In 1961, as NASA was trying to spec out the computer needs for taking a man to the moon, there was only one commercial supplier for computers that could do the needed real-time calculations—IBM—and the only machines that could do them filled an entire room.
By 1969—just eight years later—the computer that took Apollo 11 to the moon and back fit in about one cubic foot of space, weighed less than 100 pounds and featured pioneering integrated circuits from Fairchild Semiconductor that didn’t exist five years earlier.
The development of the Apollo computer, as retold in One Giant Leap, Charles Fishman’s great new history of the Apollo missions, was the moonshot within the moonshot. Funded by NASA and designed and prototyped at Charles Stark Draper’s legendary Instrumentation Lab at MIT, it is Apollo’s true legacy, ushering in not the Space Age but the Digital Age that has transformed human existence.
With moonshots in mind, I sat down in June with another MIT visionary, Nicholas Negroponte, to talk about emerging technologies, from quantum computing and A.I. to augmenting people with both genetic and machine mutations. He founded the school’s vaunted Media Lab and has an uncanny ability to see the future long before it happens. What one technology would he pick for an all-out development effort by the United States?
Negroponte didn’t blink. “Fusion,” he said. Fusion? “Absolutely.”
Surprised? That’s understandable. Unlike the race to space during the Cold War, autonomous cars or who will roll out 5G, there’s zero mainstream attention being paid to the idea of forcing together hydrogen atoms to harness the limitless energy source that powers the stars. Nuclear fusion research—despite huge gains in recent years—isn’t going to make a presidential debate anytime soon, let alone garner Apollo-like funding.
And that, says Negroponte, is a pity. Because no other technology would transform our lives in the same way fusion would. In an age where we quibble over how many solar panels you need to run a hair drier, this would upend everything.
“Think for a moment if power were costless and limitless….What if we all used 20 times more power than we do on a per capita basis?” he says. “A different equation where power is infinite, it’s not polluting, you have no fuels that you need to replace.” To Negroponte, fusion isn’t about going green. It’s creating a new world based on unlimited energy consumption, filled with new kinds of machines, new businesses, new industries, new ways of being.
Crazy? Hardly, says Negroponte. “I remember when we would say to each other, ‘Imagine when computing is free and memory is infinite’,” he says. It sounded dotty in the ’60s and ’70s, but now “we’re almost there.”
So, will fusion happen, even with a zero chance of moonshot funding? Yes, he predicts. “It’s definitely going to happen in your life.” Wow. Now just imagine if we treated it like Apollo.