinced by my article, but most environmentalists, and many in the general public, might. Fortunately we all vote.

Nuclear power is too slow and expensive to move the needle for climate, vs. wind and solar. But its biggest problem is rarely discussed, hence my article. Scaling nuclear power (including thorium and various other next gen designs) will only exacerbate the global risk of nuclear weapons proliferation, and the nightmare scenario of rogue nuclear weapons in use by well-funded small groups, later this century. We have a long road ahead to increase equity and reduce fanaticism. Meanwhile, technological advances make it increasingly easy to produce clandestine nuclear weapons. We ignore that future at our own peril. History argues that a future with rogue nuclear weapons afflicting the world would greatly restrict our civil rights, and greatly reduce democratic representation and transnational cooperation. That’s a future we can work to avoid.

Growing nuclear power should be a nonstarter for our sustainability agenda. We need to delay, decommission, and increase oversight of the entire uranium mining, enrichment, and nuclear weapons and nuclear energy production chain, while we wait for the world’s political and security cooperation and capabilities and networks to catch up with ongoing technical advances. My Medium article explains why.

Callaway Nuclear Reactor (Fulton, MO)

Our Amazing Aerial Future – How, When, and Why Air Taxis and Air Deliveries Will Change Our World

Note: This post is an excerpt from my online book on strategic foresight practice and 21C futures, The Foresight Guide. The latest version lives there.

Here is a great question to ask any futurist or foresighter: What have you changed your mind about in recent years? In 2014, I didn’t think that drones for air deliveries and commuting were going to arrive anywhere in the world within ten years, or by 2025. The challenges seemed too daunting, and the investments and competition in the space just too small to make a difference. Since then, I’ve come to realize I was wrong. If I’d been paying closer attention to the enabling technology trends, I would have changed my mind. The US, China, Dubai, and Israel are all experimenting with these today, and all of these and many other places are likely to allow commercial operations by 2025. Dubai is moving first, with their future-oriented leadership, with a maiden air taxi test flight with Volocopter in Sept 2017 and a planned first commercial service launch with eHang this Summer.

So let me ask you: what big future events have you changed your mind about in recent years? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


eHang’s single-passenger air taxi service, ETA Summer 2018. Source: Dubai Roads and Transport Authority


As we’ll now see, a fantastic and incredibly profitable new global mobility solution is now on our ten year horizon with passenger drones (aka “multi-rotor electric AVs”) and their less-recognized cousins, droneplanes (aka “fixed- and variable wing EVTOL AVs” – that’s a mouthful). Purists remind us that “drones” originally referred to only the unmanned variety, but everyone is now calling these human-carrying machines drones as well, and I recommend you do too. It’s a perfectly good one-syllable word.

These new technologies are going to solve our centuries-old problem of urban gridlock, by safely, quietly, and sustainably moving the transportation of growing quantities of goods and people into the third dimension, the air. Unlike digging under ground, which will go far slower, these systems will take us nearly point-to-point, they are far easier to scale, and their load can increase with demand, with no additional construction costs.

In coming decades, these clever new machines will be built into very fast and efficient air delivery and air taxi networks, on-demand services that can achieve incredibly high densities in leading cities. Using them will be expensive in the 2020’s, and it is my hope that we’ll see air deliveries for urgent goods first, but the most exciting application, multipassenger commuter drones, should start to get mass-affordable for daily use in the 2030s. So just like we see with pollution, spam, and other technology-created or enabled problems, we can predict urban gridlock will subside, at an accelerating rate, as these networks start to seriously scale in the 2030s.

Consider that removing urban gridlock is a far more exciting and valuable objective than, for example, going faster between major urban areas. Even if we had a Hyperloop train between LA and San Francisco today, we’d still be stuck with the awful traffic in each of those destinations once we got there. It’s the 30 billion hours that American’s spend commuting each year, the full week of each of our lives that we waste in traffic annually, that are the top transportation problems for urbanites everywhere. Self-driving cars are part of the solution, but they are going to be stuck on our gridlocked road systems, just like every other car. With the arrival of safe, cheap, and quiet air taxi networks, we can finally see the full solution ahead.

Because drone networks are more like point-to-point-capable trains than cars, which sit unused 95% of the time, we’ll need a lot less of these vehicles than most of us might initially think, to serve all our leading cities in coming decades.

All the Key Air Delivery and Air Taxi Problems are Being Solved Today – This Future is Almost Upon Us


The two-passenger Volocopter, being tested in Dubai (Jun 2017).

Today’s drones and droneplanes are noisy, unsafe, non-autonomous, expensive, and range-, speed- and power-limited. We also can’t imagine how they’ll be beautiful, if too many of them are flying around in the air. But all six of these critical adoption problems are being rapidly solved today.

Let’s briefly discuss each of these issues now.

1. Noise. To be allowed in the air in large numbers, package delivery and commuter drones will have to be far less noisy than our current quadrotor drones. Fortunately, the more rotors one adds, and once each rotor can adjust to operate at a slightly different RPM than the others, the quieter drones become. The Daimler-backed Volocopter pictured above, with a particularly safe 18-rotor design that also incorporates a whole-drone parachute, presently claims to be 7X quieter than a helicopter.

These drones become even quieter when you enclose the rotors inside a carbon-fiber tube, creating a ducted fan, which we already find in designs like the Lilium and Urban Aeronautics drones today. A multifan design like Lilium’s (below) seems like it has the potential to be the quietest. The rotor-enclosing tubes can be noise insulated, and the edges can be dynamically adjusted by micromotors, to make the the air rushing through them even quieter yet.


Lilium’s Air Taxi Prototype (2017)

NASA has been at the forefront of making quieter drones for several years. We just have to mandate low-decibel designs in our cities, as we will surely do, even before they are in the air in any significant numbers.  Stealth startup Joby Aviation, one of the leaders in the drone race today, whose design we haven’t seen publicly yet, plans to make their drones 100X quieter than a helicopter on takeoff and landing, and silent when flying over private residences. That would surely be quiet enough for mass adoption.

Fortunately, sound levels drop 6 dB with every doubling of distance, so we can require our air delivery and taxi drones to fly high enough not to be heard. Unless they are low-noise engineered, most of today’s drones might have to rise above 3,000 feet before finding a virtual lane in the sky. In some urban areas, drones may allowed to fly low over highways, adding to highway noise. But I hope that doesn’t happen. I think we citizens should fight to reduce our current levels of noise pollution. We need to measure and reduce urban noise, not keep adding to it.

Perhaps a generation from now, I expect our better droneplanes will have articulating wings as well as ducted rotors, making them partly like ornithopters. That will allow them to do gliding landings, and flapping takeoffs in their first few hundred feet before turning on their rotors, making them silent even on takeoff and landing in residential and other noise-sensitive areas. That would be an example of bio-inspired design we could look forward to seeing. That kind of of robotics is technically beyond us today, but it surely won’t be in a few more decades.

2. Safety. People have a very negative psychological reaction to things falling out of the sky. Some of our worst nightmares are of large birds, snakes, spiders, or other things falling down from above us. This emotional sensitivity may be a holdover from our primate ancestry, when we lived in the trees. Tree-dwelling primates get particularly freaked out by eagles or snakes above them. We humans obsess out of all proportion over plane accidents versus ground accidents, perhaps due to an evolutionary bias, or perhaps because we think of plane accidents as particularly outside of our control, and something that, unlike cars, we can do without. Whatever the cause of this sensitivity, we will need a set of smart technologies and strategies able to quell this reaction as drones increasingly proliferate.

One strategy to get people comfortable with drones is to show that they are uniquely helpful in improving public safety. Israel’s Urban Aeronautics is working on a drone ambulance system, a bold and clever early use case, wherever there is political will for better emergency services. These would be much more useful and inexpensive than today’s helicopters. Human-carrying rescue, police and military drones are also of great value. But as David Brin keenly observes in the Transparent Society, democratic societies desire at least 20X more of these scary technologies (drones, cameras, AIs, guns, etc.) in public hands than in governmental hands. That is why air taxis and privately-owned personal drones are also such critical developments. We don’t want to live, or feel like we live, in an Orwellian state.

Fortunately, advanced safety solutions exist today, or are on the near-term horizon. Some of these are expensive, but in the best of all worlds, I hope we’ll require them all before we see drones in large numbers flying overhead.

First, notice that the more rotors one adds, the safer they become. Multi-rotor design allows drones to have double and triple power system redundancy, with each rotor group running on separate circuits. Each rotor group is like an independent swarm of birds holding you up, and each rotor group can auto-land the drone if the others fail. This redundancy is another great example of bio-inspired design.


Skycat’s drone parachutes (2018)

Until they have wings, and can glide like birds, I think both package and commuter drones should also be required to have drone parachutes that unfold rapidly above the drone (via electrical acceleration, compressed CO2, or airbag-class explosives) in case of mechanical failure. Skycat is one of several companies that offer such rapid-deploying parachutes for small drones today. Companies like Ballistic Recovery Systems are leaders in putting lightweight whole-plane parachutes on small planes. Their home page credits these parachutes with saving 376 lives so far (2018). Watch this video of an acrobatic plane safely landing after its wing falls off (at 2:20 if you want to get right to the event), if you don’t believe these work. Whole-drone parachutes can be made very small and light, and I hope they will be required in all future non-winged urban drones, in every country.

Our coming drones also should have an airbag ecosystem that rapidly deploys inside and below the drone, triggered by AI, accelerometers and sonar, a system that is also deployable manually in case of AI failure. The REAPS system of external airbags is an excellent example of safety tech that all our airborne drones need. It was trialed by the very innovative Israeli defense company Rafael (makers of the Iron Dome air defense system) on helicopters for the US Navy in 2005 (picture below). These airbags offer excellent protection for occupants in low-velocity crashes, but unfortunately, there’s never been the political will to make them necessary on any rotorcraft anywhere yet, military or otherwise. Let’s hope that changes soon.


REAPS airbag protection system, developed by Raphael ADS in 2005. These really work!

Such an ecosystem should protect people in the drone and on the ground if there are system failures below 150 feet, the rough height below at which our fastest-deploying full-sized parachutes can safely lower ultralight aircraft in case of electrical or mechanical failure. For mechanical failures at lower heights than this, both passenger and package drones will need both rapid-deploying “drogue” parachutes (which only slow you down) and airbags to keep folks in the air and on the ground from getting hurt. For commuter drones, you can place airbags on shoulder harnesses, in the cockpit, and below the craft itself, and the benefits multiply the more you have. Energy-dissipating (“stroking”) seats also protect airborne occupants in crashes. Below-helicopter airbags have even been tested in heavy Apache military helicopters, and they were famously used on the Mars Pathfinder lander. Again, such airbag and drogue parachute ecosystems go a very long way to turning any drone into a “beach ball”, protecting its occupants, and folks on the ground, from lethal decelerations. Though they may initially be expensive both to produce and to safety test, I hope that an advanced airbag ecosystem will be required on coming air taxi drones, and I hope external airbags and parachutes are required for air delivery drones as well.

If we are being really foresighted, tomorrow’s commuter drones will also have lidar or millimeter wave radar to augment their sense-and-avoid software, giving them all-weather visibility and navigation, so they can operate safely in fog, clouds, and rain, and continually avoid birds and other aircraft. I find it sad that we don’t see radar in almost all of today’s commercial and private planes. Along with sense-and-avoid software, it would allow planes to avoid things like bird strikes, telephone poles, balloons, and other objects hidden in fog, clouds, and rain. Millimeter wave radar has been added to some private helicopters today, so it isn’t a matter of cost, size or weight. Rather, it’s a failure of regulatory vision and leadership.

I don’t know the global statistics for annual average mid-air collisions or near misses. But a ten-year study (1989-1999) of mid-air collisions found an average of 1.5 such collisions over French territory annually, collectively causing forty-two deaths and nine injuries. Extrapolating this, I’d guess that at least twenty mid-air collisions happen around the world every year, and vastly greater numbers of near misses. In the US, the Aviation Safety Reporting System collects reports of near misses, but reporting is of course voluntary and selective. Fortunately, aviation authorities say numbers of both of these are continually declining per passenger mile. But if we are going to add tens of thousands of delivery and commuter drones to the air, I think we need to mandate lidar or radar, and sense-and-avoid software that allows the drone to avoid other objects, both on the ground and in the air. Our software and hardware are certainly up to this safety challenge. We could start by subsidizing sense-and-avoid technology and software advances in today’s consumer and industrial drones.

3. Autonomy. In their most important safety and performance advance, coming drones will have to be self-flying, or acting as a continual backup if humans are flying, so that they can self-fly whenever safety margins are violated by human pilots. The best human-carrying drone designs, in my view, should always allow a passenger the option take over manually at any time. Drone flying can be dead-simple, with a single joystick, as in the human-carrying Volocopter. In practice, however, few passengers might ever do that, preferring to let the system fly itself.

Given the very high rates of human error in piloting today’s automobiles, and the 1.3 million auto fatalities the world presently suffers every year, I hope that we’ll demand near-full automation, equivalent to SAE Autonomy Levels 4 or 5 for automobiles, before we allow many drones the sky. I also hope for much better safety systems to protect folks on the ground. Passenger drones need onboard collision avoidance that assigns them their own virtual lane in the sky, space-keeping precisely with other drones, and communicating with ground traffic monitoring systems that can do remote emergency landing, as in the leading Chinese passenger drone, the eHang 184. In this vision, today’s air traffic control systems gain even more ability to control, but they take that control only when on-board autonomous or manual flight systems make mistakes, or when security parameters change for the airspace.

We need such top-down control, including the ability to auto-land all airborne drones, to address the eventual problem of terrorist-weaponized drones. No advance is without its potential downsides, and plenty of our dumb cars and trucks have been turned into lethal devices already. Building drone immune systems, including networks of police and defense drones, is the only strategy smart and scalable enough to combat drone misuse.

This self-flying ability, and the ability to keep human pilots from doing unsafe things, has been steadily growing in commercial aviation, and as autonomous cars emerge, driven by hardware and software pioneers like Nvidia, we are going to see it explode in its ability. Visual recognition in 3D in the air is in some ways an easier autonomy problem than it is on the ground, with its constant near-field visual distractions. Tesla has already mostly solved the problem of self-driving automobiles working with human drivers and preventing them from causing accidents, as we see in the Tesla Autopilot. It won’t be long before someone brings triple-control navigation (AI, pilot, and ground control) to the drone platform. Perhaps DARPA’s OFFSET program for military drones will do it first.

The leading Chinese passenger drone, the single-passenger eHang 184, commendably has fully remote piloting (ground control) and they claim to have full self-flying ability as well, though I doubt it is Level 5 autonomy. Most crucially for me, they haven’t tried to solve the most socially valuable problem, the one Tesla is working on, of creating a form of autonomy that allows both pilot and AI navigation. That kind of human machine partnership, one where the AI gives us the option of control when we want it, but also actively prevents us from being unsafe, is the only kind of AI that makes both us and our machines better partners. Such “Partnership AI” is the kind of AI we deserve in all our complex machines. The kind of AI that takes away our agency and abilities, the kind Waymo is developing for its self-driving cars today, is a big step in the wrong direction, in my view. It’s time we held our increasingly intelligent machines to a higher standard. They need to empower us, not make us weak and dependent.

There’s one more thing we should say about drone autonomy. Even with today’s low autonomy systems, drones and droneplanes are far more able to do precision flying than ordinary planes, which drift uncontrollably tens to hundreds of feet up and down with the wind, a problem that is greatly magnified by bad weather. That little-discussed fact is another reason why drones will be the most popular form factor for urban aerial package delivery and commuting. Conventional planes, airships, and other forms of flight just can’t fly precisely enough, in all types of weather, to be allowed in our urban airspace in any large numbers. While we may use airships for heavy lifting applications, self-flying drones and droneplanes are our majority future.

4. Cost. Early versions of truly safe and fully autonomous drones will surely cost over a hundred thousand dollars, putting them outside the price range of the average consumer. But once these are used in on-demand networks, those costs are easily amortized.

Even a single-passenger drone should be able to shuttle five to ten people to work, and home from work, every workday, and be available for other commuting in between. Multi-passenger versions will be even more efficient and affordable. We’re already seeing a few drone designs, like those of Joby Aviation, that carry four passengers. Air taxi commuting cost will start high cost, and be only for rich folks for the first few years, like the first Ubers, the black cars, but it will rapidly drop as adoption scales.

5. Range, Speed, and Power. Today’s battery electric drones only stay in the air for 20-30 minutes, and most of the current designs are only good for lifting two occupants, a driver and a single passenger. But as they follow inner space trends in STEM efficiency and density, lithium-ion batteries have, on average, become 7% more energy dense every year, since first introduced in 1991. That means they double their range per weight every ten years.

One more range doubling should be plenty to cover the 22 mile average round trip distance of the typical commuter in a multi-passenger drone, plus an additional safety margin to get back to the droneport and swap batteries. Hydrogen-powered drones promise to have vastly greater range, reducing the need for recharging or battery swaps. Autonomy will eventually eliminate the need for a driver.

Current human-carrying drone designs can fly at 65-80 mph, and droneplanes with ducted fans can fly at up to 180 mph, point-to-point with no congestion. These speeds are already fast enough to be highly useful, and they offer major advances for package delivery and commuting in our gridlocked cities.

6. Beauty. We could let these drones fly everywhere, randomly, or we could make them do virtual lane-keeping. We could require them to climb higher when there’s traffic, so they stack above each other as high as is necessary, and so that most of our sky stays open and quiet. Once they have lidar or radar, they can fly and lane-keep in all but the worst of weather.

Requiring lane-keeping would allow us to see orderly and beautiful “ant trails in the sky” when we look up over head. If we don’t like seeing them at 2,000 or 3,000 feet, we can push those trails as high up as we like. Like our drone sky art today, we can make those aerial migration patterns orderly, beautiful, and inspiring, if we choose.

At night, we could even allow coordinated light shows with our passenger and delivery drones every once in a while. That would be pretty amazing. I for one would like to see such 21st century fireworks more often than just on the Fourth of July. 🙂

In short, we’re off to the races, and these technologies are going to bring huge changes to both our urban and rural environments in coming decades.

Air Deliveries and Air Taxis – A Regulatory Vision

Here are six things I’d like to see US regulators require for commercial use of delivery or commuter drones in our airspace:

  1. Triple-control navigation. Autonomous flight ability, with manual control when the system judges it safe, and remote piloting ability by ground air traffic control.
  2. Ballistic parachutes (whole-drone and drogue) and airbag ecosystems, to protect both people on the ground and in the air.
  3. A low-noise requirement, which will force turbofan, multirotor or multi-RPM design, fast takeoffs and landings, and higher elevation operation.
  4. A 60-minute range requirement, which means gas, gas-electric hybrids or fuel cells today, and in just a few more years, li-ion batteries.
  5. Full-weather visibility (radar and lidar), which improves safety, and offers a redundant orientation system besides computer vision.
  6. Lane-keeping. Rather than letting all these drones fly about, willy-nilly, let’s see aerial migration patterns that are orderly, pretty, and inspiring.

Research use should continue to be allowed without such regulations, but the numbers of drones in those cases should be small. These regulations might delay the arrival of commercial drones in the US to at least the mid-2020s, and make it harder for small companies to launch services in the early years. But requiring higher standards is I think the price we should pay to protect this nascent industry as it emerges.

You may disagree with my views, but hopefully this analysis at least helps you better see what is possible. We will decide these issues politically, as always.

Air Deliveries and Air Taxis – Where We Are Today

The Volocopter (“Volo”)

So where are drone science, tech, and regulation today (early 2018)? The Trump Administration has recently allowed US states to draft their own provisional licences for drone delivery experimentation, subject to approval by the FAA, but the regulatory vision for these machines is still far from clear, and doesn’t include all of the five things listed above. Talk to any ordinary person about these futures however, and noise and safety concerns come immediately to mind.

Boeing-Aurora’s Droneplane (EVTOL)

Human-carrying drone startups like Volocopter, Boeing-Aurora, eHangKitty Hawk, Lilium, Urban Aeronautics, and Joby have made new progress toward the air taxi vision over the last few years. On March 30, 2016, the Volocopter (picture left) made the first manned test flight using redundant electrical systems. That was a big first for this nascent industry. It can fly at 65 miles an hour, plenty fast enough for urban commuting. Vehicles like Boeing-Aurora’s droneplane (“EVTOL”) design (picture right) will be able to fly even faster, at least 100 mph, enough to commute from nearby cities.


eHang 184. The most visible passenger-carrying drone platform, at present.

Big in the news these days is eHang, the small Chinese company most visibly leading the air taxi space at present. They are now (Feb 2018) doing a limited number of passenger flights with their eight-rotor drone, the eHang 184. It has a current max speed of 62 mph. eHang’s innovative design has backup rotors, autonomy, and remote control flying ability, which are all great advances. But it still has no airbags or parachute, and no option for pilot control. Unfortunately those rotors are going to be quite dangerous to folks on the ground in an emergency landing, versus a quieter and even more redundant multirotor design like the Volocopter. If eHang wants to keep this particularly efficient design, their landing gear should telescope higher than a standing human in any emergency landing (see picture above). They also need a whole-drone parachute. I wish eHang had higher safety standards, and the ability of occupants to at least manually deploy parachutes and airbags, because a major accident with any passenger-carrying prototype could easily set back both R&D funding and public interest in this market for several years.

The German startup Lilium has even built an EVTOL jet (picture and video below), with a max speed of 180 miles per hour. Its 36 redundant electric “jet” (ducted fan) engines are also particularly quiet compared to traditional rotors. They are also claiming a one hour flight range, though I would bet that’s marketing hype, and I’ll believe that once I see it. Take a look at the video below right of their 5 min maiden flight in April 2017. All of these designs, and others we haven’t seen yet, are capable of turning collections of smaller cities into commuter megacities in coming years.

Liliums EVTOL electric “jet” (ducted fan). Design image showing the 36 fans (2017)

Lilium droneplane maiden flight (YouTube, 2 min, 2017)

Besides self-flying ability, one problem none of these companies have yet solved is range. They all use lithium-ion batteries, so most can only stay up for 30 minutes at present. Fortunately, lithium ion energy density (range) has grown 7% a year since 1991, as mentioned earlier, and may continue on that trend for at least another decade as we get increasingly sophisticated in our nanochemistry and nanoengeering.

By the mid-2020s, battery powered drones and droneplanes should have some very impressive range. In the meantime, Hybrid gas-electrics are the most obvious bridge solution, and I think we can expect gas-electric hybrid droneplanes to be the leading designs for the next decade. But hybrids aren’t long-term sustainable. Fortunately, fuel cells offer long flight times already, and can be used sustainably, if we charge them with renewables. We may not subsidize their use and performance development today, but we should if we were being more foresighted.

Ten years from now, in the mid-2020s, a future version of Li-ion should be able to deliver the 60-minute plus flight time for multipassenger drones that air taxi networks may need. That is also when I’d expect such networks to be offered commercially in the US. Hopefully, gas-electric hybrids will start losing out to the greater simplicity and sustainability of battery drones for urban air delivery and taxis around then, though they will surely continue to be used for long range flights. With luck, fuel cells will also get a share of the coming air taxi market at that time, as they offer the longest range sustainable power solution for the foreseeable future. Even so, fuel cells may be reserved for inter-city, rural, and high-performance drones, with batteries winning out in the cities.

Let’s look a bit deeper into hydrogen fuel cell technology now. The simplest way to store hydrogen for aviation is as a compressed gas, in carbon fiber tanks. These already offer about half the range of fossil fuel airplanes. A 2X range improvement, making hydrogen nearly as energy-dense as fossil fuels, can be achieved with cryogenic tanks. See Juan Plaza’s Will Hydrogen Fuel Cells Help Drones Stay in the Air?, Commercial UAV News, 6.5.17 for some recent developments. As R&D progresses, cryogenic tanks may get much more affordable, and increasingly be used for long range applications.

EnergyOr’s Tron H2 Droneplane (EVTOL)

MMC, a Chinese manufacturer of industrial drones, has built HyDrone, a small fuel cell powered drone for industrial and military use. Their two models have a flight time of 2.5 and 4.5 hours, a 3-4X better range than our best current battery drones. In the US, Ballard’s Protonex also makes fuel cell-based for drones, primarily for military applications. As this 2017 whitepaper shows, they presently offer 2-3X better range than the best batteries.

In Canada, EnergyOr is making fuel cells for sale in drones, and droneplanes, including the Tron H2, which does vertical takeoff and landing and has an incredible eight hour flight time, roughly 7X better than our best battery drones. Our US Navy Research Lab has also built the Ion Tiger, a 35-lb, 5-lb payload fuel cell fixed-wing UAV which flew for 26 hours in 2009 using compressed hydrogen fuel tanks, and 48 hours in 2013 using miniature, NRL-developed cryogenic tanks. Again, the longer the range you need, the more fuel cells, if they can keep getting more dependable and affordable, may become the best power option, as they offer both a much higher energy density and more rapid rechargeability than batteries. We shall see.

The Tron H2 (2017, YouTube, 2 min). A long-haul fuel cell droneplane.

Droneplanes for Navy ships and other military, intelligence, disaster, fire, and work environments are a great first-tier application of droneplanes over the next decade. See the video at right of the Tron H2. Platforms like this are being looked at by a number of defense customers today. For you VCs and big company leaders, I’d argue that a small company like EnergyOr is an ideal company to be invested in or acquired for defense drone production today, and they could be positioned for package delivery drone production in the early 2020s.

I would also hope that commercial air delivery drone networks will arrive ahead of commercial air taxi networks by at least three to five years, as the physics, safety, and regulation issues are so much easier to work out for that application. Unfortunately it presently looks like the reverse is going to happen, as drone commuting is such a mesmerising and high-value application. So let’s at least make air taxi safety our first priority.

Taxi and delivery drones will be particularly useful in rural and mountainous areas, with bad and indirect roads. Imagine what an on-demand drone network, first for packages and a few years later for people, will do for the value of mountain and urban real estate presently an hour or more from any big city by car. Hold on to that real estate, friends, if you have any. Your transportation options will start to get a whole lot better about a decade from now, in my estimation.

Droneboxes and Droneports

Drones that deliver people or packages to our homes and offices need places to drop their packages without landing, places to land temporarily, and places be hangared and serviced when not in use. Good generic names for such places might be droneboxes and droneports. Feel free to use these names if you like them, or suggest others. Perhaps a courteous reader will make us some Wikipedia pages for these two topics as well?

We can envision droneports and droneboxes on the roofs of commercial and apartment buildings, in our residential front, back, and side yards, and in many other locations. The top of a typical residential dronebox may need to be at least seven feet above the ground, higher than dogs can typically jump, and it should be able to protect packages from thieves and bad weather including rain, show, and hail.

Amazon Patent for a Home Delivery Dronebox (2015)

Amazon Patent for a Drone Delivery Hub (2015)

Look at the following two patents Amazon has filed for droneboxes and droneports. I like how bio-inspired they are thinking. The patent at left shows a package-accepting dronebox that is essentially like a flower. It opens up its “petals” at the top when the drone gets above it, it slows down the fall of the package to the bottom, presumably via stiff plastic “hairs” inside, the bottom is presumably accessible via a locked door, and closes its petals after deliver to protect against inclement weather. The accordion-aspect of this design seems unnecessary. Most of us would rather have a chimney that doesn’t move, one we can store multiple packages within. Such a dronebox will likely have an internal sensor to report when a package is delivered, and some droneboxes may allow drones to land and recharge on their roofs, extending their range.

The Amazon patent at right shows a “beehive like” droneport they might use as a regional hub, with their warehouse at the bottom, maximizing surface area for drone takeoff and landing from the local distribution center. Again, the bio-inspired design is quite beautiful.

Pan Am Heliport in NYC, 1970. These will return in the 2030s, as Droneports.

As we think of the future of passenger drones, we can hope that progressive countries will ban gas-only drones, requiring gas-electric hybrids at least, with both electric fast chargers and hydrogen filling stations at all the major droneports in the city.

Ideally, our suburban droneports will be at least three stories high, with petal-like sound baffles extending out from the landing pad at the top, minimizing noise and eliminating air flow on the ground. As Elon Musk likes to say, we won’t be landing passenger drones in typical suburban backyards, as anything of ours or our neighbors not tied down might blow away. 🙂 That fact, and noise minimizing, are why I think our suburban droneport zoning will either require a lot of acreage or being up off the ground. Those of us without all that acreage will use suburban droneports, ideally a few minutes from our homes by car.

Many early suburban droneports will likely be retrofit office buildings, like the old PanAm heliport in NYC (picture right). But the most space-efficient would be multi-story drone hangars with elevators, allowing long-term parking (of cars and drones both) and efficient servicing by onsite mechanics. Such multi-story drone hangers and parking garages will give city dwellers and commuters more places to park their self-driving cars, and the parking capacity needed for high-demand destinations.

Underground automated highways for self-driving electric vehicles, electric subways, and perhaps also Boring Company networks, will eventually link our urban droneports as well. I wrote a detailed forecast about such underground highways in 2005, and predicted they’d start emerging in our wealthiest cities around 2030. Underground transportation networks will support the largest passenger volumes, but they’ll also be far more expensive and scale far slower than drone networks, which I simply did not see in 2005.

Leading Delivery and Passenger Drone Companies

Who are likely to be the major players in this new industry? Let’s look at just a few of the more obvious contenders.

Amazon Prime Air Drone Prototype (2013)

For air deliveries, Amazon has been making the biggest moves, in an initiative they call Prime Air. Amazon now has truly global scale. In 2011, they had 33,000 employees. By the end of 2016, they had 300,000, hiring 100,000 people in that year. They are hiring at least 100,000 more in 2017, mostly for warehouse work. Imagine how much bigger they will get once they figure out package delivery drones. Hold on to your Amazon stock, friend.

Amazon Prime Air Droneplane (2015)

Amazon announced their Prime Air R&D effort with a bang in 2013, and a modest prototype (picture left) initially to much skepticism. Their 2015 design (picture right), able to deliver packages up to five pounds, is greatly improved. It is a fusion of drone and plane that the aviation industry calls an EVTOL. As I’ve said, I prefer the simpler and equally descriptive term droneplane, and recommend it to you. Droneplanes take off and land vertically, but can also fly like planes, so they are particularly fast and efficient for longer distance flight.

Amazon’s current droneplanes are still all electric versus fuel cell, they aren’t quiet, and they can still hurt people by falling from the sky. But they are pursuing fully autonomous flight with “air traffic” like human supervision, and since 2015, the FAA is granting research exemptions for such systems. So they’re making progress.

For air taxis, Daimler is positioning itself very cleverly by investing in the Volocopter, my second-favorite air taxi design at present, after Lilium’s, another German startup discussed above. Daimler’s stock may be a very good buy and hold right now, as few folks realize their leadership pivot into this massive new industry. Mobility is a $10 Trillion dollar annual industry, and passenger drones are going to be a very big part of that. If Volocopter can rapidly develop autonomy and on-demand software, and add external airbags, I could easily see Daimler taking the lead position in this nascent industry.  Tencent-backed Lilium could do so as well.

Uber is the most visibly working toward self-flying commuter drones, in an initiative they call Uber Elevate. They published a whitepaper articulating the value and feasibility of these services in 2016, formed a research partnership with Aurora, and started an inaugural Elevate Summit in 2017, to jump-start this nascent industry. Their first conference had 72 industry speakers on various issues in manufacturing, regulation, and investment around urban commuter drones. See this great video by Dagogo Altraide, Uber’s Electric Flying Taxis, ColdFusion 7.28.2017 (YouTube, 12 mins), for more. Uber has had moral failures and missteps of late, but they seem to be making necessary changes, and I expect they will eventually get through those unfortunate issues and rebound.

Consumers will want on-demand systems, commercial services, and private leasing and ownership as major options, as that competition will drive down the cost of air taxi services as fast as possible. Of each of these, I would expect the on-demand model to support the largest and most affordable daily ridership relatively soon after network launch. The cheaper it becomes for private individuals to own, hangar, and pay for service certification for their drones, the cheaper air taxi services will become for all of us. Blade is already lowering the cost and ease of helicopter commuting in NYC by a factor of four, contracting private helicopter owners to fly others in their helicopters on demand.

So in the first ten years of drone network launch, the cost of a short urban aerial hop might be equivalent to taking an Uber Black today. Maintaining drones should neither be prohibitively expensive for wealthy private individuals nor particularly cheap. Without any research behind this guess, I’d imagine the commuter market might be something like 70/20/10 (on-demand/commercial/private) ten years after it first becomes legal for individuals to fly passengers for hire in any city, but that’s just a hunch. Much depends on cost and reliability.

Boeing is a top contender for making commercial drones for our air taxi networks. In 2017 they purchased Aurora, aligning them with Uber. Aurora makes not only an EVTOL, they also make Orion, a stratellite platform (a topic we’ll discuss those in another post), and several other defense UAVs. Boeing is another very smart company I’d recommend for your long-term investment portfolio. If I was to bet, I’d predict that Boeing will try to buy Monterey’s Joby Aviation, a stealth startup that has been working in this space for years and that just got a $100M investment from Jet Blue and others. We haven’t seen it yet, but some say their passenger-carrying droneplane is the most advanced yet.

Airbus is also positioning publicly to be a player in the drone delivery and commuting space. They began working with the CAA in Singapore to test drone parcel delivery in 2017, using an autonomous platform called Skyways, on the National University of Singapore campus. Through direct innovation or purchase, like Boeing, they are also likely to be leaders in exploring this space.

Google’s spin out Waymo may also become leaders in in self-flying drone software, if they raise funds for that, and Google-affiliated Kitty Hawk might become a leader in software and services for drone pilots. Kitty Hawk’s CEO Sebastian Thrun originally ran Google’s self-driving car project, and they are funded by Google co-founder Larry Page. Commendably, Thrun’s Udacity is offering a nanodegree in Flying Cars and Autonomous Flight, and hoping to get at least 10,000 engineers taking the course. There have been a growing number of such MOOCs for consumer drones in recent years, and they are a great way to train up the next generation of drone engineers.

Will Waymo/Kitty Hawk develop an open drone navigation software platform something like Android, able to be partly customized by a wide range of drone manufacturers for either drone delivery or commuting applications? I would doubt it over the next five years, publicly at least. Given the high safety concern and the quality control problems with that approach, no big company will pursue this initially, and small companies and startups likely don’t have the capital to make it work. I think we can expect proprietary navigation platforms to dominate for at least the first five years of commercial drone operation. Nevertheless, our leading proprietary commercial players may be forced to go open with their development tools during this decade if one of them moves first, or if the open source community is able to develop reasonably good software for drone package and people delivery, and raise funds to get it certified by regulators.

Fortunately, the US military is already recognizing the power of an open development approach, using both open virtual- and closed physical-world testbeds for swarm drone R&D in defense applications. In 2018, DARPA’s OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program has begun working with two large systems integrators, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, to create open architectures (physical and virtual), collaboration interfaces, and tactics exchange platforms, for small academic and business teams to use, and these systems integrators are developing closed physical testbeds to validate new unmanned systems designs and strategies. Such a dual-security approach (open source and closed source security) is very wise, in my view, and should keep our military at the center of drone defense innovation.

China’s DJI Phantom Drone (2017). DJI currently leads the global drone market.

Returning to commercial uses, we may also see Alibaba, Amazon’s major global competitor, get into drones. An obvious strategy would be Alibaba, or an AI-oriented Chinese company like Baidu, partnering with or buying eHang, the current leaders in passenger drones, as well as DJI, the private Chinese company presently dominating the unmanned drone market.

Perhaps DJI will go public, and make a big push into autonomous package-delivery drones, with advanced safety and noise reduction features. They could sell those to a vast range of companies. They could then launch their first human-carrying drones a few years after taking the lead position in the drone package delivery hardware and software space. I think such a strategy would give DJI the greatest future value and scale, but it would involve more risk and change, so they may not go that route.

BYD (Build Your Dreams) is another impressive Chinese company that might well get into this space. Its founder, chemist Wang Chuanfu, has been called the “Elon Musk of China.” Like Musk, Chaunfu is a global leader in Li-ion batteries, solar panels, and electric vehicles. They are the world’s largest producer of electric cars, buses, forklifts, and other electrics, and have been profitable since 2002. Tesla, by contrast, has yet to turn a profit, though they do have great ambition and tremendous public goodwill. BYD is a question mark at present, but if they get into this game they’d be strong innovator and competitor.

I think the long-term global future of drones, as they are so beneficial to all of us, deserves an open IP, publicly funded, global innovation approach. Open source development and testing will make progress and is highly desirable, but it is probably unrealistic to expect it to to be commercially and legally viable in the first decade of commercial drones. Amazon, Google/Waymo, Uber, and Boeing are all US companies I’d love to see as leaders in this race, but it would also be good to see Chinese companies like DJI, BYD, Alibaba, Baidu, and of course Europe’s Airbus, also in the competition. But we need them to play fair as well. China’s leading solar manufacturers dropped world prices by 80% between 2008-2013, which made them globally dominant, but they had extensive government support in the process. America should have offered the same level of support to our solar innovators, but we didn’t.

If future drone leadership is totally dominated by China, or by any other non-US company aided by government support, that will be mud on the faces of US politicians in both parties who don’t believe smart government subsidies aid US economic growth and innovation leadership. We innovated many of these drone ideas, and the race is ours to lose at present. As with solar panels, electric cars, fuel cells, and other future-critical technologies, smart US government support and subsidies are sorely needed in the production and sale of advanced drones, which are a clearly a coming transformative technology.

In my view, America sorely needs government policy with drones that is neither right wing or left wing, but up wing, or progress-oriented, advancing priorities like the Five Goals and Ten Values. We need to be proactive, not reactive, to the trends and futures in front of us.

Why Gridlock Will Finally Get Solved

Why will urban gridlock finally start to subside in the 2030s? There are lots of reasons, but these four seem particularly important:

  1. People will continue to migrate to the cities, but affordable housing density increase, the main contributor to gridlock, is much harder to scale than affordable air transportation, which reduces it.
  2. The better broadband and AR get, the more often people will telework. It’s going to increasingly be more efficient, for much of our work, than physical commuting.
  3. Population growth has been negative in our developed countries for decades now. Global population will peak around 8.7 billion circa 2050, give or take a decade, and decline rapidly from there. China, for example, is now (2018) losing 5M a year in its working-age population. The Chinese government projects their total population to peak at 1.45B in 2030, and to decline by 30%, to 1B, by 2100. Their two-child policy, started in 2015, is not producing nearly as many second child families as they hoped. They’re going to have to offer more economic incentives to induce parents to have that second child, in order to have all the working youth they presently think they will need to pay for their aging population. But China is a fast learner, and they’ll soon learn that automation and AI, two areas they are seeking lead, are far more important than youth demographics in creating prosperity for all. Higher standards for childraising, and a preference for fewer kids than our parents, on average, are global inevitabilities, the richer we become. It will be great if they help more parents with the economic burden of childraising, but China’s parents already know that better educated and more entrepreneurial children are usually a much better choice than more children. As the saying goes, as China goes today, so should the rest of the emerging nations go in the next few generations.
  4. These coming air transportation networks are much faster, more efficient and scalable than our current urban transportation systems, except in those cities that have already invested billions in mass transit. Unlike cars, which sit unused 95% of the time, the coming on-demand air taxi networks are much like trains, with the vehicles being reused continuously, and increasingly intelligently, creating a maximal social and economic benefit to offset the environmental cost of building them. They are also far more point-to-point capable than trains, so they are the best choice for our urban mass transit investments, going forward.

Yes, the increased performance we get from these networks will cause us to use them more than we do today’s delivery and commuting networks. But people can only increase demand so much, because we are people. Our biological needs are sharply finite. The smarter our machines get, the more their transportation needs will dominate, not ours. Once we understand the Race to Inner Space, it’s pretty obvious that tomorrows smart machines won’t be consuming physical goods at anything like our rate, or physically moving their bodies around to sightsee, like we do. They’ll have much more interesting and efficient things to do, as we discuss in Chapter 2 of the Guide. So as a rough guess, I’d bet annual car and drone production starts decelerating some time mid-century as well.

But in the meantime, we can expect an exponential adoption and production ride. Are you looking for a great problem to solve? This one could be yours.

Getting Better Transportation Foresight

Sperling and Gordon’s Two Billion Cars (2009) is a nice little book that aptly described some aspects of the future of transportation, and the forces preventing that future, when it came out at the time. The authors made the case that we need to decarbonize our autos and trucks as soon as we can. There were over a billion cars in the world at the time, and they projected we’d add another billion cars by 2030. They explored a number of ways that short-sighted our politicians, auto execs, and the oil industry have blocked or stalled decarbonization innovation. In developed economies like the US, transportation produces nearly 30% of greenhouse gases, and cars and trucks alone cause nearly 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Since there are so many economic incentives for the big players and their captured politicians to delay and go-slow our switch from fossil fuels, and the developing world gets cheaper ICE cars every year, they explore why transportation sector’s greenhouse gas emissions are going to get worse before they get better.

Sperling and Gordon (2009)

But foresight is a tricky thing, and unless you make your process as open as possible, it is easy to miss big parts of the future. Though they discuss electrification, the authors did not recognize how fast electric vehicles would improve and spread, driven by inner space efficiency trends. They also say nothing about autonomous cars, even though they’d been around since 1995, and nothing about on-demand transportation. To be fair, Uber started in March 2009, but the iPhone launched in 2007, and the near-Uber service Taxi Magic began operations in 2008. All three of these solutions, electrification, autonomy (in the air and on the ground), and on-demand services, are great ways to create a much more sustainable transportation network, and I’m probably missing some other general solutions as well (see any? let me know).

Someone should write a followup book, called Two Hundred Million Self-Driving Cars and Drones, that describes the greatly dematerialized (intelligent, autonomous) and densified (miniaturized, efficient) future of urban transportation. Unfortunately, given our current global leadership, I expect the negative scenario outlined in Two Billion Cars is likely to materialize. Another billion of today’s unintelligent, carbon-belching fossil fuel cars are likely to be produced and driven globally in coming years.

But at the same time, we can now see that the safe, sustainable, affordable, rapid-transit future we all want is waiting patiently ahead: on-demand autonomous electric cars and drones, delivered in intelligent air delivery and air taxi networks.

Yes, Flying Cars are Finally in View

Taylor Aerocar (1949). Six were built. One is still flying, and driving, today 🙂

Convair Model 118 (1947). A plastic car body, intended to attach to a rentable airframe at your local airport.

If America gets commercial air taxis and private passenger drones in the mid-2020s, that will be about one hundred years after the Ford Flivver (1926), a personal plane designed and sold by Henry Ford, for individual garages. Ford was the world’s first flying car entrepreneur. We’ll get them eighty years after the Convair Model 118 (1947, picture left), and the Taylor Aerocar (1949, picture right), and sixty years after that future-visioning cartoon series The Jetsons first aired in 1962. See What Happened to Flying Cars?, Second Thought, 3.28.17 (YouTube, 7 min), for some of that great history.



Flying car vision (Jetsons, 1962)

My grandmother watched humanity leap from Kitty Hawk to the moon in sixty-seven years. I was born in 1960, and I bet I’ll see us go from the Jetsons vision to its real-world implementation, in roughly the same amount of time. That is a great example of accelerating technological change, a topic I study at our little nonprofit, the Acceleration Studies Foundation.

Some aerospace experts, like Jim Harris, in We won’t be flying in electric planes for at least 15 years, CNBC, 10.13,17, argue we won’t see these in the US until the 2030’s. But given what we’re seeing in Dubai, which plans to launch their first air taxi service this summer, I think he’s being too conservative. I bet we’ll see commercial air taxis in the US within ten years, maybe even earlier. Uber’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, now says he thinks Uber could be offering them to their first customers in five to ten years. Just give us those parachutes and airbags, please. Pretty please.

If you want to follow or join this emerging industry, two good conferences are AUVSI’s (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) XPONENTIAL conference, which has been going since 2012 (it was previously called Unmanned Systems) and the Uber Elevate Summit, started in 2017. AVUSI is the largest unmanned systems and robotics community, at 7,500 members, and their conference has about 8,000 participants. It is mostly defense and industry oriented. Elevate is much smaller, but its very helpfully focused on the commuter drone vision. There a number of other good drone conferences, but none to my knowledge that focus on delivery drones. Some entrepreneur should start one soon.

The next time someone says to you, in a sarcastic tone “Where’s my flying car, mr/ms. futurist?” You can tell them it’s finally in view. You can also tell them advances in nanotech (sustainable power), infotech (self-flying), safety engineering and noise engineering were key hurdles that had to be overcome before we had a clean, safe, and affordable solution for millions of commuters. Some great futuristic ideas take time!

Key Assumptions of the Transcension Hypothesis: Do Advanced Civilizations Leave Our Universe?

Low-mass X-ray binary (LMXRB) star system. Strange as it seems, Earth’s future may look something like this, with us inside a black hole-like environment of our creation, on a highly accelerated path to merging with other universal civilizations doing the same. If true, our destiny is density, and dematerialization.

This post is a followup to a popular paper of mine on three big topics: the Fermi paradox, accelerating change, and astrosociology (the nature and goals of advanced civilizations). The paper is called The transcension hypothesis: sufficiently advanced civilizations may invariably leave our universe, and implications for METI and SETI. It was published in Acta Astronautica in 2012.

Speculation on the Fermi paradox has grown considerably in the last two decades, as it has become increasingly obvious that we live in a universe that is very likely to be teeming with Earth-like planets, and also with intelligent, curious, and technologically accelerating forms of life. When we extrapolate our own accelerating progress in science, IT, and nantechnologies, we can imagine that any one of these civilizations could easily send out self-replicating nanotech that would spread across our Milky Way galaxy and beam the information that it finds out to the rest of the universe (or alternatively, just back to the originating civilization), creating a Galactic Internet, and making our universe as information-transparent as our planet is becoming today. Our galaxy has a radius of 100,000 light years. Replicating nanotech, traveling at just 5% of light speed, which we can imagine building even today, could reach all corners of our galaxy in 2 million years. So if other Earth-like planets and their intelligent life likely emerged, closer to the center of our galaxy, at least one billion years before ours did, as several astrobiologists have estimated, and any one of them could have easily expanded, why don’t we see any signs of this Galactic Internet today? Or signs of past alien visitation, probes, and megastructure beacons near Earth? Or signs of intelligent structures or civilizations anywhere in the night sky? In other words, Where is Everybody? That’s the Fermi paradox.

In a nutshell, the transcension hypothesis predicts constrained transcension of intelligence from the universe, rather than expansion (colonization) within the universe by intelligence, wherever it arises. If the hypothesis is correct, the reason we don’t see and haven’t heard from advanced civilizations anywhere is that the vast majority leave the visible universe as they develop, and the few that do not are very unlikely to be visible to us, with our presently weak SETI abilities. That’s a very strong claim. Could it be right?

My paper makes a series of assumptions about the nature and future of intelligent life in our universe. Most of these key assumptions may need to to be correct, in some fashion, for the hypothesis itself to be correct. A few colleagues have asked me to summarize these assumptions in one place, so here they are. This list is a good way to get a quick summary of the hypothesis as well.

Here are the key assumptions of the transcension hypothesis, as I presently see them:

  1. Intelligent life, on Earth and elsewhere in our universe, is not only evolving (diversifying, experimenting), but also developing (converging toward a particular set of future destinations, in form and function), in a manner in some ways similar to biological development. In other words, all civilizations in our universe are “evo-devo” both evolutionary and developmental. The phenomenon of convergent evolution tells us a lot about the way development may work on planetary scales. A kind of cosmic convergent evolution (universal development) must also exist at universal scales.
  2. The leading edge of intelligence always migrates its brains and bodies into increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, accelerated, and efficient scales of Space, Time, Energy, and Matter (what I call STEM compression), because this is the best strategy to become the niche-dominant local intelligence (and for modern humans, Earth’s biosphere is one precious and indivisible niche), and because the special physics of our universe allows this continual migration into “nanospace“. Human brains with their thoughts, emotions, morality, and self- and social-consciousness, are the most STEM-compressed higher computational systems on Earth at present. But our biological brains are just now starting to get beat at the production of intelligence by deep learning computers, which are even more profoundly STEM-compressed in certain kinds of computation than neurons (for example, electrical interneuron communication in an artificial neural network is seven million times faster than chemical action potentials between biological neurons). Once today’s weakly bio-inspired machine intelligence becomes fully self-improving, it seem likely to continue growing and improving at rates that make biological intelligence appear rooted in spacetime by comparison, in the same way that Earth’s plant life appears rooted in spacetime by comparison to self-aware animal life. Fortunately, accelerating STEM-compression of both human civilization and of our leading computational technologies is stepwise measurable and testable, as argued in my paper. Our academics need better funding and training to do so, however. Measuring the STEM-efficiency growth of new computational platforms, like quantum computing, is today far more art than science.
  3. The acceleration of STEM compression must eventually stop, at structures analogous to black holes, which in current theories appear to be the most computationally accelerated and computationally efficient entities in the known  universe, an insight Seth Lloyd made in 2000 which remains widely underappreciated by most information, computation, and complexity theorists today. Fortunately, this idea of a developmental “black hole destiny” for civilization seems quite testable observationally via search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), as argued in my paper.
  4. A civilization whose intelligence structures are compressed to scales far below the nanoscale may well be capable of creating or entering black-hole-like environments without their informational nature being destroyed. There are 25 orders of magnitude in size between atoms and the Planck scale. This is almost as large a size range as the 30 orders of magnitude presently inhabited by life on Earth. We simply don’t know yet whether intelligence can exist at those small scales. My bet is that it can, and that STEM compression drives leading universal intelligence there, as the fastest way to generate further intelligence, with the least need for local resources.
  5. Due to general relativity, extreme gravitational time dilation occurs very near the surface (event horizon) of black holes. Thus black holes, wherever they exist, can act as forward time travel devices, for any highly STEM compressed civilization that can arbitrarily closely approach their surface without destroying itself. Black-hole-like conditions are thus gateways to instantaneous meeting and merger with other unique civilizations in our universe within any gravity well. Our gravity well includes the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, each of which is destined to merge all its black holes, and each of which may contain millions of intelligent civilizations. The rest of our universe is accelerating away from us, due to dark energy. Perhaps the vast majority of black holes in these galaxies (billions?) are unintelligent collapsed stars. But if the transcension hypothesis holds, some smaller number (millions?) may also be a product of intelligent civilizations.
  6. As local acceleration of STEM compression stops, the more black-hole-like we become, local learning will saturate. Local intelligence will be running as fast as it can in this universe, yet it will be both resource and speed constrained. It’s local conditions, in other words, will be increasingly boring and predictable. It will be, from its own reference frame, at “The End of Science”, the end of what it can easily learn and know, to use the title of the elegant and profound book The End of Science (1996/2015) by science writer John Horgan. In those interesting conditions, it may irresistable to slow down local time via black hole entry, and thus simultaneously accelerate nonlocal time, making meeting and merger with other civilizations near-instantaneous. In “normal” universal time, galactic black holes are predicted to merge some tens to hundreds of billions of years from now, as our universe dies. But from each black hole’s reference frame,  this merger is near-instantaneous We can think of black holes as shortcuts through spacetime, just like quantum computers are shortcuts through spacetime. Indeed, quantum physics and black holes (relativity) must eventually be both evo (chaotically) and devo (causally) connected, both physically and informationally, in any future theory of quantum gravity. If some type of hyperspace, extradimensionality, or wormhole-like physics is possible, there might also be ways of future humanity instantaneously meeting civilizations beyond our two local galaxies. But such exotic physics is not necessary for our local gravity well, and for all other civilizations in their own galactic gravity wells. Standard relativity predicts that if we can survive in black-hole-like densities, and if our galaxies are life and intelligence-fecund, we will meet and merge with potentially millions of civilizations as soon as we approach the surface of any black hole, from our reference frame. In other words, our universe appears to have both “transcension physics” and massive parallelism of intelligence experiments built into its relativistic topology and large scale structure.
  7. If we live in not only a developmental universe, but an evolutionary one, each local universal civilization can never be God-like, but must instead be computationally incomplete, an evolutionary “experiment” with its own own unique discoveries and views on the meaning and purpose of life. Thus each civilization, no matter how advanced, would be expected to have useful computational differences, and be able to learn useful things, from every other civilization. In such a universe, we would greatly value communication, assuming that we could trust the other advanced civilizations that we might communicate with. Computational incompleteness would also make us increasing value simulation over physical experimentation, the more complex intelligence becomes. The better faster, better, and more resource (STEM) efficient models of our physical world get, the more we choose virtual rather than physical experiments to address perennial incompleteness in our intelligence.
  8. If not only intelligence, but also immunity (stability, antifragility) and morality grow in leading intelligences in our universe, in rough proportion to their complexity, in other words, if these three life-critical systems are each not only evolutionary, but also developmental, and thus their emergent form and function is at least partly encoded in the “genes” (initial conditions, laws, and environmental constraints) of the system itself, then we can predict that more advanced intelligences, including our coming deep learning computers, will be not only more intelligent, but also more immune and moral than we are today. This idea is called developmental immunity and developmental morality, and I explore it in my paper, Evo-Devo Universe? (2008). If these developmental processes exist, they tell us something about the nature of postbiological life. Such life is going to be a whole lot more collaboration-oriented, intelligence-oriented, immune, and moral than we are today. Social morality, for its part, pushes complex intelligences toward a more ethical impact on the world and each of its sentiences. Decreasing violence has been a mild trend in human societies in recent centuries, as documented in Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011. But I expect it to be a much stronger trend in postbiological intelligences. Physicists Stephen Dick and Seth Shostak have stressed the importance of thinking hard about the norms and morality of postbiological culture. It’s a big assumption that surviving human and machine collectives must on average become increasingly intelligent, immune, and moral in proportion to their cognitive complexity, under natural processes of evolutionary selection and development, but this is where all the evidence seems to be leading, in my view.
  9. In a universe with developmental immunity and morality, a moral prime directive must emerge, a directive to keep each local civilization evolving in a way that maximizes its intelligence, uniqueness and adaptiveness prior to transcension. That means one-way messaging (powerful METI beacons), self-replicating probes able to interact with less advanced civilizations, and any other kind of galactic colonization would both be ethically prohibited by postbiological life, due to the great reduction in evolutionary diversity that would occur. Wherever it happened, we would meet informational clones of ourselves after transcension, a most undesirable outcome. In biology, evolution keeps clonality a very rare outcome, due to the diversity and adaptiveness cost that it levies on the progeny. In such an environment, any future biological humans that wanted to continue to colonize the stars would be prevented from doing so, by much more ethical and universe-oriented postbiological intelligences. That is assuming biological organisms even continue to be around after postbiological life emerges. Due to STEM compression, their status as biologicals would likely be vanishing short, once they invent technology capable of colonization. It seems much more likely that biology develops into postbiology, relatively soon (just a few centuries perhaps) after digital computers emerge, everywhere in the universe. This outcome also seems likely to be testable via future information theory and SETI, as I argue in my paper.
  10. Some physicists, most notably Lee Smolin in his hypothesis of cosmological natural selection, propose that black holes may be “seeds” or “replicators” for new universes. That gives us a clue to what we might do after we meet up with other cosmic intelligences. We would likely compare and contrast what we’ve learned, and then seek to make a better and more adaptive universe (or universes) in the next replication. Current physics and computation theory suggest that our universe, though vast, is both finite and computationally incomplete. It may have gained its current amazing levels of internal complexity in the same way life on Earth got its amazing living complexity, via evolutionary and developmental (“evo-devo“) self-organization, through many past replications, in some kind of selection environment, a “multiverse” or “hyperverse.”
  11. If all of this is roughly correct, our future isn’t outer space, it’s “inner space.” Both the inner space of black-hole like domains, and the inner space of increasingly virtual and computational domains. The lure of our continually improving inner space is why 21st century folks spend so much time (too much time!) interacting with our still-dumb mobile devices today. It is why the growth of virtual and augmented reality heralds far more than just better entertainment experiences. Combined with the growth of machine learning, virtual/augmented reality will increasingly become the thinking, imagination, and simulation space for eventual postbiological life. Virtual space is where intelligent machines will figure out what they want to do in physical space, just as our own simulating brains are biology’s virtual reality. And just like humans have have done as our civilization has developed, future machines will do more and more internalization, or thinking in virtual space, and less and less external acting, in physical space, the more intelligent they get. This internalization process has a name. It’s called dematerialization (both economic dematerialization and product and process dematerialization), the substitution of information and computation for physical products, processes, and behaviors. The futurist Buckminster Fuller called this process ephemeralization. But ephemeralization of intelligence is only half the story. It describes dematerialization, not densification. If the transcension hypothesis is true, the developmental destiny of all complex life is both accelerating “densification” (eventually to a black hole-like state) and “dematerialization” (becoming increasingly informational and virtual, over time). See my online book, The Foresight Guide, for more on these planetary megatrends, densification and dematerialization (“D&D”) and how they appear to drive universal accelerating change. 

As Fermi paradox scholar Stephen Webb says at his blog, this is quite a lot of “ifs!” Disproving any of these assumptions would be a good way to start knocking aspects of the transcension hypothesis out of contention. We would learn a lot about ourselves and the universe in the process, so I really hope that each of these gets challenged in coming years, as the hypothesis gets further exposure and critique.

Webb is the author of Where is Everybody?2015, a book that offers seventy-five possible solutions to the Fermi Paradox. Webb did a great job condensing the transcension hypothesis into just three pages in his book. His 2002 edition didn’t include it, as I published my first paper on the hypothesis in mid-2002. At Webb’s blog, he charitably says the transcension hypothesis is “one of the most intriguing” possible solutions that he has seen. He also observes that “Unlike so many “solutions” to the Fermi paradox, this one offers avenues for further research.” It certainly does, which is why I hope it continues to gain scrutiny and critique.

A few scholars are now citing the transcension hypothesis in their academic papers on the Fermi paradox and accelerating change, including Sandberg 2010, Flores Martinez 2014, and Conway Morris 2016. I am hoping that trend continues. The more attention it gets, the more critique it will get.

Perhaps the strangest and hardest-to-believe part of the transcension hypothesis, for many, is the idea of universal development. It is particularly relevant to the first, seventh, eighth, and ninth assumptions above. The most amazing and odds-defying thing I’ve come across in my own study of the natural world so far is the process of biological development. Most people don’t think about both how wonderful and how improbable, on its face, is the process of organismic development.

Think about it. Development is guided by a small handful of genes in our genome. It’s incredible that it works, yet it does, and it made you! Development is a good candidate for the most incredible process in the known universe. In many ways, development is even more surprising than evolution, which I define as the set of biological genes and mechanisms that create unpredictable experiment and variety, as opposed to that small subset of chaos-reducing biological genes and mechanisms that statistically guarantee a hierarchical set of future-specific forms and functions. Standard evolutionary theory requires development as an organismic process, yet it also treats development as subservient to the variety-generating processes in natural selection. That model is only half-correct, in my view.

Fortunately, a growing contingent of evo-devo biologists argue that development’s long-range role in constraining the possibilities of evolutionary change may be equally important to evolution’s long-range impact on development. Both processes seem fundamental to mature theory of adaptation. Ecologists have published good work on the way ecosystem development limits the future of evolutionary processes. For example, think of ecological succession, in which increasing senescence of the ecosystem limits short-term evolutionary variety, while also making the oldest parts of the system increasingly vulnerable to death (and renewal). Think also of niche construction, which tells us how growing intelligence, which we use to fashion comfortable niches, limits the future selection placed upon us by our environment. Scholars of convergent evolution also describe apparently universal processes of morphological and functional development that will constrain evolutionary possibilities on all Earth-like planets. Cosmologists who take fine-tuned universe arguments seriously also talk about both local variety and processes of universal development, though they don’t often use that clarifying phrase, when they describe physical and chemical constraints on the possibilities of evolutionary change. All these are important clues toward a meta-Darwinian, evo-devo universe paradigm of universal change.

In short, if our universe actually replicates, as seems plausible in several cosmology theories, and if it exists in some kind of larger selection environment, as also seems plausible, then not only evolution, but development (“convergent evolution”) must also occur not just in species forms and ecosystems, but for our increasingly intelligent planet, as a developing life-human-machine “Global Superorganism”, and for our entire universe itself, as a replicator in the multiverse. Certain aspects of the future of complex systems must be statistically highly biased to converge on particular destinations, and today’s evolution-centric science still has a lot of growing up still to do in order to see these destinations. It needs to become “evo-devo”, seeing the contributions of both evolution and development to the future of universal complexity.

The paper’s second key assumption, STEM compression is more palatable to most people, in my experience, and may turn out to be the most enduring contribution of the paper, even if the rest of the hypothesis is eventually invalidated. If you’ve heard of nanotechnology, you know that life’s leading edge today, humanity, is doing everything it can to move our complexity and computation down the smallest scales we can. We have been very successful at this shrinking over the last several hundred years, and our ability to miniaturize and control processes at both atomic and subatomic scales is growing exponentially. In fact, human brains themselves are already vastly denser, more efficient, and more miniaturized computational devices than any living thing that has gone before them. But they are positively gargantuan compared to the intelligent computing devices that are coming next.

Fortunately I think each of the key assumptions outlined above are testable, though some are obviously more testable than others in today’s early stages of astrophysical theory, SETI ability, information, complexity, and evo-devo theory, and simulation capacity. If anyone is doing work that might shed light on any of these assumptions, I would love to hear of it.

You can find my paper here: The Transcension Hypothesis, 2012. See also this fun 2 minute YouTube video of the hypothesis, by the inspiring futurist Jason Silva and Kathleen Lakey, which has raised its visibility in recent years.

You can find an overview of the evo-devo (evolutionary and developmental) universe hypothesis in my chapter-length article, Evo-Devo Universe? A Framework for Speculations on Cosmic Culture, 2008.

Comments? Critiques? Feedback is always appreciated, thanks.

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