Profiting from Information Overload

Throughout most of history, human beings could expect to grow old and die in a world very much like the one into which they were born. Change was slow, by modern standards. People lived as hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years, before agricultural technology took root and changed society about 10,000 years ago.

Then, only 200 years ago, the industrial revolution radically remade society yet again.

In the late 20th century, the electronic computer started a new revolution, which is still ongoing. Today, culture is still playing “catch up” with the radical democratization of information and opinion that new, computer-enabled media and ubiquitous network connectivity is creating. Yet modern nanotechnology, in its various forms, promises to usher in a new technological growth phase mere decades after the information technology revolution began.

In each case, the amount of time between one fundamental technological shift and the next has grown shorter. The result, from an economic standpoint, is that each new “technology growth phase” accelerates wealth creation, and improves the quality of life for everyone by reducing costs and solving problems.

To give an example of how technology keeps things cheap, the price of oil has been slowly rising over the last few months. However, what would the price of oil be today if we were still using the same technology that struck black gold at Spindletop in 1901? The short answer is that oil would be far more expensive, if any was available at all anymore. The story of the last 100 years would be very different without the inexpensive energy that fueled it.

Another example: what would the price of food be today without the Green Revolution? At one time, more than 90% of the US population was involved in agriculture in one way or another. Today, it is around 2%. In past times, an extended economic downturn like the current one meant hunger for many. Today, the problem of the poor is too many calories. If it were not for transformational innovation in food production, many of us wouldn’t be able to secure enough daily calories to survive.

For many people, however, it starts to become difficult to process accelerating technological change. Even for those of us that track technology, it is impossible to monitor everything. Nanotech-enabled life extension technology, for example, is going to shape the future economy and culture in ways we cannot even begin to imagine.

Since most people do not immediately recognize the importance or implications of transformational technologies, those that do gain an advantage. As investors, this creates unique opportunities for us to profit.

It is for this reason that I like to update you periodically on the latest advances announced in science journals. I will mention a couple here…

Stem Cells Will Pump You Up

For an older person, it takes longer to recover from a strenuous workout or a muscle injury than for a younger one. Muscle mass declines with age as well. As our understanding of cellular biology improves, we anticipate new treatments targeting tissues like muscles to restore them to a more youthful state.

Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder recently demonstrated that young stem cells transplanted into the leg muscles of mice prevented age-related atrophy and repaired injury. The stem cells not only repaired the injury, but doubled muscle mass as well. Even two years later, the now-old mice retained higher levels of muscle mass. According to Bradley Olwin, a co-author of the study, “the transplanted stem cells are permanently altered and reduce the aging of the transplanted muscle, maintaining strength and mass.”

When transplanted into healthy tissue, however, there was no measurable change in muscle growth. The stem cell grafts only appear to create new growth in muscles that are damaged by injury. The researchers are working to understand what mechanism signals the stem cells to grow in hopes of developing drugs to mimic their behavior. Such technology could be applied to degenerative muscle diseases. It could also find an application in halting or reversing the muscular atrophy that accompanies aging.

Quantum Computing Leaping Forward

Practical, commercialized quantum computers would represent a disruptive transformation of the computing industry. Instead of encoding information on relatively large blocks of material, quantum computers could store information on single electrons or atoms, called qubits. Such machines would be incredibly powerful and solve problems that are impossible for current computers. Manufacturing computers with individual parts made of such tiny bits of matter is difficult with current technology, though. Many qubits can be missing, or faulty.

According to a study published in Physical Review Letters quantum computers can be made to function even if they have a large number of malfunctioning components. In this paper, the international scientists published a discovery of a way to correct for these errors by using an error correcting system that mimics how humans correct for faulty data.

According to the lead author, Dr, Sean Barrett, “Just as you can often tell what a word says when there are a few missing letters, or you can get the gist of a conversation on a badly-connected phone line, we used this idea in our design for a quantum computer.”

This paper, however, is theoretical in nature, so engineers will need to build quantum computers with enough tiny particle-sized qubits to demonstrate this concept’s utility. In the meantime, Burnaby, Canada-based D-Wave claims to have built large-scale supercooled quantum computers containing hundreds of qubits.

D-Wave has worked with Google in the past to perform quantum-enabled pattern recognition. Google has demonstrated that this technology can spot individual objects, like cars, in tens of thousands of pictures. Recently, D-Wave submitted a proposal to Google and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop a quantum computing facility based on its technology.

Finally, IBM is jumping into the fray with renewed vigor. Recent quantum computing discoveries in academia suggest the possibility of building quantum computers using more conventional, common methods used in semiconductor manufacturing. This has piqued IBM’s interest, and it has raised the stakes by enlarging its research in the field. It has put together a large group to embark on a five-year mission to explore the possibilities, seek out new technologies, and profit from going where no one has gone before.

Ad lucrum per scientia (toward wealth through science).

Ray Blanco
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning