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The Speed of Technology


The Speed of Technology
written by Robert Dufresne, PE
published in NEWWA's "The Source" newsletter in the spring of 2013

Remember the last time you saw a CNN headline about a marvelous breakthrough in technology? Me neither. Nothing sells like bad news. We remember it. We worry about it. Headlines like the fiscal cliff, the bankrupt Medicare system, and the $16 trillion debt are bombarding us daily. How will we ever survive this? Has it ever been this bad?

Actually, the past was much worse. Things are better than ever now and things will get even better fast; beyond our wildest imagination. According to Peter Diamandis, over the last 100 years our average life span has doubled. Worldwide our per capital income adjusted for inflation has tripled in the last century. Childhood mortality has dropped by an order of magnitude. Food cost adjusted for inflation only a tenth of what it did 100 year ago. The cost for electricity has dropped by a factor of 20. Transportation costs only 1% of what it did 100 years ago. Communication is now 1,000 times less expensive than it was 10 years ago. In fact when you are hiking in the Rocky Mountains alone with your cell phone, you have more mobile communication capability than did President Regan. If you have your i-Phone with you, you have access to more information than did President Clinton. The reason is that technological advances are occurring at a logarithmic rate with time based on Moore’s Law. Your great-grandmother would be speechless to see your smart TV or ride in your new car. But imagine how will you feel to see your great granddaughter’s car?

What is ahead of us in the water works industry? How do we deal with the exponential rate of technology and the linear speed of regulation development? The post offices of this country lost $16 billion per year; linear thinking versus logarithmic technological growth.

An example of how far we have come in such a short time is the slingshot water treatment device. This device, about the size of your microwave, produces 260 gallons per day of pure water from sea water or sewage at a cost of only 7 ˝ cents per gallon. Coca Cola has taken an active role in testing this technology in remote parts of this planet and if successful has pledged to implement the technology worldwide. Imagine how access to pure drinking water would change the life of a young mother in Somalia. The cost of solar power dropped in half last year. New ways of burning coal may make it the cheapest and cleanest energy source on the planet. Several years ago in Portland, we heard Dr. Dagher describe the future of the State of Maine powered exclusively with low cost deep water wind turbines. Dr. Dagher described the economic paradigm shift when the billions now sent to the mid-east for oil become discretionary income for Maine residents.

In our own water works industry, we know that technological devices we use are riding on Moore’s curve. The expensive hardware and software for our SCADA system we bought ten years ago is junk today. Clearly the tools available to us for treating water are less expensive and better than ever. But our challenge seems to be the cost for replacing storage and distribution systems. Infrastructure replacement is not following Moore’s curve. Construction never seems to get any cheaper. While there have been some breakthroughs in newer and better GPS equipped excavators and trenchless technology; we are still digging trenches in paved roads to replace old water mains. But even in this area of our water works industry changes for the better will come. Within our lifetime, materials will be better and cheaper. Installation will be faster and less labor intensive. The future is bright; embrace it.

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