Innovations in biotech, energy, and space could drive the next generation of prosperity—if we let it happen.
Total factor productivity (TFP) tracks the degree to which output is not attributable to observable inputs like labor-hours, capital, or education. From 1920 to 1970, TFP grew at about 2 percent yearly. Since then, it has grown at less than half that rate—and in the last 15 years, it has grown at less than 0.3 percent per year, according to the San Francisco Fed’s utilization-adjusted series.
Rapidly developed Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines are not only saving countless lives; they have also powerfully demonstrated the utility of mRNA technology.
More generally, mRNA technology lets us program our cells to produce proteins of our choosing. The Covid vaccines represent the first mRNA treatments approved in humans, but the same concept is being studied to prevent HIV infection and malaria, and even to treat cancer.
Another protein-related breakthrough happened last year. The team at DeepMind shocked the world by announcing that it had essentially solved the protein-folding enigma. Proteins are linear sequences of amino acids; but once created, atomic forces cause them to self-assemble into messy 3D structures that determine their function. In 1972, Christian Anfinsen postulated in his Nobel lecture that it should be possible to determine the 3D structure of a protein from its linear amino-acid sequence. The problem was so computationally complex, however, that it remained beyond our reach until DeepMind attacked it with machine learning. AlphaFold, DeepMind’s protein-folding algorithm, demonstrates the power of machine learning to solve otherwise intractable real-world challenges. We have already seen some of AlphaFold’s methods seep into other groups’ work. As biology continues to leverage computational methods, more and more secrets will be uncovered.
As we begin to limit and reverse aging, medical spending—currently 17.7 percent of GDP—will decline as we reduce illnesses associated with old age, leaving more resources for other pursuits. People will have longer productive lives. At today’s retirement age, you could embark on a whole new career. People also directly value not getting sick and dying—in the U.S., a quality-adjusted life-year is worth $50,000 to $150,000. (Extended life spans would open up new difficulties, of course, in everything from inheritance expectations to retirement planning.)
With the ability to design new, useful proteins, to manufacture them in vivo at scale, and even to stitch their recipes into our genomes using CRISPR, we would, in principle, be able to exercise almost total control over biology.
The amount of energy trapped inside Earth is staggering. The temperature at the center of Earth (about 4,000 miles below the surface) is about the same as at the surface of the sun—about 6,000ºC. The Union of Concerned Scientists observes that “the amount of heat within 10,000 meters (about 33,000 feet) of Earth’s surface contains 50,000 times more energy than all the oil and natural gas resources in the world.”
Next-generation geothermal could work in various ways, spanning a spectrum from evolutionary to revolutionary.
A major advantage of geothermal technology is the quality of the electricity that it can produce. Like wind and solar, geothermal produces no carbon-dioxide emissions. Unlike wind and solar, it is available 24 hours a day, regardless of the weather. This feature is critical because electricity grids need to operate in supply-and-demand balance every second of every day. A grid too dependent on wind and solar with inadequate storage will experience instability. Geothermal energy can make the electricity grid rock-solid, while reserving battery storage for electric vehicles, where we need it most.
With clean, dirt-cheap energy, we can stop economizing and start thriving. We can use cheap power economically to pull CO2 from the atmosphere, desalinate water, deploy formerly exotic materials, and travel faster around the globe.\
We will never truly go to space with today’s launch costs. On SpaceX’s Falcon 9, it costs $2,600/kg to get to low Earth orbit (LEO)—about three times cheaper than on an Atlas V, arguably Falcon 9’s closest competitor, and about 25 times cheaper than the space shuttle. But that’s still far too expensive to launch enough people and material to create a sustainable human civilization in space. Starship, in contrast with every rocket that came before it, aims to enable exactly that.
Everything about Starship is designed to lower the cost of getting large payloads to Mars.
By the end of the decade, Internet access will blanket the planet, there will be live satellite maps of the entire globe, and new large-scale structures will be under construction in orbit—initially to host sensor payloads and in-space manufacturing but eventually human workers, too. If we’re lucky, we will also have a permanent base on the moon and humans setting foot on Mars.
Our energy policy is hampered. Nuclear power in the U.S. is six times more expensive than in South Korea. To approve an oil and gas well on federal land takes two weeks; to approve the exact same kind of well for geothermal energy takes two years.