The Patents Argument Against GMOs Just Ended With the First Off-Patent GMO

I argued in my 2013 book, The Infinite Resource, that the “seeds shouldn’t be patented” argument against GMOs and specifically against Monsanto was invalid for a very specific reason:  Patents end.

As I wrote then, the patents for Monsanto’s first commercial genetically modified crop, Roundup Ready Soy I, would expire at the end of the 2014 growing season. After that, farmers would be free to save seeds to replant, universities would be free to tinker with the  genetic trait, seed breeders would be free to cross-breed it into other strains, and so on.

What wasn’t clear at the time was how likely that was to occur.

Well, now we know.

The University of Arkansas has released a free, replantable version of Roundup Ready Soy. Any farmer can take this seed, can plant it, doesn’t have to pay any technology licensing fee, and can re-plant seeds from the resulting crop for the next year.

Add to that the fact that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, went off-patent years ago, and so generic versions of Roundup are available, and this means that farmers can use this product developed by Monsanto without paying Monsanto a dime.

That’s how patents are supposed to work. The inventor gets a temporary monopoly to reward them for their research and development, and in exchange, society gets the permanent benefit of their invention.

And, of course, the scientific consensus is that Roundup Ready plants and other approved GM crops are safe.

I believe this is the beginning of a new era in genetically modified crops, one of much more diversity as the cost of research drops, as more work is done by non-profits, and as more and more patents expire. As I wrote in the book:

In 2014, Monsanto’s patent on Roundup Ready soybeans will expire – the first of a wave of patent expiries that will let anyone take advantage of that gene to create new seeds that can reduce the use of toxic pesticides like atrazine, while being licensed in much more open ways.

At the same time, a host of other competitors have biotech crops that have recently come onto the market or will in the next few years.  And non-profits and universities are producing GM crops that will be free to the poor and which are often developed in the ‘open source’ model.  Golden rice and C4 rice are being co-developed by a network of universities and non-profits, for example, and will be available free of charge to farmers in the developing world.

In the early days of computing, the only computers were giant IBM mainframes that cost millions of dollars.  Today, you have more computing power in your pocket than the entire planet possessed 40 years ago.  The dramatic decline in the price of computing over those decades has democratized computing tremendously.   Proverbial ‘garage startups’ like Apple, Google, and Facebook start with humble resources but can revolutionize the world.  Open source networks of unpaid developers build software used by hundreds of millions.

That revolution is on the very edge of hitting biotechnology.  The cost of gene sequencing has dropped by a factor of 1 million over the last 20 years.  That’s faster than the cost of computing has ever dropped.   Research is dropping in price.  The ability to create new GM foods, tailored exactly for local conditions and needs, is growing.   Already there are dozens of different projects to create GM crops that deliver better nutrition, higher yields, or lower need for pesticides or fertilizer underway. Some are from private companies, who’ll compete with one another to provide the best products, prices, and terms.  And many more are from non-profit foundations and universities.

What we’re going to see in the future is not a monopoly on the technology of food. We’re going to see wide open competition between dozens of companies, hundreds of universities, and some day thousands of different GM foods.   And that is exactly what we want.

I write more about the environmental and humanitarian case for genetically modified foods, agriculture in general, and how to provide enough food, water, and energy for the planet, while beating climate change, deforestation, and other challenges, in my book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.  If you think GMOs are a problem rather than a solution, if you think we can’t beat climate change, or if you think that doing so means giving up on our way of life, then I challenge you to read this book.

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Today I Spoke at the Allen Institute for Brain Science

Today I gave a talk at the Allen Institute for Brain Science - “Neuroscience in the Year 2100: The View from Science Fiction.”  Much of that, of course, comes from the research and decade-long interest that led to Nexus.

It was an incredible honor for me, as a layperson and neuroscientist-wannabe, to be talking to actual scientists about their field. My goal was to provoke rather than to predict, and to bring in insights, observations, and trends from other fields. The room was packed and people stuck around till the end and beyond asking questions (and sometimes politely disagreeing), so it seems like I did okay.

Big thanks to Christof Koch, who I think has this idea that I did him a favor by coming in, when really, he did me a huge honor with the invitation.

I’ll try to get a readable version of my slides up next week.

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Solar and Wind Plunging Below Fossil Fuel Prices

Asset management firm Lazard has a fascinating new analysis of renewable and other energy prices out.

There are a huge number of insights in this, from an outside analyst whose primary interest is financial. (Those are, in my mind, the most objective analysts in this space.)

First, the plunge in renewable prices continues, and over the last 5 years, wind has resumed its plunge as well. Their numbers show an average price decline over the last 5 years of 78% for utility scale solar and 58% for wind.

Those numbers above are unsubsidized, without investment tax credit. The range shown reflects the range of geographies – from windy areas to less windy, from sunny areas to less sunny.

Second, unsubsidized prices are cost competitive with grid wholesale prices.  Solar, which delivers power during the daytime and afternoon, heavily overlapping with the late afternoon and early evening peak, is well below the wholesale price of peak power (provided by ‘peaker’ natural gas plants that only operate during those few hours of the day). Solar is even closing in on the wholesale cost of 24/7 operated coal and natural gas plants that provide ‘baseload’ power overnight (and as the underlying power throughout the day.)

Wind is well below the cost of peaker plants, and the best wind sites are already well below the cost of ‘baseload’ power.

Here’s the same chart from Lazard above, but with my annotations of the wholesale peak and baseload prices in the US. Click to embiggen.

Note: Just to be clear, the baseload price (the bottom red line) is for 24/7 power, available at night and when the wind isn’t blowing, which means that solar and wind can’t always compete with that price.

Which brings us to the next point:

Third, It’s all about storage now. (Or soon, at any rate.)  Inside of a decade, in most of the US and most of the world, solar or wind will be cheaper than coal or natural gas on an instantaneous, non-stored basis. This trend appears inexorable. And so long as there is demand for more energy at the hours at which solar and wind are delivering (which is the case right now), then the situation is great.

The long-term obstacle, beyond perhaps 20% of grid penetration, is ‘dispatchability’ – the ability to issue the precise amount of energy needed, when it’s needed – perhaps hours after the energy is generated (for example, at night, when the sun isn’t shining, or during still hours of the day), or perhaps just minutes later. That means storage.

And storage is currently the long pole in prices.

Fortunately, as I’ve written before, energy storage prices are dropping exponentially.

By the time we reach 20% grid penetration of renewables, we seem on path to have storage costs down to roughly 1/10th of their current level. That’s a price at which a mix of solar, wind, and storage could outprice even current ‘baseload’ power in large fractions of the country and the world.

I talk much more about renewables, energy storage, and how to accelerate progress in them in my book on innovating to beat climate change and other resource and environmental challenges: The Infinite Resouce: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet 

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The Learning Curve for Energy Storage

Energy storage prices are dropping fast. If you follow me, you’ve seen me write about this before. Energy storage prices have in fact been dropping exponentially for at least 25 years.

Here’s a new piece of analysis –  a model that uses a 20% learning curve per doubling to that project Li-ion batteries dropping to 5 cents per kwh round-tripped through them by ~2030.

You can read more about this here.

This cost projection is roughly in-line with what I’ve seen for Li-ion. For instance, here’s the view of what happened in Li-ion price and density in the well-studied period of 1990-2005.

However, for grid storage, this may be too conservative. Why? Because there’s a very real chance grid storage will veer away from lithium ion and towards flow batteries. Flow batteries are much bulkier and heavier than the lithium-ion in your cell phone and in a Tesla, but they’re potentially much cheaper.

ARPA-E’s GRIDS program has the goal of producing grid-scale energy storage at the capital cost of $100/kwh. With reasonable numbers of recharge cycles, that’s already at or close to 5 cents per kwh. ARPA-E has looked at many different technologies in the program. Among those are flow batteries. And having talked to some of the GRIDS folks, I see the flow batteries coming out of the program (and the other flow batteries coming onto the market) as nearing that line.

All of which is to say that we could see 5 cents per kwh stored closer to 2020 than 2030.

And that’s a price at which large scale grid storage starts to look economically viable.

I talk much more about renewables, energy storage, and how to accelerate progress in them in my book on innovating to beat climate change and other resource and environmental challenges: The Infinite Resouce: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet 

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The Renewable Energy Revolution

Transforming the world’s energy supply will take decades. It is a very tall order. But it’s starting. The price of renewables – and energy storage – continues to plunge, putting them on a path to being cheaper than any other form of energy within the coming decade. And they continue to grow exponentially – albeit it from a low baseline – spreading out into the market.

WIND

Wind, more established than solar, has seen it’s price decline by a factor of 10 over the last 30 years.

In many parts of the US and the world, wind power is now the cheapest source of new power.

In scale, the amount of wind power around the world has grown by an astounding 10x (1000%) over the last 11 years. Incredible.

SOLAR

Solar makes wind look slow and sedate. Solar PV module prices have dropped an astounding 100x since 1977.

Of course, module costs are not the whole cost.  Even so, fully system cost continues on an impressive decline of its own, having fallen by a factor of three in just the last 10 years – a more rapid decline than any other energy source.

And the solar market, in response to plunging prices and market and regulatory incentives, has exploded, surging by an incredible 100 times (10,000%) in just 13 years.  A few years ago the total solar installed base was just 1/10th that of the wind power installed base. Now it is almost half the size of the wind installed base, and poised to overtake it in the next 4-5 years.

OUTPACING IEA PREDICTIONS

The growth of solar and wind has been staggering. It has also consistently outpaced the projections of the International Energy Agency, the US Department of Energy, and virtually all other traditional energy forecasters. The graph below shows how the IEA, in particular, has had to raise their forecasts of future solar and wind growth every year to keep up with actual growth rates.

And in fact, the IEA predicts that new installations of solar and wind will stay flat or decline over time, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Here’s a fuller analysis of IEA’s continual under-estimation of renewables.  Bear this trend in under-estimating new technologies in mind when reading forecasts from traditional energy forecasters.

BATTERY STORAGE

Finally, while the battery storage technology for the grid is, IMHO, unlikely to be lithium-ion, and is more likely to be flow batteries, it’s instructive to look at the price history of lithium-ion batteries to see what’s possible.

Between 1990 and 2005, the price per unit of energy stored in lithium-ion batteries dropped by a factor of 10, and the amount of energy that could be stored per unit weight nearly tripled.

That’s instructive, as flow batteries appear to be nearly at the price to make them viable for grid storage. If they have similar price trajectories as they scale, renewables will see one of their most formidable obstacles to adoption removed.

We shouldn’t trivialize the challenges ahead. It took decades, if not a century, to build the modern energy system. We still lack solutions for the nearly 1 billion internal combustion vehicles on the road, for the manufacture of steel and concrete, for growing meat without methane release, and for numerous other issues. This transition will be long. But the trends in the core technologies for electricity are extremely promising.

There’s more about the exponential pace of renewables in my book on innovating to beat climate change and resource scarcity and continue economic growth: The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.

 

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Video: Brain Implants to Link and Augment Human Minds (The Science of Nexus)

Here’s video of my Le Web Paris talk, on Linking Human Minds. This is all about the current science of sending sights, sounds, and sensations in and out of human brains, and the frontiers of augmenting and transferring memory and intelligence.  Le Web did a fantastic job producing this. I love the split-screen showing me speaking and the slides at the same time.

The talk itself is a compilation of the very real science that I used in my novels Nexus (one of NPR’s Best Books of 2013) and Crux.

You can read fictionalized accounts of the uses and mis-uses of these technologies in the novels.  (Along with a non-fiction appendix at the back of each with more on the science.):
 Nexus
-  Crux 

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The Best Books Threaten the Powerful – My Video Message on Banned Books Week

My old friend Derek Wolfgram asked me to record a video message for Banned Books Week, on behalf of the California Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee.  So here are some thoughts about the global brain, censorship as brain damage, and why the books that are banned are books we should go out and find a way to read.

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Actually: You ARE the Customer, Not the Product

Don’t believe the hype. You’re the customer, whether you pay directly or by seeing ads.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: “On the internet, if you’re not paying for something, then you’re not the customer. You’re the product.”

This meme, and its various permutations, are meant to to convey that if you’re not shelling out direct cash for a service, that you should expect to be used by that service. Perhaps. But there are many many things wrong with it. In fact, it’s wrong in almost every way.

You are the customer.  You can do things no “product” can do.

Think about the things you can do that a “product” can’t do:

  1. You can stop using the service.  You can deny the company that provides it the revenue you represent. What product ever abandoned its parent company?
  2. You can look around for competitive offerings, and choose one of those. Again, no ‘product’ can do this. And this imposes pressure on those services that you and I use, and the companies behind them, that is very different than the model of customers as inert ‘products’ would imply.
  3.  You can use the service more… or less.  Your choices aren’t binary. You can scale up or down how much you use any of these services.
  4.  You can tell the world how great this service is, how great this company is… Or how awful they are.  You have the power not just to vote with your feet – but also with your voice, in all the myriad ways the modern world allows you to express it.  Companies know this. And it’s incredibly important to them.
  5.  You can make those choices on the basis of utility, or beauty, or privacy, or politics, or morality, or any principle or basis you choose.  The reasons are entirely up to you.
  6. You can change the service itself. That’s right. Everyone tells me that Facebook is on a one-way path towards less and less privacy. So why is it that over the last 6 months, Facebook has steadily introduced more UI that has made it clearer and clearer to me (in very proactive ways) who can see what information, and how to change that?  Those changes in Facebook’s UI and feature set are a response to customers. Not to ad buyers. But to you and I and everyone who complained about privacy. Inert ‘products’ don’t elicit change in the store shelves that house them.

Now, perhaps you’re sitting there, reading this, and saying “Ramez Naam has lost the plot. The real point here is that if a company isn’t charging me anything, they must be selling my data to make a buck.”  Well, consider this:

What stops a company that does charge you money to use their service from also selling your data?

The reality is much more complex.


  1. Charging for a service does not in any way imply a good privacy policy.  Getting your money does not mean that companies aren’t double-dipping to also sell your information.
  2. Similarly, monetizing via ads does not necessarily imply bad privacy. There are better and worse ad systems that reveal orders of magnitude different amounts of data to third parties.

What It’s Like Working On a Web Service 
Where does my perspective on this come from?  Well, I spent 7 years working on an ad-supported web service (Bing.com).  And what did we call the hundreds of millions of people who came to our site every day? We called them customers. And what was our obsession? To maximize their success at their tasks, their happiness with our product, their likelihood of coming back as satisfied customers again, and their odds of telling someone else that they had a good experience with us.

Does that mean we completely ignored monetization?  Of course not. The web services you use are, many of them, built by businesses. Those businesses exist to make a profit. But to make a profit, you have to have customers. And to have customers, to keep customers, and to grow your set of customers, you have to delight them, every day, again and again and again. That’s job #1 for any web service. No customers, no money.

Every successful web service knows that.  Every successful web company knows that you’re the customer. Any who forget won’t be in business long.   

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The Campbell Award – and Why I’m Optimistic About the Future of SF

Sofia Samatar has won the Campbell Award for Best New SF Writer! Huge congratulations, Sofia! Her victory makes everything about the post below, written before I knew the outcome, even more true:

This has been a challenging year for SF. It’s a year we’ve faced again the reality that sexism and racism and bigotry still exist here.

Yet I’d like to riff off of some thoughts I first saw Kameron Hurley express.

Because this is also the year in which the most celebrated book, no matter who wins the Hugo tonight, is Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. And it’s a year in which it’s worth repeating the names of nominees for the Campbell Award, for Best New Science Fiction Writer, an award very much about the future.

I’m writing this before the award, so I don’t know who won. But the nominees speak for themselves.

Besides myself we had:

Benjanun Sriduangkaew.

Max Gladstone.

Wesley Chu.

Sofia Samatar. [Who Won!]

That’s a ballot that looks more like a cross section of the WORLD than any other. This is a ballot that’s exciting and forward looking, in the diversity of the authors on it – their genders, their ethnicities, the nations they hail from and that they’ve lived in and live in now – and of the science fiction and fantasy themes that we collectively write on.

And if these are the best new science fiction authors, if these are the rising voices of SF, then I am profoundly optimistic about the future of science fiction and fantasy.

Fifty years ago this year, no lesser a dreamer of the future than the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King wrote that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”[i] I believe Dr. King was right. There are still some bad apples even in a community as progressive as SF. But overall, the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. And we are the ones who bend it.

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Nexus is a Finalist for the Endeavour Award!

I’ve just found out that Nexus is a finalist for the 2014 Endeavour Award, for the best SF or fantasy book written by a Pacific Northwest author in the previous year.  Wonderful!

The full list of finalists is:

King of Swords by Dave Duncan (47North)
Meaning of Luff by Matthew Hughes (CreateSpace)
Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot)
Protector by C.J. Cherryh (DAW Books)
Requiem by Ken Scholes (Tor Books)

The winner will be announced OryCon, in Portland, Oregon in November. And it comes with a grant of $1,000.

So now for Nexus that’s:

  1. Winner of the 2014 Prometheus Award (tie with Cory Doctorow’s Homeland)
  2. Shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award (which Ann Leckie’s wonderful Ancillary Justice won)
  3. Shortlisted for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award (which Ann Leckie’s wonderful Ancillary Justice also won)
  4. Shortlisted for the Endeavour Award
  5. An NPR Best Book of the Year
I must say I’m completely thrilled!

Buy Nexus

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