Curious about the emerging technologies in this first round of voting? The Crowd Futures team has a round-up of what you should know.
Also known as climate engineering, geoengineering is the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, typically to combat the adverse effects of global warming. Geoengineering covers a dramatically broad array of technologies and techniques, not just the infamous conspiracy-theory-accruing methods of cloud seeding and weather control.
Geoengineering interventions are generally grouped into the two categories of solar and carbon. The former concerns itself with reflecting solar radiation back into space and hopefully counteracting the temperature rise caused by the increased levels of greenhouse gases. Such methods include using seawater to whiten clouds to increase reflexivity, launching reflective stratospheric sulfate aerosols, or obstructing radiation via space-based shields or mirrors.
The latter group aims to remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, countering ocean acidification in addition to greenhouse effects. Due to the scale of carbon dioxide levels, these techniques would have to be deployed globally. However, they can range from simple concerted tree-planting efforts to biochar production to vast farms of carbon-scrubbing towers.
Geoengineering is viewed by many as an ideology unto itself, one that is either the result or the apotheosis of the Silicon Valley spirit—“move fast and break s*** .” Specifically, the apparent dearth of solutions or action at the level of nation-state actors has encouraged a generation of engineers and financiers to abandon international projects in favor of small-scale, privately funded, purportedly altruistic, technocratic solutions.
Geoengineering is clearly within the bounds of an experimental “technofix” which still requires significant amounts of research and development. The famed 2015 National Research Council report kickstarted serious financial efforts with the recommendation of “federal funding for research into ‘plan B’ technologies to intervene in the climate system to counter the effects of warming.”
Much ink has been spilled extolling both the utopian benefits and apocalyptic mishandling of human intervention. As the science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson puts it, “Our current technologies are already geoengineering the planet—albeit accidentally and negatively.” Perhaps the most fertile area of discussion around geoengineering is not about the tech itself, but rather about the implications of embracing a technological fix to a blatantly social problem.
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Synthetic biology is a relatively new discipline at the intersection of biology and engineering that evokes images of Frankenstein-like creations and scathing blog posts. The definition of the field depends on whom is answering the question: biologists tend to emphasize the discrete biological modules that form the core of the application and improvement, while engineers tend to emphasize the engineering principles that lead the design and assembly of such modules. It’s an inherently interdisciplinary endeavor: computer science, electrical engineering, biophysics, and evolutionary biology all have a seat at the table.
The breadth of application of synthetic biology techniques is rivaled only by the discipline’s ethical criticisms and various detractors. Some scientists swear that the technology has the capacity to revolutionize energy (through custom-built hydrogen-generating microbes), medicine (the manufacture of vaccines and creation of new tissue), environment (detecting and breaking down pollutants), materials (synthetic protein-based fibers with a bevy of structural features), and agriculture (editing the very genomes of leafy greens). According to Eckard Wimmer, professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, who first synthesized the poliovirus from single nucleotides: “With this technology you can make poliovirus for 50 cents … You cannot stop this technology because there is a great hunger for it from many biologists.” Given the exponential increases in computational power for sequencing genomes (and legal intellectual property protection, and a lucrative private contract), one can design DNA itself as if on a (vastly more complex) assembly line.
But this utopian vision does not address the lengthy list of potential risks, which require thorough research and experimentation. If synthetic biology bestows the ability to destroy cancer cells, produce new plastics, and generate biofuel, then it will also make it possible to design and manufacture weaponized pathogens. Genetically modified organisms and the now-infamous CRISPR genome editing toolset are examples of contemporary applications that already evoke numerous ethical and security concerns—leaving aside the ominous possibility of an ascendant military-genetic-industrial complex.
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VR and Empathy
Famed science fiction author Philip K. Dick once defined reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” By this definition, we can hardly describe VR by insulting it with the word virtual. Industry leaders have advanced beyond developer kits and into consumer-market headsets that command increasingly less-niche market shares: the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PSVR. The head-mounted goggles, sensors, and haptic controller systems have convinced many that the dream of synthetic worlds promised since the advent of the 1962 Sensorama and 3D glasses is finally here. There are plenty of fictional examples that have fleshed out the dream of a purely virtual environment. Works of science fiction such as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One have inspired a conceptual and social framework for the very VR engineers working today.
By all reports, virtual reality isn’t just about videogames anymore (although that is still the platform’s commercial bread and butter). Virtual reality has an incredible number of potential applications, from the obvious examples such as entertainment, arts, and educational experiences to more arcane psychological experiments, clinical therapy, and marketing applications. VR is no longer a simple curiosity; by all accounts, it stands on the edge of becoming a professional tool across many industries.
Chief among the creators for VR are those who consider the categorical difference of living a VR experience fertile ground for positive social change, and what better way to foment change than to, quite literally, transport oneself into the shoes of another? Already there exist a plethora of articles, (link below), exploring the capacity of virtual reality to force its viewer to experience the world from a radically different perspective. Clouds over Sidra is a joint UN/Unicef short film that lets the viewer explore in 3D video the life of a 12-year-old Syrian girl. The Lebanese film Four Walls, the Ebola survivors film Waves of Grace, and the performance art piece The Machine to Be Another all focus on issues of connection, empathy, and physical limitation.
But actually changing hearts and minds might be tricky: A 2009 study from the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University found that placing people in dark-skinned avatars seemed to activate negative stereotypes about black people, rather than reduce them. “VR is like uranium,” VHIL founding director, Jeremy Bailenson says. “It can heat homes and it can destroy nations.”
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Space agriculture, or space farming, is the cultivation of crops on a celestial object or within a spaceship. Just like farming on earth, an artificial ecosystem in outer space requires all the necessary basics of soil, air, and light for plant growth. Technical challenges associated with off-world farming include compensating for reduced gravity, inadequate lighting, low-pressure atmospheres, and possibly extreme amounts of radiation. However, the long-term benefits of developing agriculture in space are spectacular. Supplying food to the International Space Station is staggeringly expansive. It is impractical at best to resupply spaceships on proposed interplanetary missions. Any long, crewed voyage or permanent settlement is going to require ecological autonomy with no tangible interaction with Earth. The ability of astronauts to grow their own food truly opens up the possibility of sustainable space exploration and settlement. Additionally, spacefaring plants might just be essential to the long-term survival of the human race in the unlikely event that Earth becomes unfarmable or uninhabitable.
Past efforts at testing plant growth in space have been largely academic, but we are just now entering a period of practical investment into sustainable space travel methods. NASA is obviously one of the largest governmental organizations currently experimenting with various technologies and methods. As of 2013, NASA has been rolling out their Vegetable Production System (VEGGIE), a “deployable plant growth unit capable of producing salad-type crops to provide the crew with a palatable, nutritious, and safe source of fresh food and a tool to support relaxation and recreation.” It currently costs about $10,000 to send a pound of food to the International Space Station (ISS), whose inhabitants consume the limited fresh produce immediately. Now the astronauts are growing lettuce, radishes, and snap peas on board: nutritious greens selected to grow with a minimum of growing space, labor, and resources.
According to University of Arizona researcher Gene Giacomelli, “Astronauts should not have to be farmers.” Giacomelli was the lead investigator of a NASA-funded growth chamber for the Moon, and he envisions “a multiarmed, inflatable greenhouse building staffed with robots that do the bulk of the work.”
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Biomimicry is the imitation of abilities found in nature by yours truly, the human race. We humans have number of complex problems to solve, so why reinvent the wheel, so to speak. Plants and animals have adapted to their various habitats and ecological niches through skills and design of absolutely remarkable variety.
Leonardo da Vinci famously modeled his sketches for flying machines on his keen observations of birds in flight. The tiny, sticking hooks common in plant and seed pods inspired the creation of the ubiquitous Velcro brand fasteners. Researchers have been able to chemically replicate the superhydrophobic effect of lotus flowers with nearly endless applications (including the eventual obsolescence of windshield wipers and car wax jobs). The wings of the butterfly species morpho have unique light scattering properties with which Qualcomm was able to adapt for a new electronic visual display. A project called NOtES, which grew out of research at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, uses nanoscale light-interfering structures to create an anti-counterfeiting stamp that is more difficult to crack than a hologram and can be “printed” not only on bank notes, but also on a wide range of other objects. The entire field of bionics (Six Million Dollar Man, anyone?) has its origins in the application of technology and modern engineering systems to biological matter and methods.
Although humans have looked to nature for answers since time immemorial, we are currently experiencing a bit of a biomimetic renaissance. In the face of massive issues of environmental and ecological sustainability, entire firms, corporations, and challenges have formed in order to better seek innovation by emulating Mother Nature. If we accept that nature has already solved many of the problems we are dealing with, then we should take advantage of billions of years of research and development and acknowledge that animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers.
Biomimicry is being embraced across industries as a sort of ideology and process of innovation in its own right. Non-profits are obsessing over nature’s ability to catalyze new sustainable solutions to reduce the human footprint—to strive toward net zero. Urban planners are designing cities like interactive ecosystems that constantly recycle materials, plant matter, and water. Possible future applications quite literally span the world.
Even Further Reading:
You can find an entire collection of TED Talks on the topic of biomimicry