Science, technology & design

50 Years into the future

So there I was the other day flicking through the newspaper only to come across an article that immediately caught my eye. “What will science, sport and politics look like in another 50 years?” How can anyone resist a headline like that? On closer inspection the article was largely knee-jerk futurism. OK, I can see why you might ask the usual suspects (Martha Lane Fox, Oliver James, Alan Yentob etc) to ponder on prediction, but why bother with TV celebrities? (Answer, because you’re lazy and can’t be bothered with any original research). The result includes some vapid visions, such as the one from Nick Candy, a property developer, who says that ‘In 50 years not only will you be able to buy land space but airspace, too; floating pods in the sky will become commonplace.’ Good luck with that Nick.

Fortunately, there are still some wise words to be found. On the future of food, Michel Roux Jr thinks that: ‘There will be a return to traditional farming methods. Rotating land so that we get as much from it as possible, and the rise of biodynamic farms may offer the solution.’ On health and well-being, Susan Greenfield says: ‘We could even see two donors creating one child, another providing the womb, and two more involved in bringing up the child. The issues are explosive, and some people may find them distasteful, but that doesn’t mean they will go away.’

David Blunkett MP suggests that: ‘Longevity, the complete privatization of all pension provision and the divide between the “oldies” with property assets, and the “youngsters” under-50 with little or no capital, is leading to considerable discontent.’ Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, bemoans the ‘self-importance and shrillness’ of modern society, while Dominic Sandbrook, an historian, comments: ‘We’ll vote electronically using our mobile phones.’ Anthony Beevor, another historian, notes that ‘mass communications accelerate the polarization between success and failure, whether those of individuals, communities, companies or nations.’ Hilary Mantel, a novelist, fears that ‘The activity formally known as reading will have given way to personalized multi-media projects of pseudo-living, each citizen enraptured by his own autobiography.’ Other predictions include the thought that transport will no longer be cheap, (but we’ll get around in the same ways), that the assault on the written word could mean that in fifty years words will vanish, but nobody will really care, the thought that while publishers and bookshops may die, story-telling will not and the idea that while healthcare technology will be a dream, the economics of healthcare will become a nightmare. Perhaps the last word should be given to Neil Macgregor from the British Museum, who comments: ‘The oldest tradition is that the world is going to get better.’ Let’s hope so Neil.
Ref: Daily Telegraph (UK), 6 February 2011, ‘ 50 Years from Now…”
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Search words: Future, prediction
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Civilization 2.0

The world. It works. But it’s hardly a perfect model of how to organise a planet is it? We build, as it were, on what’s already been built. So what would happen if we had the chance to start over from scratch? What would we, as a planet, do differently? One thing we might do is dream bigger. According to Geoffrey West of the Sante Fe Institute, a doubling in size of cities results in a 15% reduction in energy use per capita. For each doubling, urban dwellers also experience an increase in income of 15%. There are downsides. These generally include increasing crime and diminishing water reserves. Hence the need to build cities alongside fertile farmland and water resources – so Phoenix and Beijing are bad, while New York and Shanghai are good.

As for transport, as a key reason that people don’t use small or low-speed vehicles in cities is the threat caused by large or fast moving vehicles, why not build one road system for small cars and another for large trucks? Energy to power these vehicles might be made more expensive so as to discourage private use and to limit other forms of consumption. Water would be made more expensive too, to reduce demand, or, like roads, distribution would be split into two streams – one super-clean for human consumption and one less so for general washing and cleaning. GDP would, of course, be broadened to measure happiness alongside wealth. As for politics this would be radically remodelled. For example, we would be led by the people we vote for in the sense that we would be individually governed by the party we select. Each individual would pay taxes to their party and receive a set of individualised services in return. As for paper money, there would be just one instant e-currency (a potential conflict with the number of nations perhaps?) and there would be greater equality and sustainability too. Time would be changed too. Instead of 24-hours we would perhaps split each day into ten equal parts, with 100 minutes in each hour and 100 seconds in each minute. Then again, do we really want to live in a world where weekends are placed even further apart?
Ref: New Scientist (UK), 26 March 2011, ‘Total reboot’ by B. Holmes.
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Search words: Reboot, rethinking
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Robot trends

Here’s an idea. Why not create a robot-only web that allows machines to swap tips about improving human-machine relations? Sounds crazy, but it isn’t. Indeed, web-chat for ‘bots (already dubbed RoboEarth) is already in the pipeline according to Markus Waibel at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich – a bit like Wikipedia for machines with machines uploading and downloading the information. One logical extension to this would be a robot-only app store. For example, scientists could design apps for certain types of robot or for specific types of robot behaviour. One potential advantage of this idea could be that attention would be focused more on robot minds and less on robot bodies and we would start to think more about domestic applications for robots, over and above factory applications.

What else? One thing that’s starting to receive more attention is the idea of robots filling in for humans in workplace settings. For example, mobile robots remotely controlled via the internet could take our place in meetings and become a serious alternative to telepresence. Again, this sounds slightly nuts, but you should never say never. Moreover, some of the unintended consequences of mobile robots could be fascinating, especially when smart machines infiltrate informal gatherings in office kitchens or on staircases. Whatever happens, it looks likely that thinking machines will soon start to blur the lines between what’s human and what’s not.
Ref: New Scientist (UK), 19 February 2011, ‘Robot internet to help machines share secrets’ by C. Biever and 26 March 2011, ‘Be there or be … a robot’ by H. Knight.
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Search words: Robots, robotics, apps, thinking machines
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Rock-eating bacteria

You’ve probably heard of rare earths by now, those increasingly hard to find elements that power our increasingly electronic lifestyles. China’s tightening grip on supplies of rare earths (they control 97% of supply) means that the hunt is now on for alternatives and alternative ways of finding the pesky things. One new idea is rock-eating bacteria. This probably sounds rather fanciful, but it’s not. Indeed, rock-eating bacteria, such as Leptospirillum, occur naturally in some of the nastiest and most inhospitable environments on earth. What’s this have to do with the price of an iPad? Simple. Rock-eating bacteria get their energy supply from chemical reactions with sulphides and can therefore hasten the breakdown of certain minerals. Given that certain base metals ranging from copper and zinc to gold and uranium occur as sulphides … well you do the math. Historically, it’s been a rather costly and labour intensive process (not to say an environmentally unsound practice) to get certain metals out of the ground, but with some help from such mineral-munching bacteria this could all be about to change. A project set up in Finland, for example, has found that nickel, zinc, copper, lead, tin, gold, cobalt, rhenium, selenium, platinum, palladium and uranium can all be extracted using bacteria – or bio-leaching as the practice is also known – while a Canadian project has shown that similar results can be obtained from polluted water. Where there’s muck there’s brass as my grandmother used to say (translation: one can clean up the environment and make money all at the same time).
Ref: Economist Technology Quarterly (UK), 12 March 2011, ‘Rocks on the menu’.
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Search words: Energy, rare-earths, mining, bacteria, minerals
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