The Future Is Bright

Three observations just came together in my mind.

1. LED light is in IEEE Spectrum’s top 11 techs of the decade:

With every decade since 1970, when the red LEDs hit their stride, they have gotten 20 times as bright and 90 percent cheaper per watt. … Even now, white LEDs are competitive wherever replacing a burned-out lamp is inconvenient, such as in the high ceilings and twisty staircases of Buckingham Palace, because LEDs last 25 times as long as Edison’s bulbs. They have a 150 percent edge in longevity over compact fluorescent lights, and unlike CFLs, LEDs contain no toxic mercury. (more)

2. When something gets cheaper, we use more of it:

The Jevons paradox … is the proposition that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase the rate of consumption of that resource. … [It] has been used to argue that energy conservation is futile, as increased efficiency may actually increase fuel use. (more; see also)

3. More light makes most nice things look better:

Yesterday, when filming an upcoming TV show in an ordinary home, I noticed how much extra light they added to the room, even in daytime in a room with lots of windows, and how much better that made it all look to me.  The host explained how common this was, and that to make actors look good in a scene that viewers are suppose to see as dim, they actually use use extra dark materials for everything else in the scene.

I predict that over the next few decades, as lighting gets lots cheaper, we will make our indoor worlds a lot brighter.  This will start with “studio quality lighting” for high end homes, and then percolate to the rest of our spaces. You probably don’t notice just how much our indoor areas vary in their lighting:

Full, unobstructed sunlight has an intensity of approximately 10,000 fc [footcandles]. An overcast day will produce an intensity of around 1,000 fc. The intensity of light near a window can range from 100 to 5,000 fc, depending on the orientation of the window, time of year and latitude. (more)

The Illuminating Engineering Society … guidelines extend from lighting a public area using 2 fc to 5 fc level, to lighting special visual task areas of extremely low contrast and small size using 1,000 fc to 2,000 fc. The recommendations consider factors like occupant age, room surface reflectance, and background reflectance. (more)

At 60 years old, we need two to three times the light we needed at age 20, and also more shielding and diffusers since older eyes are more sensitive to glare. (more)

Added 11:30a: Eli points us to the August Economist:

Assuming that, by 2030, solid-state lights will be about three times more efficient than fluorescent ones and that the price of electricity stays the same in real terms, the number of megalumen-hours consumed by the average person will, according to their model, rise tenfold. … When gas lights replaced candles and oil lamps in the 19th century, some newspapers reported that they were “glaring” and “dazzling white”. In fact, a gas jet of the time gave off about as much light as a 25 watt incandescent bulb does today. To modern eyes, that is well on the dim side. (more)

Added 1:30p: More energy efficient windows also leads to more bigger windows and so more light.

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  • there are some unexpected and intriguing cultural differences here as well: despite the US’s comparitive wealth it is noticably less well-lit than European countries. Not only are public spaces (foyers, elevators, shops, airports, stations) more dimly lit, but also in my (albeit limited) experience private homes and apartments are kept more dingy than in UK.

    I wonder why.. just random cultural difference? or significant…

    certainly I would US to become brighter.

    • Douglas Knight

      Does anyone have data for international comparisons? I have heard the opposite about US vs France than bogotol’s experience. My limited experience in Europe never struck me one way or another.

      France has nuclear plants capable of being used for marginal production. If they actually use them this way (maybe not, since only 80% of their electricity is nuclear), then they would have low marginal cost, but high average cost. Does France look any different from the rest of Europe?

      • Ray

        Japan didn’t strike me as any different than the US even though they have a cultural preference for certain things to be white, and/or light colored. (Cars and such.)

  • Eli

    The Economist published a similar thought in August.

  • “over the last three centuries, and even now, the world spends about 0.72% of its GDP on light. This was the case in the UK in 1700 (UK 1700), is the case in the undeveloped world not on grid electricity in modern times, and is the case for the developed world in modern times using the most advanced lighting technologies.”

    With an annual GDP growth rate
    With an increasing efficiency will result in a much brighter world

    How bright should an earth like world with our expected light output in 2100 be? Could you see it next to its local star?

    • One way the energy may be more efficiently used is that less light may be wasted to space, so it could be darker from the outside.

  • Jess Riedel

    Are LEDs expected to improve to the point where they replace CFLs?

    Also, a bit off-topic, but what are the market failures cited in justifying the government-mandated phase-out of incandescent bulbs happening in most developed countries? From what I can tell, the best arguments are those of the type “In the absence of a carbon tax (which would use market forces to induce consumers to choose more efficient technology), the next best way to combat global warming is through mandated efficiency of specific products”.

    • From samples I have seen in stores, LEDs can already beat smaller (<40 watt) CFLs in many ways – the big problem is that they cost 10x as much, or more.

    • Lord

      Less global warming than pollution from generating the electricity, even natural gas. Siting new plants is so difficult it is easier to build out of state and transmit it even with the losses, which adversely affects reliability as well.

  • Douglas Knight

    It is worth noting that the principal cost of incandescent bulbs is the labor of replacing them. I’m not sure whether this is still true with fluorescents. My comment about electricity was probably irrelevant.

    Jesse, the market responded to CA’s demand for 10% more efficient incandescents by inventing them. I know of no theoretical explanation for the market failure, but it was there!

    • Jess Riedel

      Without the cost of incandescents going up?

  • Ray

    RE: The light and dark elements in a tv scene.

    In my twenties I worked as a production artist for a set design place. We did everything from tv commercials to corporate shows to rock concerts, etc. And it is pretty cool how light and mood can be manipulated.

    Have a dark hallway at home? Put a wainscot in, and paint the walls a warm two tone with the lighter half on top, darker on bottom. Mirror at the end of the hall with a wall lamp on the same wall or near that end of the hall at least.

    I was doing some huge wall graphics for a new gym one time, and they needed to raise the drop ceiling a few feet, but couldn’t figure out how to do it affordably. We simply painted the ceiling the glossiest, whitest white we could find in latex. The ceiling looked two feet higher after that.

    • Actually, flat white is better than gloss for that. The reflections, and especially glare from lights, tends to kill the illusion.

      • Ray

        We used what Porter paints called a jet white. I was told that was the glossiest they had in normal interior latex. It worked great but I could see your point in that light would maybe warp too much and kill the extension effect. Ours worked so well perhaps because we were painting regular ceiling drop tiles and they really drank up the paint.

  • All the main rooms in my house have daylight-spectrum CFLs. The light just seems ridiculously nicer. (Cheap yellow CFLs in small rooms and halls.) I recommend this to anyone.

    • When I have had to winter over houseplants in interior rooms, I used the almost blue-white grow-bulbs (4 foot tubes). Once I got used to the color difference, I liked it a lot better than the conventional warmer lights. The whole room seemed larger and visually sharper.

  • Chris T

    Isn’t the actual resource being used here energy rather than light? While more efficient bulbs could certainly lead to more lights, I would expect a nontrivial amount of energy currently used for lighting to be shifted to other uses.

    There is also something of a cap for how much light people desire in a given location. There’s a point where a lot of light starts making people uncomfortable.

    • Khoth

      The cap will be pretty high. Ordinary daylight can be tens or hundreds of times brighter than ordinary indoor lighting, without seeming too bright.

      • Mark

        Do you think so? I like being in the daylight, but I would not want to work or light my home at that level. I keep my office lights off because I have a window that receives almost all reflected light off other buildings. It is pretty “dark” in comparison to daylight.

        Maybe that’s just me, but there is certainly a diminishing return to lighting.

      • Chris T

        Which why a lot of people wear sunglasses I guess.

  • “At 60 years old, we need two to three times the light we needed at age 20”

    When I was designing kitchens, I used this line to try to get people to buy cabinets with white laminate interiors. The interior had nothing to do with what exterior look you wanted. In almost all cases the white laminate interior is the least expensive alternative.

    I’m not telling the readers here anything new, but most customers wanted a fancier, higher status, interior surface for their cabinets, as opposed to the cheaper, more practical solution.

    I also put a lot of LED’s into my kitchen projects. I could sell the increased cost against the increased comfort (less heat, this is Dallas).

  • Jeffrey Soreff

    Good post! Another point is that this is one of those technologies that
    is getting reasonably close to theoretically optimal results. As the
    Spectrum article that you link to notes, LEDs are now close to 100
    lumens/watt, while the theoretical maximum is 683 lumens/watt
    (and that is for

    Photopic luminous efficacy of radiation has a maximum possible value of 683 lm/W, for the case of monochromatic light at a wavelength of 555 nm (green).

  • Even the indoor marijuana growers are starting to use LED lights! Apparently they’re still expensive in that market, though.

  • The hidden problem with the move to LEDs is that it’s taking place faster than our understanding of the effects of light on physiology. Take one health example of many candidates. Melatonin is a fundamental and pervasive hormone (it crosses the cell nucleus and regulates genes), and some researchers are following the possibility that one important contributor to “metabolic syndrome” (a huge health care issue) is simply that our melatonin cycles are messed up. So-called “full-spectrum” lights deliver mere dribs and drabs of the full palette of frequencies that the sun delivers (example: little or no UVA in any manmade lighting, but UVA may be a relevant frequency for retinal changes that manipulate melatonin).

    The time of a lighting technology transition (e.g., to LEDs) would be an ideal time to incorporate design changes that potentially have huge economic effects on health. But we simply don’t know enough yet to know what design changes are needed. It’s certainly clear that brighter light (but which frequencies are most relevant? should older people with yellowed lenses get more green instead of blue?) is a Good Thing during the day, but at what time is it important to decrease the intensity (and does that really have to be keyed to the individual’s melatonin cycle rise). And how dark does it have to be to keep from affecting people’s nocturnal melatonin surge? Some studies claim to detect hormonal effects merely from the usual pollution of clock LEDs in the bedroom.

    It’s not that LEDs can be presumed to be any worse for our health than the lighting systems today, it’s that a little bit of funds siphoned from silicon technology into physiological research might save us much, much more money than the efficiencies of just moving to LEDs offer. But the fast, twitchy market economics we live in today is unlikely to respond to that. Penny wise, pound foolish is fine when people make enough pennies fast enough that they can bail and leave someone else with the cost of foolish pounds.

    Of course, this can be viewed as an individual example of the general problem of technological acceleration: technology is changing faster than we can adapt to it.

    • I wonder too. When I originally wrote , a lot of LessWrongers dinged me for not making a solid case that melatonin was safe to supplement with.

      I recently went looking for some more safety data, and was surprised to find that if anything, it may be unsafe *not* to take melatonin, because modern adoption of TVs and computers late at night cause a severe fall in melatonin secretion, and lack of melatonin is correlated with ‘shift work sleep disorder’ and nasty things like cancer. (See links in last paragraph of )

      If these projections are right, it looks like we can expect the problem to only get worse. It may still be a net benefit, but there are going to be negative consequences to lighting up the night.

  • Godfrey Miller

    Evidently, your eyes don’t form properly unless they are exposed to bright enough light:

    This fact seems to explain the modern epidemic of nearsightedness. Just one more reason the future should be bright, and why children should not be kept indoors all day.