Silicon, Steel, and Stagnation

The AI revolution is here. Generative AI products across audio, video, image, and text are being developed at an astonishing pace. The current AI revolution marks an important milestone in humanity’s unrelenting march in the digital realm. First came the Internet, then the smartphone, and now AI. I am convinced that developing an Artificial General Intelligence that has human-like cognitive abilities to perform a wide range of tasks across different domains is only a matter of time. 

We’ve had AI and machine-learning-based tools in our software products for some time, but the current set of AI tools feel radically different. These AI tools such as ChatGPT are so intelligent, contextual, and  advanced that simple text-based prompts can output complex code, original poems, and captivating stories. These tools can also comprehend intricate text, skillfully combine different concepts, and produce  ingenious ideas. No wonder that  ChatGPT has become the fastest and the most widely adopted product in a record time. Many sectors— education, health, research, academia, and government — are ripe for disruption. The possibilities from here on are endless. 

When was the last time such a breakthrough innovation happened in the physical realm?

I recently came across a social media post that showed a giant poster wrapped around an unfinished building. The ad sarcastically quips, “Hey ChatGPT, finish this building…” pointing to the inadequacy of ChatGPT to do physical tasks. 

It made me wonder as to why the pace and scale of innovation in infrastructure and industry is nowhere near the speed of digital innovation?

Consider cement concrete, one of the foundational pillars of modern civilization. Cement concrete is a mixture of Portland cement, water, sand, and gravel. It is durable, sturdy, can withstand wide temperature and pressure fluctuations. It is also incredibly resistant to wind and water erosion. Because of these advantages, concrete is used everywhere:  bridges, dams, houses, hospitals, roads, and all the towering skyscrapers. 

However, for all of its advantages, constructing buildings and paving roads with concrete is tedious. Concrete is not good at tensile stress, so it must be reinforced with iron bars, which warrants huge labour. And then, you need to let concrete settle for a considerable time to strengthen. It may be sturdy, but it takes a ridiculous amount of time to build anything with concrete.

So it’s unbelievable to think that despite being invented over 2000 years ago, the basic formula and process for making concrete remain unchanged, with few truly disruptive improvements. The majority of the global infrastructure is built on cement concrete, which is known to have a significant environmental footprint, accounting for around 8% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Innovations have been made to reduce this environmental impact, such as “green” or “sustainable” concrete, but these are not yet in widespread use and do not essentially change the nature of concrete itself. The fundamental use and production of concrete remain similar to what it was hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.

Why haven’t we discovered an alternative to cement concrete that’s cheaper, more durable, and far easier to operate? Why isn’t there a disruptive innovation in infrastructure?

Prefabricated building technology was one improvisation that significantly reduced the time to build a structure. But we don’t see it around us because the technology is prohibitively expensive. And the far-fetched idea of printing buildings on site at scale is still a fantasy. In the age of digital acceleration, we are living a tale of physical stagnation.

Even roads too. The Covid pandemic proved that we can only go so far with remote work. People have a fundamental need to travel, and we need to pave thousands and thousands of kilometres of roads to sustain our growing population. How are we going to do it with asphalt and concrete? They are getting expensive by the day and just aren’t good enough for a 21st-century world. Why isn’t there a cheaper and faster way to lay roads and fix our potholes? 

Even for our energy needs, we rely heavily on fossil fuels. It will be many decades before we reduce our dependence on coal, oil and natural gas. Why haven’t we solved nuclear fusion that can provide abundant energy for thousands of years to come? Even with nuclear fission, all the world’s nuclear reactors use designs that were created decades ago. More advance technologies such as Dyson spheres and space travel are still confined to sci-fi novels. 

We live in a world where smartphones replace libraries, where artificial intelligence redefines work, and where the Internet connects us in an instant. Yet, we also live in a world where cement is still cement, engines still spit out smoke, and electricity is generated as it was generations ago.

We need to innovate and radically improve these processes. To ensure sufficient food for everyone, solve climate change, fix our energy security, and construct roads and buildings rapidly, we need disruptive innovation across these sectors too. 

Despite the technological progress in software and smartphones, we have stagnated in the physical realm. We are able to manipulate binary bits, not physical atoms. 

It’s not just about a lack of innovation. Even with existing processes, over time, you expect efficiencies to come in and things to become cheaper. But the costs of building things in the physical world are becoming expensive, hindering rapid progress.

So it’s not enough to discover new materials and new processes; we need to make them cheap for them to be deployed on a mass scale. Like how ChatGPT upended workflows across every conceivable sector, we need innovation that makes paving roads, buildings, and high-speed rails cheaper, faster and lasts a long time. 

Undoubtedly, these tasks present significant challenges; otherwise, we would have already accomplished them. But what’s worrying is we have stagnated so much that there is not much progress in these sectors. Our best minds are going for computer science engineering. We need them to work on industrial engineering, too.  

Some hard problems in the physical realm that we need to urgently solve:

1. How can we build mega infrastructure projects at a rapid speed and scale?

2. How can we make trees grow 10x as fast without disrupting the ecological balance?

3. How do we harness Nuclear fusion to create abundant energy from atoms?

4. Can we discover a cheaper, faster, more durable alternative to concrete and asphalt?

5. Flying cars and personal aircrafts?

Now these are not forbidden by any laws of physics. So it’s a matter of us developing the knowledge and capability to make it possible.

Of course, there is hope! When the Covid pandemic shook the world, our science & tech community developed vaccines at a breathtaking pace. mRNA vaccines, which used to be confined to esoteric academic journals, became a reality. We built all these vaccines and delivered them at scale. That’s a truly disruptive innovation in the health sector. With the arrival of ChatGPT, we now have the intelligence to help us in the physical realm. Maybe it will help us speed up our physical innovation trajectory. 

The world doesn’t need our best minds building another SaaS app that gets us hooked onto short, addictive videos. We need true disruptive innovations in the physical world and it shouldn’t take a pandemic to wake us out of our stagnation.

“Everything that’s not forbidden by the laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge” – The Beginning of Infinity [Image created by Midjourney AI]

33 thoughts on “Silicon, Steel, and Stagnation

  1. Ravi

    Nice article sir. All this is possible because of advancements in compute power by cloud and advanced optimization algorithms. Thanks to internet because of which we getting lot of fats to train huge models like chatgpt.

  2. Lakshminarayana rao

    Thought provoking

  3. Srividya

    Ok, now I feel like doing my engineering once again. I feel that there are innovations taking place …but on research papers. Donno why industries are not keen to implement them. There is no demand for such innovations as well. But software companies are very quick to adapt to new technologies. An organisation can change to Java 11 from java8 with in days. But it’s difficult and costly for the physical industries to change at that speed.

  4. Srividya


  5. Aditi

    Very true.

  6. Anonymous

    Interesting observation

  7. Rakesh

    Yaaa at the same time, as a teenager i am not getting any works to work for my pocket money,i feel technology is increased into the sky but in some parts of the it doesn’t reached.If people like small works owners like shop owners,painters,mechanics etc..these kind of people have to use technology or portal to post their vacancys so that a student or a person can opt that opportunity…Because money can impact on everything like From seed to fruit…

  8. Suman

    While reading your article I felt I should have taken engineering in my graduation, truly your thoughts are great and lines in your articleare well researched. Will wait for more such articles 😀.

  9. Anonymous

    Well defined, got so much about various aspects.

  10. Vindhya singh

    Every line is awakening from prison of mind. The demand of the current world is highly based on AI and cloud computation, but they also need to diversify their innovation and expand them into the areas which will provide a long lasting sustainable lifestyle.

  11. Anonymous

    Yes it’s very good article

  12. Sireesha

    Interesting lines and observation each and every one

  13. Anonymous

    100% human generated Article

  14. Anonymous

    100% Human generated Article 🫡

  15. MMR

    It is very true that not much of innovative steps initiated to reduce dependency on steel, cement, oil and natural gas. The process of conversation of raw ore to steel or cement is such that no technical revolution is foreseen in the near future. it is not like inventing a computer or a mobile phone. It sounds like we are depending on or improving technologies a little bit which were adopted centuries ago in manufacturing of basic metals, cement and oil. One can think of simplify the process by adopting eco friendly measures.

  16. Anonymous

    Great article and great wake-up call well done!

  17. Anonymous

    thought provoking, great articulation and what not !

  18. Anonymous

    haha great humor

  19. Supriya singh

    Nice article sir

  20. Matheen

    Great effort Sir. This article makes me thinks that, we are merely managing the infrastructure sector with conventional technologies. I could hardly imagine, a phrase on an under construction building can trigger, this deep thoughts. It reminds me of your words “Your first essay will be worst essay you’ll ever write.” This article makes me to envisage the amount of time, patience and practice, you must’ve put in, during your preparations to reach this stage of articulation through writings…!!!

  21. Nilesh Sahebrao Anwane

    Sir plz write blog on importance and benefit of meditation. And also tell how it helped in your life and upsc journey…plz sir

  22. Ch.Rachappa

    very interesting

  23. Ch.Rachappa

    nice article sir

  24. Smarika Jena

    Nicely written, thought provoking article.

  25. Anonymous

    Inspiring, just like you Sir.
    Great respect to you.
    May you and your family live long that too happily. ❤

  26. Gaurav

    Think about Real Estate as well, housing is the basic need, but many middle class people dream about having their own house at really really high cost. It is really funny that how the social aspirations narrowed down with such unjust benchmarks of identity.
    Hey Anudeep keep writing buddy!


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