Developing Big Tech: A Saving Grace?

I spent last week in Vancouver, Canada at the Agora Financial Investment Conference. The British Columbia Room of the Fairmont Hotel was packed, wall to wall. There were hundreds and hundreds of people.

The title of my talk was Technology Had Better Work, Because Everything Else Is Failing. My point was that we — our society — need a lot of creative new technology to counter unsustainable government overspending and national debt. Start with Detroit and then think much bigger.

The National Ignition Facility

The heart of my discussion was a description of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) I visited last week at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Basically, I described the massive physics project that the US Department of Energy (DOE) built over the past 20 years or so. It’s a significant, very expensive project. But it is also a truly unique tool for conducting astonishing science while pushing the envelopes of human knowledge and technology.

NIF is a VERY BIG laser system. The building alone is the size of three football fields. The DOE people, and many other outside scientists, use NIF in physics research. Although have to say that one of NIF’s key functions is to help ensure the reliability of the US nuclear weapons arsenal.

Nuclear Testing in the Olden Days

Back in the olden days — up until the early 1990s — the US (and the Russians, Chinese, Brits and French) used to set off real nuclear weapons at test sites. As in, Kaboom! The main US test site was out in Nevada, north of Las Vegas, where the test range is pockmarked with craters from the cave-ins over long-dormant blast chambers.

Craters at Nevada nuclear test site.

Here’s what happened with those Nevada tests. During an underground blast, the rock walls of the blast chamber either vaporized, or melted into a puddle of magma on the floor of the explosion cavity. Part of the magma cooled and turned into a kind of ‘rock glass’.

The shock wave from the blast usually fractured the roof area, forming a ‘chimney’ to the surface. Due to gravity, the roof of the cavity usually collapsed after a blast, falling into the chimney. There was usually extensive fracturing well beyond the blast site, too. The rock buckled and caved in all the way up, hence the craters.

Why mention this?

Underground blasts release toxins into the environment, through vaporized rock. And other particle emissions or underground water can become contaminated. The idea back in the 1990s was to stop all real explosions and thus cause less potential nuclear damage to the Earth’s atmosphere and water. Not a bad idea when you think about it.

Absent actual testing, though, the US government was faced with a problem. How does one ensure the reliability of the nuclear stockpile? It’s not as if the DOE tested nuclear weapons just for the sake of blowing holes in the desert.

No, each test had a specific scientific or engineering purpose, not least of which was to make sure that the circuitry and ‘physics package’ would work as intended. That’s part of what I discussed in part of my talk. I made every effort to explain things in lay terms, without getting all ‘tech’ about it. Plus, I used lots of slides and illustrations to make the presentation eye-catching and to keep people’s attention.

Developing Big Tech

The other angle of my talk was to illustrate the stunning levels of technology that went into designing, constructing and operating NIF. Overall, the system requires over 7,500 meter-scale optics, over 26,000 small optics and over 60,000 control points. That is, when I say it’s complex, I mean complex!

That’s not all, though. The NIF system is contained in over 6,000 modular devices filled with electronics, called line replaceable units (LRUs). And to coordinate it all, NIF uses the world’s most powerful supercomputer, Sequoia.

For purposes of the talk, NIF was my ‘big’ example. In other words, I was on my ‘make a big point’ conference soapbox during the talk. So first, I discussed the merits of government doing BIG projects like NIF. Then I made analogies.

I used the Erie Canal as an example of the national government doing big, important things. I also discussed the government’s role in sponsoring the transcontinental railways of last century. I pointed out how the US government built the giant dam projects of the 1930s, like the Grand Coulee and Hoover dams. Finally, I mentioned the Apollo program to go to the moon.

My point was that in many respects, NIF was/is the Apollo program of the past 20 years. NIF engaged the minds of tens of thousands of the country’s best scientists, engineers, designers, builders and more. And today, we have a tool with which to explore fundamental issues of nuclear science and energy.

Doing Big Things

It gets to a philosophical point. Should the federal government do big, important things? Should the government husband resources to do great things for the nation? Well, we make our political choices, don’t we? In this case, I’m talking about building NIF, not three big pyramids in the desert or something.

We’re not building much that’s big in the US anymore, however. We seem to think small. Indeed, we’re tearing down dams, not building them, in the US. Heck, we can’t even launch our own astronauts into space, so we pay the Russians for rides. Something has changed within US culture, and that’s worth pondering.

So what about NIF? What’s the point? What does it cost? It cost about $10 billion over 20 years to build NIF. Compare that with the Detroit bankruptcy, which is $18 billion. Should the nation be more proud of an achievement like NIF? Or of creating a situation like that in Detroit?

Or consider that the Federal Reserve pumps about $85 billion per month (!) into the stock and bond markets, allegedly to keep the economy from crashing. Is that a good or bad thing for the country over the long haul? I suppose we’ll live long enough to find out.

At any rate, that’s my summary of what I told the audience in Vancouver. My goal was to offer plenty of food for thought while highlighting a technological triumph like NIF.

At root, a key question is whether or not technology can create wealth faster than our civilisation destroys it with debt. It’s a serious issue, but another discussion for another time.

Keep an eye on the big tech space, it’s one of the last bastions of hope for investors.


Byron King
for Markets and Money

Ed Note: Developing Big Tech: Our Saving Grace? first appeared in The Daily Reckoning USA.

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Byron King currently serves as an attorney in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He received his Juris Doctor from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1981 and is a cum laude graduate of Harvard University. Byron is also co-editor of Outstanding Investments.

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