At TED 2012, Paul Gilding delivered a sobering talk entitled "The Earth is Full," while Peter Diamandis delivered a techno-optimistic talk entitled, "Abundance is Our Future." But before I opine on the resulting Peter Paul debate, I wish to digress a bit and tell you about my related experiences in Ethernet.
Ethernet is the technology that connects computers to switches mainly within server farms, and as such, it forms the backbone of the internet infrastructure. Your web browsing was most likely transmitted through a Gigabit Ethernet link where Five-level, Four-Dimensional Trellis-Coded Pulse Amplitude Modulation was used to convert data bits into electrical signals and pulsed through copper wires to be received at the other end. A plaque framing the patent for that Gigabit Ethernet technology is hanging in my study.
I began working on Gigabit Ethernet on copper cabling in 1996. It was the first serious attempt to use Digital Signal Processing technology for Ethernet which had until then been using analog signaling. My ideas were originally greeted with incredulity by colleagues at the Ethernet Working Group of the IEEE Standards Board. While 10Mb/s Ethernet had been a resounding success over copper cabling, a colleague from Cisco who had experienced technical difficulties with 100Mb/s Ethernet said to me, "We'll believe it (Ethernet will work at Gigabit speeds over these cables) when we see it." Nevertheless, the 1000BASE-T Gigabit Ethernet standard was adopted in 1999 and four years later, Intel Corporation alone shipped 150 million units. The digital 1Gb/s 1000BASE-T technology developed a reputation for being more robust than the analog 100Mb/s Ethernet technology on the same cabling and it became an unmitigated success.
Starting in 2003, I began attending the 10Gigabit Ethernet Task Force meetings, where a more sophisticated digital technology was being discussed to propel data ten times faster over similar copper wiring. The same colleague from Cisco had now become a wide-eyed techno-optimist and he was clearly expecting 10GBASE-T to be a piece of cake based on his Gigabit Ethernet experience. But this time I knew that we were reaching the limits of physics and that it was not going to be easy. Nevertheless, the 10GBASE-T standard was approved by the IEEE in 2006, but I stopped working on it, partly because I knew that it would not meet such high expectations, but mainly because I became interested in environmental issues instead. Five years later, the worldwide shipment of 10GBASE-T ports totaled 182,000 units. According to the Linley group, electromagnetic interference issues and large power consumption were cited as the main reasons for the poor uptake of 10GBASE-T units.
As of now, no one is talking about 100 Gigabit Ethernet over copper cabling. The Ethernet speed explosion over copper cabling is well and truly over. Physical limits cannot be overcome. Mother Nature sets rules and humans have no option but to play by them.
Which brings me to the Peter-Paul debate. Peter Diamandis is right that we have enjoyed an exponential growth in technologies over the past couple of centuries and that a Masai tribesman is experiencing better communications technology with his cell phone than the royalty of the past. But as my Ethernet experience showed, we can't just exponentially extrapolate from the past as we hit physical limits in the future. Besides, I know why people in the remote villages in India have access to cheap cell phones. It is because they can be summoned to do brick-laying work for the rich people in the cities at half the labor cost than what the city worker wants to charge. It is a tool to lower labor costs and as such, the rich are happy to subsidize its widespread deployment.
Considering another example from Peter's talk, let's assume that drinking water will be plentifully available worldwide at 2c/liter using Dean Kamen's SlingShot technology. With this technology, industries can continue to pollute our waterways with abandon making them even more undrinkable for animals such as tigers. Even Peter Diamandis will admit that it hasn't exactly been a world of abundance for the tiger so far. The tiger population has declined by 97% in 100 years as its habitat has been systematically destroyed and polluted.
The fallacies in Peter's arguments lie in a) assuming that past technical achievements predict future performance despite looming physical and ecological limits, and b) taking a limited, anthropocentric world view which blithely ignores the cruelty, oppression and real scarcities that have beset all other creatures on the planet.
Paul is right. The Earth is Full and we better understand that our adolescent growth spurt is over and that we need to adjust to an age of limited growth with an ever increasing maturity.
We need to wise up and take better care of Life on Earth as we grow older as a species. While the Venture Capitalists who invested in 10GBASE-T technology simply lost their shirts betting on it, we can't afford to lose a planet betting on the dangerous, limit-defying techno-optimism of people like Peter Diamandis. Even Peter Diamandis is prudently investing in space travel while mining asteroids and comets for minerals and water. That's no way to live after ruining a perfectly beautiful planet.