A decade ago, mainstream experts weren’t predicting that the cost of solar power would fall as steeply as it has by 2020—it’s now down more than 80% so far. Tony Seba, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor, was one of the few to get the forecast right. Seba and investor James Arbib, who run a think tank called RethinkX, now say that similar changes could happen in other parts of the economy, transforming the cost of everyday life so significantly that it could pull people out of poverty.
“We are on the cusp of the fastest, deepest, most consequential transformation of human civilization in history, a transformation every bit as significant as the move from foraging to cities and agriculture 10,000 years ago,” Seba and Arbib write in a new report called Rethinking Humanity. They predict costs falling by at least 10x in key sectors including transportation, food, energy, materials, and information, while production processes simultaneously become more efficient by an order of magnitude. “Within 10 to 15 years,” they write, “everyone on the planet could have access to the ‘American Dream’ for a few hundred dollars a month.”
The work builds on a 2017 report on transportation, which suggests that when self-driving cars are finally allowed to drive by themselves, ride-hailing will become so cheap that it no longer makes economic sense to own a car in the U.S. (Because electric cars will also be cheaper, especially for ride-hailing services, the analysts predict that electric cars will be adopted far more quickly than many other experts estimate.) By 2030, families could save more than $5,000 a year by using on-demand electric robo-taxis rather than owning cars.
Many other experts think that autonomous cars will take more time to get regulatory approval. Seba is still optimistic and says that if U.S. regulators move slowly, the technology will be adopted elsewhere. And as it proves itself, it’s likely to become ubiquitous. “I think that by 2030, we’ll be talking about whether we still want to give individual licenses to drivers, because, you know, this technology is going to be orders of magnitude safer than human drivers,” he says. “And whether you believe that or not, I think that insurance prices will actually price human drivers out of the equation.”
If individual car ownership dwindles, that can transform cities, especially those in the U.S. that currently use vast swaths of land for parking. “A third of the land in most modern cities is going to disappear,” he says. “In L.A., they’ll be able to put in three San Franciscos in the space that’s going to open up because parking is going to become obsolete.” A large portion of the land is owned by governments; cities could potentially make the choice to dedicate it to housing, helping address one of the challenges of building affordably in expensive markets. The analysts predict that the cost of construction materials, and construction itself, will also drop dramatically; some materials may see unexpected uses (as solar PV becomes cheaper than materials such as structural plywood, builders might start to use it as a building material—which in turn could help lower the cost of electricity to zero).
The report also predicts that the cost of energy will continue to fall. In many markets, renewable electricity is already cheaper than fossil fuels, but they say it will drop further, and the cost of battery storage will also steeply fall. Other forms of energy, such as gas used for cooking or heat, will move to cheap electricity. The cost of producing food will also dramatically fall, the report says. The “precision fermentation” that companies such as Perfect Day use to make a vegan ice cream with a protein genetically identical to dairy milk, or that Impossible Foods uses to give its plant-based burgers the characteristic taste of beef, will become much cheaper: In a separate paper, the analysts predict that it will fall from $100 a kilo in 2019 to around $10 in the next five years, and $2 a kilo in 2030. That means new foods can be cheaper than food made from animals; the analysts think that the livestock industry will shrink and be replaced with a new production system where foods are engineered from a molecular level. The cost of groceries for a family could fall from hundreds a month to $51 a month.
The cost of communications will also fall. Seba points to the example of an Indian company called Reliance Jio, which gives away free phones with a phone plan that offers 20 gigabytes of data for $20 a month; he suggests that it will be possible to provide 10 times as much data by 2030 for the same cost, shrinking phone bills. The cost of clean water will also shrink, as technology such as desalination drops in cost. In total, the report says, it could be possible to provide someone’s basic needs—1,000 miles of transportation, 2,000 kilowatt-hours of energy, complete nutrition, clean water, 500 square feet of living space per person, communications, and even continuing education—for less than $250 a month by the end of the decade. By 2035, that cost could be cut in half.
Of course, it’s not guaranteed, but Seba says the technology is ready. “It will be possible to make this happen if we want it to happen,” Seba says. “The big point that we’re making is that poverty will be a social choice.” The changes in technology also converge with what has to happen to meet climate goals. “This is not going to cost us a lot of money,” he says. “It’s actually going to save us a lot of money.”