The Glucose Economy

hacking-bacteria-fuel-ecoli-670In the long search to find alternatives to fossil fuels and industrial processes that produce tons of waste, several ideas have been forward. These include alternative energy – ranging from solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal – additive manufacturing, and cleaner burning fuels. All of these ideas have begun to bear some serious fruit in recent years thanks to ongoing research and development. But looking to the long term, it is clear that a complete overhaul of our industrial economy is needed.

That’s where more ambitious ideas come to the fore, ideas like nanotechnology, biotechnology, and what’s known as the “Glucose Economy”. Coined by Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning Chinese-American physicist who also had the honor of serving as the 12th Secretary of Energy under Barack Obama, this concept calls for the development of an economic model that would replace oil with high-glucose alternative fuels.

110302_steven_chu_ap_328Chu conceived of the idea while working as a professor of physics and molecular and cellular biology at the University of California, Berkeley. In short, the plan calls for fast-growing crops to be planted in the tropics – where sunlight is abundant – converted into glucose (of which cellulose, which makes up much of the dry weight of a plant, is a polymer). The resulting glucose and cellulose would then be shipped around much as oil is today, for eventual conversion into biofuels and bioplastics.

As expected, this would render the current system of converting oil into gasoline and plastics – a process which produces immense amounts of carbon dioxide through processing and burning – obsolete. By comparison, glucose fuels would burn clean and produce very little in the way of chemical by-products, and bioplastics would be far more resilient and eco-friendly than regular plastics, and not just because they won’t cause a terrible disposal and waste problem (see Garbage Island).

David-Benjamin-and-the-future-of-architecture-01Another benefit of the this new model is the economic development it will bring to the tropical regions of the world. As far as production is concerned, those regions that stand to benefit the most are Sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South America, and South-East Asia. These regions are already seeing significant economic growth, and a shift like this would ensure their continued growth and development (not to mention improved quality of life) for many generations  to come.

But above and beyond all that is the revolutionary potential that exists for design and manufacturing, with architects relying on specially-designed software to create multi-material objects fashioned in part from biomass. This unique combination of biological processes, computer-assisted design (CAD), and human intelligence is looking to trigger a revolution in manufacturing and construction, with everyday materials to buildings created from eco-friendly, structurally sound, biomaterials.

bio-buildingOne such architect is David Benjamin, a computational architect and principal of the New York-based practice The Living. Together with his collaborators, Benjamin is conducting experiments with plant cells, the latest of which is the production of xylem cells – long hollow tubes plants use to transport water. These are computer modeled and grown in a Cambridge University lab and studied to create materials that combine the desired properties of different types of bacteria.

In addition, they are working with sheets of calcium and cellulose, seeking to create structures that will be strong, flexible, and filigreed. And beyond The Living Thing, there are also initiatives like the Living Foundries Program, a Department of Defense initiative that is hoping to hasten the developmental process and create an emergent bio-industry that would create “on-demand” production.

1394231762-re-making-manufacturing-united-statesNot only would this shave decades off the development process, but also hundreds of millions of dollars. What’s more, Benjamin claims it could take only 8 to 10 years to see this type of biotechnology enter commercial production. Naturally, there are those who oppose the development of a “glucose economy” as advocated by Chu. Beyond the proponents of fossil fuel energy, there are also those advocate nationally self-sufficient resources bases, rather than foreign dependence.

To these critics, the aim of a future economy should be energy independence. In their view, the glucose economy is flawed in that it merely shifts energy dependence of nations like the US from the Middle East and OPEC to the tropics, which could create a whole new slew of geopolitical problems. However, one cannot deny that as alternatives go, Chu’s proposal is far preferable to the current post-peak oil model of frakking, tar sands, natural gas, and coal.

bio-building1And it also offers some new and exciting possibilities for the future, where building processes like additive manufacturing (which is already making inroads into the construction industry with anti-gravity 3D printing, and the KamerMaker House) would be supplemented by using “biohacked” bacteria to grow structures. These structures would in turn be composed of resilient materials such as cellulose and organic minerals, or possibly carbon nanotubes that are assembled by organic processes.

And the amount of money, waste, energy and lives saved would be immense, as construction is currently one of the most dangerous and inefficient industries on the planet. In terms of on the job accidents, it causes some 10,000 deaths and 400,000 injuries a year in the US alone. And in terms of resource allocation and money, construction is labor intensive, produces tons of waste, and is almost always over budget.

hacking-bacteria-bio-light-670Compared to all that, a system the utilizes environmentally-friendly molecules and materials, enhances growing operations, fostered greater development and economic cooperation, and leads to a safer, cheaper, less wasteful construction industry seems immensely preferable. And it does offer a solution of what to do about two major industries that are ailing and in desperate need of modernization.

Boy, it feels like a long time since i’ve done a conceptual post, and the topics do appear to be getting more and more serious. Can anyone recall when I used to do posts about Cool Ships and Cool Guns? Yeah, me too, vaguely. Somehow, stuff like that seems like a far cry from the Internet of Things, Interstellar Travel, O’Neill Cylinders, Space Elevators, and timelines of the future. I guess this little blog of mine has been growing up in recent years, huh?

Stay tuned for more conceptual posts, hopefully something a little lighter and fluffier next time 😉


Climate Crisis: Climate Bomb in the Arctic?

icecapThe northern polar regions are considered by many to be the main battle grounds when it comes to Climate Change. The slow melting of the planet’s ice caps are rapidly melting, which in turn leads to increasing sea levels, and an increase in the amount of solar radiation our oceans absorb. However, according to a new theory, the disappearance of the ice sheet might also release a “time bomb” of greenhouse gas.

The theory appeared in recent paper submitted to the journal Nature. which argued that warming temperatures could release 50 billion tons of methane currently frozen in the Arctic seabed. Because methane is a potent greenhouse gas, such a huge release could drastically speed up the rate at which the sea ice retreats, the amount of solar energy that the ocean absorbs, and exacerbate the ongoing melt.

NASA_global_warming_predIt could also mean global temperatures rising more quickly, moving the world’s climate past generally-agreed-upon “tipping point” limits. Using the same methodology as the Stern Review, a landmark study from 2006. the papers authors  – Gail Whiteman, Peter Wadhams, and Chris Hope of Cambridge University – put a price tag on the potential damage:

The release of methane from thawing permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea, off northern Russia, alone comes with an average global price tag of $60 trillion in the absence of mitigating action–a figure comparable to the size of the world economy in 2012 (about $70 trillion). The total cost of Arctic change will be much higher.

Using various scenarios, they say the methane could take from 10 to 50 years to emerge. But they’re clear about who’ll be hit hardest:

The economic consequences will be distributed around the globe, but the modeling shows that about 80% of them will occur in the poorer economies of Africa, Asia and South America. The extra methane magnifies flooding of low-lying areas, extreme heat stress, droughts and storms.

This is certainly consistent with existing Climate Change scenarios that predict the presence of severe drought in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South and East Asia – the most populous regions of the Earth accounting for roughly 3 billion people.

Pollution over Mexico CityHowever, there are those who dispute this theory beyond the usual crop of Climate Change deniers. According to these dissenting views, the methane is unlikely to escape to the atmosphere as quickly as the paper predicts, and that some of it could be broken down in the ocean.

But Nafeez Ahmed, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development, says these skeptics are relying on outdated models. The reality on the ground, as captured by scientists with the International Arctic Research Center, is that temperatures are rising faster than elsewhere and that current ice melt is consistent with the methane effect.

Global_Warming_Predictions_MapTo make matters worse, even if the methane emerges slowly, it would still be catastrophic. The research performed by Whiteman, Wadham, and Hope shows that the effects will be the same, regardless of whether or the methane is released over a 50 year period or a 10 year period. The key is mitigating factors, which call for immediate and ongoing intervention to ensure that worst doesn’t happen.

Bad news indeed, and it further demonstrates the dangers of what is referred to as a the “feedback mechanism” of Climate Change. As things get worse, we can expect the rate at which they get worse to increase at every step. And considering the likely social, political and economic impact of these changes, the ramifications of these new predictions are dire indeed.


More Judgement Day Announcements…

terminator_judgement_dayNovember saw some rather interesting developments in the field of robotics. First, there was the unveiling of Disney’s charming juggling robot, an automaton capable of playing catch with a human being. This robot is intended for use in Disneyland parks as a form of entertainment for guests, but many people wonder if this is an eerie precursor to a machine that is capable of throwing other things as well…

While Disney was scant with the details of how the robot works, they did explain that a camera tracks the balls being thrown, while an algorithm works out exactly where the ball is going to land and positions the robot arm accordingly. Combining video tracking and software, the robot is able to anticipate where its catching hand needs to be, much like the human brain does. Check out the video of it playing catch with a human stand-in below:

Also in the news, Momentum Machines unveiled a new automated burger robot chef last month. After being successfully tested on the line, the company announced its plans to introduce this robot to fast food chains everywhere, saving companies millions of dollars in staffing costs. According to projections, Momentum Machines says that its automated burger robot — which does everything from flipping burgers, to slicing tomatoes, to toasting the bun — could save the fast food industry $9 billion in wages.

Of as yet, no video is available of the burger robot doing a demonstration, but this helpful infographic does give a breakdown of the robots structure and basic functions (below). Granted, this might seem like a callous and insensitive move, especially to the over 2 million workers currently employed in fast food in the US alone. But with just about every other production line having been automated already, this seems to many like the next logical step. Good luck Momentum Machines; hope the angry mob outside your offices doesn’t scare you!

robot-burger-flipper-momentum-machinesGranted, this may all still seem like a far cry from Skynet and Cylons, but under the circumstances, is it any wonder that Cambridge University founded the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) to evaluate new technologies? Clearly, some people are worried robots are going to be doing more than just chucking balls and flipping our burgers.

Scientists Raise the Alarm on Human Enhancements

enhancementThe concept of technological progress and its potential consequences has been the subject of quite a bit of attention lately. First, there was the announcement  from Harvard University and Human Rights Watch that a ban on killer robots was needed before the current pace of innovation led to the machines that could so without human oversight.

Then came the University of Cambridge’s announcement about the creation of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) to evaluate new technologies. And last, there was the news the news that the DOD had signing a series of instructions to “minimize the probability and consequences of failures that could lead to unintended engagements,” starting at the design stage.

bionic_handConcordantly, back in early November, the Royal Society along with the Academy of Medical Sciences, British Academy, and Royal Academy of Engineering concluded a workshop called “Human Enhancement and the Future of Work” in which they considered the growing impact and potential risks of augmentation technologies. In their final report, they raised serious concerns about the burgeoning trend and how humanity is moving from a model of therapy to one in which human capacities are greatly improved. The implications, they concluded, should be part of a much wider public discussion.

Specifically, the report raised concerns on drugs and digital enhancements that will allow people to work longer, hard and faster. Such technologies could easily give rise to a culture of enhanced competitiveness, more than we currently know, where the latest in cybernetics, bionics and biomedical devices are used to gain and edge, not to remedy medical problems. Currently, things like bionic prosthesis are being created to aid amputees and injury victims; but as the technology improves and such devices become more effective than organic limbs, the purpose could change.

cyberpunk-eyeWhat’s more, there are the ethical implications of having such technology available to human beings. If people can upgrade their bodies to enhance their natural abilities, what will it means for those who get “left behind”? Will the already enormous gulf between the rich and poor expand even further and take on a new dimension? Will those who want to succeed in the business world be forced to scrounge so they can get the latest upgrades.

Or, as the panel’s final report put it:

“Work will evolve over the next decade, with enhancement technologies potentially making a significant contribution. Widespread use of enhancements might influence an individual’s ability to learn or perform tasks and perhaps even to enter a profession; influence motivation; enable people to work in more extreme conditions or into old age, reduce work-related illness; or facilitate earlier return to work after illness.”

At the same time however, they acknowledge the potential efficacy and demand for such technologies, prompting the call for open discourse. Again, from the report:

“Although enhancement technologies might bring opportunities, they also raise several health, safety, ethical, social and political challenges, which warrant proactive discussion. Very different regulatory regimes are currently applied: for example, digital services and devices (with significant cognitive enhancing effects) attract less, if any, regulatory oversight than pharmacological interventions. This raises significant questions, such as whether any form of self-regulation would be appropriate and whether there are circumstances where enhancements should be encouraged or even mandatory, particularly where work involves responsibility for the safety of others (e.g. bus drivers or airline pilots).”

In many ways, this report is overdue, as it is offering some rather obvious commentary on a subject which has been the subject of speculation and fiction for some time. For example, in the Sprawl Trilogy, William Gibson explored the idea of human enhancement and the disparity between rich and poor at length. In his world, the rich were ensured clinical immortality through AI and biotech while everyone else was forced to spend their savings just to afford the latest tech, merely so they could stay in the running.

However, just about all of the panel’s recommendations were most appropriate. They included further investigations into ensuring safety, affordability, and accessibility, not to mention that some of these enhancement technologies —  be they pharmaceutical, regenerative medicines, or cybernetics — should be regulated by the government. This last article is especially appropriate given the potential for personal misuse, not to mention the potential exploitation by employers.

With all the harm that could result from having technologies that could render human beings “postmortal” or “posthuman”, some degree of oversight is certainly necessary. But of course, the real key is a public educated and informed on the issue of cybernetics, bionics, and human enhancement, and what they could mean for us. As with so much else, the issue is one of choice, and awareness of what the consequences could be. Choose wisely, that’s the only guarantee! Hey, that rhymed… I smell a quote!