It Was Only A Matter of Time…

I got a bad review…It was bound to happen. To be honest, and after the primal gut reaction faded (which took some time, I’ll admit), I’m kind of glad it happened. It still doesn’t feel good from an emotional level, but rather I realize, from a rational level, its necessity. Here it is:

“On Giant’s Shoulders:

Those in the know will appreciate that Newton’s famous quip was intended as an insult first and a pithy saying second. It applies only in the first case to this self-regarding nonsense. Far from providing a ‘rational’ guide to anything the book merely trots out old knowledge without so much as a smattering of original insight, commentary, or critical thought to be seen. The result is little more than another purposeless blog transferred to ‘paper’ with no obvious justification and little to recommend it. Save your money for a book considerably less random and more rational.

Pretty hard-hitting. Upon reading it, I had 2 options. Ignore it and pretend all was dandy dory, and in time hopefully forgetting it was ever there, or learn from it. I chose, as hard as it is, to learn from it (or try very hard to with all my biases).

So, if anyone has read my book — all 7 of you — I’d like to ask a favour: tell me what you disliked about it. Either as a comment here, or as a proper review on Amazon (if it’s especially hard-hitting and you feel I might delete your comment — which I won’t, I promise, but the choice is yours). It can be as hard-hitting or soft natured as you like; use a pseudonym, or not; whether you are my friend, offline or online, or not, please tell me what you disliked, perhaps even hated, about Random Rationality: Expanded. (No comments about the 1st edition: I hate it just as much as you do! Trust me.)

I want to learn, even if that means getting my ego bruised, battered, and burned at the public stake in the short-term: indulge thyself at my expense.

The Freebies Hundredth…And The New ‘Lowdown’

1-0-0….This is my 100th post! So to celebrate, I’m giving away Random Rationality: Expanded and S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism free for the next three days. Get’em while you can


The below links will take you to the Kindle store where you can get them free until the 22nd June:

Get Random Rationality: Expanded for free – [The UK edition is here]

What people thought of it:

Author Catherine Tosko wrote of Random Rationality: “This book is as good as (the oft-quoted by Janabi) Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot.”

Writer Ryan Culpeper wrote: “It’s very informative, witty and well written. The author took a risk by committing to such a hefty scope, but he pulls it off quite eloquently.”

Get S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism for free – [The UK edition is here]

Continue reading “The Freebies Hundredth…And The New ‘Lowdown’”

Random Rationality is Back

A Rational Guide to an Irrational World

The 2nd edition of my e-book, Random Rationality: Expanded – A Rational Guide to an Irrational World has just been released on Kindle for $2.99. Some key features differentiating it from the 1st edition:

  • Every chapter has undergone a makeover with a total of 24,000 words added, making it 63,000 words now.
  • Corrected several facts – my favourite correction is that the Universe is now 13.82 billion years (though there was no way for me to know the age of the universe in the 1st edition, so this is more of an update). Some other facts I reported were genuinely wrong and I have corrected as many as were bought to my attention and I’ll write a future post on which ones they were if I can find my notes. The ones I remember off the top of my head are that the global debt-to-GDP ratio I quoted was actually representative of only the top 10 western governments (the real updated global figure being about 1.5 to 1 instead of 3.5 to 1).
  • The book benefitted from many of my subscribers having a dig at each chapter as I published them all online soliciting constructive criticism (notable contributors include John Zande, RL Culpeper, Allallt who have made the book immensely stronger – thanks to all who participated and helped out)

What hasn’t changed is the format: 22 chapters, 7 sections; 22 divided by 7 is equal to 3.14 crudely equaling Pi (π). Pi is a mathematical constant; mathematics is the language of science; therefore, using simple logic, Random Rationality is the literal word of science. (This will stand until proven otherwise–which you shouldn’t try to do if you are reading this).

As before, the book is not DRM’ed. That means you can read it on as many devices as you want with no restrictions, and share it freely with your friends. Thank you for being a subscriber, reader, or random visitor to my blog. You can buy it here, or smooch it off someone else who has bought it since it’s not DRM’ed. If you leave a review, however honest, then this rambling idiot will love you even more. 

P.S. Since I signed up for the Kindle KDP program, I will be promoting it on certain days for free, so if you’re patient, you may be able to nab it free of charge.

Future of Work

work future

This is the last chapter of my book. To those who have read this far, I am forever grateful. (If anyone wants to read the Introduction and Conclusion, just leave me a comment and I’ll email it to you. For now, I won’t be posting it online.)

Sub-chapter #20, of Chapter #5, Technology, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. I would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the full PDF of the book, then you can download it by clicking here—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published. If you wish to read the previous chapters in one convenient place online, please follow this link, and lastly, thanks for reading!


 

A FUTURE OF WORK

Last but not least, what might become of our jobs? If we play our cards right, one day in the near, or far, future, jobs—as we know them today—will become obsolete. Let’s find out why, and why this will be a good thing, perhaps the best thing to ever happen to humanity.

We are partway through a trend that once concluded, will result in a new renaissance (last time, I promise). An event that will be remembered for all time as the defining point when the potential of our creativity was unbounded by the limits of society and a new global culture was born.

First off, a bit of history. For all of humanity’s existence, we’ve had to work to survive, just as all other animals do. Whether that meant hunting for food, tending to crops, trading for goods, foods, or gold, and so on until we find ourselves working the 9-to-5 in the here and now—well, the lucky amongst us. By the way, this is how work will change. It will move from becoming a necessity to a leisure.

During this epoch, a trend has slowly, quietly and unnoticed, unfurled in the background: the ratio of man-hours relative to productivity or work done. From the start of civilization until the Industrial Revolution, a span just shy of some seven-thousand years (depending on which history book you read), this ratio has stayed fairly constant. That is, the amount of man-hours vs. work accomplished didn’t deviate far from the historical norm.

Of course, civilization still prospered in some cases and progress was evident. This progress, while not increasing the work done per person, increased the quantity of workers in a concentrated area, often resulting in slavery, the moral black mark on our history, and all those extra hands were able to carry out those gigantic tasks, such as building Rome, Washington DC, and other such cities of antiquity. Though contrary to popular belief, the pyramids of Egypt were not built by slaves, but paid Egyptian laborers.

When the Industrial Revolution kicked off in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, this ratio started positively increasing. That is, the same amount of man-hours constituted increased work, otherwise known as Productivity Growth (PG). This was due to the machines and industrial processes created: steam engines, coal plants, light bulbs, medicines, and factories that became extensions of our hands and minds allowing us to work smarter, travel farther, more productively, and in better health.

This trend is responsible for almost everything we have today. Technology started replacing human labor and this trend has continued to this day, allowing us to have that little thing we call comfort, and this trend, unhindered, will continue to progress further and exponentially faster with time as it has been since it began. None of the tragedies of the 20th century even put a dent in exponential increase of computational progress—that includes WW1, WW2, The Great Depression, and others.

We went from manual labor farming to horse-drawn ploughs to tractors, to automatic irrigation and soon to underground farming. From hauling stone slabs on sleds, to the wheel, to the horse-drawn cart, to the electrical car, to the internal combustion engine, and hopefully back to the electric car soon. I know what you’re thinking, yes the electric car was invented first and these are just a few examples among many thousands.

This positive increase, or negative depending on your viewpoint (either short or long-term), which depends on the type of job you have, has an ugly consequence. People have been losing their jobs for the last 150 years as machines replaced their profession; from the elevator man to the soot-shoveler, to the autoworker to many, many others.

Though so far, there has been a technological caveat. As society has progressed, new jobs have been created, continuing economic expansion. However, this trend of new jobs replacing old jobs is beginning to stutter. In 1993, there were 194 million Americans in the labor force, and by 2000, this number had increased to 213 million. During these eight years, 22.7 million jobs were added along with the 19 million new workers leaving a surplus of 3.7 million jobs. Between 2001 and 2008, labour participation went from 215 million to 234 million people, but with only two million jobs added in that same time period. A deficit of 13.7 million jobs, and since 2008, we have lost just over half-a-million more jobs (4.317 million lost vs. 3.765 million regained in mid-2012). So the total deficit is 14.25 million jobs, and this is just in nineteen-years.

Every month, the labor force expands by approximately 125,000 people due to population growth, so that’s 125,000 new jobs that the economy needs to add, just to keep the unemployment rate steady. By 2050, the labour force is projected to be 45% larger than today, or approximately 339 million people. That’s more than 100 million new jobs that need to be added by then, just in the USA. In the rest of the world, the population is projected to increase by at least two-billion, and perhaps three-billion according to UN projections. Where are the jobs going to come from? From nowhere it seems.

Counter to the population increase, the technology we are creating (and which shows no sign of stopping but increasing) is only getting exponentially better, smaller, and smarter to the point where it will literally be able to out-think and out-flex us. This shift, this realignment, this relentless progression of automation will continue until the only thing left for the human mind to do will be to wonder, imagine, and explore the Universe—which also happens to be the things that we are best at. Eating, drinking, and sex not withstanding!

[Carl] Bass points out that we are now at a great inflection point in the automation of labor. Extraordinary breakthroughs in the areas of artificial intelligence, robotics, and digital manufacturing are all converging upon one another yielding a world full of technologies plucked right from the world of science fiction.” [Emphasis mine] ~ Aaron Frank (Writer)

We are going through an epoch unseen before in human history. We are in the midst of transitioning from a manual-labor society to a knowledge-generating, machine-operated society. We‘re currently in the transition period, because as is plainly obvious, we still have billions of people working, though many of them struggling to scratch a living out what they are given, or able to take. But the underlying trend is undeniable.

But there are those who wish to roll back the dial, or want to stop the buck here creating a static society. Of course, being oblivious to the fact that every static society has collapsed, because problems invariably crop up and a static society cannot hope to innovate their way out of them. The American economist Robert Solow earned a Nobel Prize for showing that economic growth does not come from people working harder, I.e, just working longer hours, but from working smarter. By getting more from less, and in the process freeing up time to do other things impossible beforehand. Stopping or slowing technological growth, and implementing employment for employments sake is a straight path to disaster, reminiscent of 20th century communism.

Back to basics. The reasons for the increasing mechanization in society are simple. It costs much less to have a machine do a person’s work than a person, especially with the increasing cost of labor, and companies having to contend with trillions of new currency units floating around the world and doing everything in their power to not raise their prices, so they decrease costs. Machines have no health insurance bills, don’t get sick, need vacation days, smoke breaks, and aren’t distracted by their inner monologue, along with various other factors that retard productivity. These are all ancillary reasons, however. Many of the background processes of our world today can only be done by machines and  artificial intelligence, such as aviation, computer science, heavy industry, and even in finance.

While the main rationale often used to replace a person with a machine is to improve a company’s profit margin and time to market, and not the automation of society, does not make the result of these decisions any less real (or inevitable).

In the past, as people have become displaced from one profession, they have moved to other professions that could not be automated or that were created due to new technologies invented.

In the twentieth century, as manufacturing jobs were becoming mechanized, factory workers moved en masse into the services sector. For the last fifty-odd-years, the services sector has exploded, most notably in the USA, but also in much of the developed world, be it the restaurant industry, or the financial services world. The services sector is now beginning to bloat, and it simply cannot absorb the mass numbers anymore. Parallel to this, the wheels seem to be coming off the major world economies, and fourteen-million jobs have been lost in the last eleven years alone in the USA, putting an extra squeeze on companies who now see automation as a way to reduce costs and improve their profit margins.

Foxconn, manufacturer of Apple’s iPads and iPhones, are planning on introducing one million robots to replace 100,000 workers in the next three years. The irony in this is that as more and more people are laid off and replaced by machines, the fewer products the company can sell in the long run. For a period of time, the company might improve its profit margins, as the rest of society hasn’t yet succumbed to this transitionary period, but this can only be temporary in nature.

As more and more of society’s jobs are automated—and it will happen one way or the other, for the consequences will be worse than allowing it but I’ll get to that soon—has the effect of removing the employees as consumers from the market. In a free market, employees, consumers, and employers are interchangeable; they are all one and the same. These former employees will no longer have the earnings to buy these increasingly mechanized products or services. Thus, we (theoretically) will reach a point where we can produce almost everything via automation, but there will be no one to buy the products (of course, we’ll never actually get there, as something will give beforehand).

What is going to happen to the millions of factory workers when 3D printing becomes affordable, fully capable, and factories a twentieth century relic? To miners when nanotechnology is economical and we can turn any material into anything else, and build anything we dream of? To farmers when we start growing our food; fruits, vegetables, and IVM underground in luminescent rooms, allowing it to grow at a fraction of the time needed above ground, not to mention land owners (40% of the arable land in the world is used for farming or meat consumption, which will become  essentially valueless), and then to the pesticide companies we’ll have no more use of, as food production now moved underground is out of the reach of insects? Not to mention the transportation companies that ship foods to market, and the factories that wrap and prepare the food?

These are all questions we need to be answering now instead of when the time comes. Otherwise, we’ll do what we always do when we come to something different; we’ll try to destroy it or vote into office, goldfish who want to destroy it for political gain. We aren’t exactly the brightest bunch when it comes to making decisions with our guts, instead of our brains, which is why history so often rhymes. I don’t think that any society could stop it or destroy this trend, even if it tried. If America were to outlaw technological progression, after a little while, the Chinese would be so far ahead that the American people would get shaky feet living under the yoke of a seemingly ever-increasing Godlike country on the other side of the world marching forward. Bullet trains, towering skyscrapers (they’ll be building the worlds tallest tower: almost 3000-feet, in ninety-days around the end of 2012, moon base, space station, electric cars and the list will go on). Short of full-scale nuclear war, or a worldwide dictatorship, the inexorable march of technological progress will continue. However, politics will stand in the way, and that may be a difference of maybe years, or a decade, between the society that was, and the society that will be. In the society that will be, where disease, cancer, and death are all history, a delay of even a few years could mean millions of people who should have lived but came up short. Consider for example, the controversy met with Golden Rice by anti-GMO activists and environmentalists around the world. Golden rice is a strain of rice modified to carry vitamin A (Beta-Carotene). A lack of vitamin A is estimated to kill one to two million people per year, of which 670,000 are children, as well as producing 500,000 cases of blindness, where one cup of golden-rice is enough to supply them enough vitamin A. Rice leaves naturally produce vitamin A due to photosynthesis, but the endosperm (edible part) does not, so scientists transferred two genes to make it do so. The new breed of rice had scientific tests performed, and was found that the vitamin A absorption was as good, or better, than other forms of the supplement. But anti-GMO activists successfully stopped its adoption and distribution to the parts of the world where it would have saved millions of lives per year! Think of the absurdity and stupidity of such a position. We were willing to put two modified genes inside a strain of rice, before the lives of millions of people per year, every year, until the situation is remedied because of some idealistic, bombastic, and shortsighted view of nature. Again, as we saw in the chapter, Future of Food, almost all our food today has been upended from natural selection as it is; it has been shot with radiation, hand-selected for breeding, and saved from extinction because of human intervention. The very process of planting crops is a slap in the face of mother nature, but no one is protesting farms, just the future of food, which they do not understand. And after all this, genetic engineering has not been stopped, nor can it, but the lives of those poor souls were indeed wasted. This is the inherent danger in rolling back or just delaying the wheels of progress; accidental genocide. There are many people who advocate the relinquishment of technological progress (as if such a thing were possible anyway).

The costs of many services, products, and food will continue dropping until one day they hit zero in terms of human energy input, and shortly after, almost zero from a material perspective. Once we are  at that point, we will have a choice to make, the biggest choice any society of humans has ever had to make, and with consequences that will span centuries and affect billions of human lives.

We can transition to a resource-based economy, where people are simply given everything they need or want at no cost since it doesn’t cost anything to produce from a labor standpoint, and with very little energy due to Moore’s Law of energy use—as computers increase in power, doubling every 18 months while halving in size and staying at the same price, the amount of energy consumed by them is going in the opposite direction, e.g., if the 2011 MacBook Air, had the efficiency of a 1991 computer, it’s battery would last all of 2.5 seconds, instead of seven hours. The difference is algorithmic in nature: better, more efficient algorithms doing more work in fewer cycles. What will be the point in money if nothing costs anything?

Or, the elite, or whichever section of upper-society comes into their momentary hold of power, whom are narrowly short-sighted to their own benefit (and think they know better), much as the rest of us are to our own benefit (and think we know better), will invent some other form of currency and keep the charade going round and round, convincing us that it is a necessary function of society to have government and classes. Go watch the movie In Time and you will get an idea of what could pass. I don’t personally think this will happen, but the situation cannot be entirely ruled out in advance, especially given what we’ve fallen for in the past. Just think of the French Revolution, they threw out Louie, and installed Maximilien Robespierre, who gave the world his ‘reign of terror’. Then they threw him out too, and installed the power-hungry Napoleon.

In such a world, where scarcity is no longer a natural function of the world, economies built on scarcity will (or should) break down. The function of price is to assign value to a scarce product; the more expensive the price, the more scarce the product, either by way of overwhelming demand, scarce materials, or high cost of production. Aluminum used to be worth more than gold, even though 8.3% of the Earth’s crust is infused with its ore, but the means of production were amazingly expensive and energy intensive, until electrolysis came along. The sciences and continually improving technologies have been nibbling away at scarce materials and the means of production for the last hundred-fifty years, making once-scarce resources plentiful. It doesn’t matter whether it is food, metals, silicon, electricity, or anything else. You name it; it is more bountiful today than yesteryear (perhaps except human reason).

So when we have the technology to remove the human element and increase yield to such a degree as to remove all elements of scarcity, what purpose will the free market have? What purpose will private industrial property have? Or any (by this point outdated) technology that allows you to have sway over another persons right to life? The key technological trend that has accompanied our evolving society, is that technology is both a resource-liberating force, and a democratizing force du jour. When the gun was invented, the poor peasant suddenly had a way to thwart the armored knight harassing him. Gutenberg’s printing press broke the stranglehold the Catholic Church had established for itself for over a thousand years, and the fax machine broke the Soviet Union’s monoploy on information.

Much in the same way that the threat of violence is illegal in almost all cultures today, so it will be so with the means of production in the future. There will be no benefit for a man or woman to own a technology that holds sway over others save for the sake of power, which may very well come to be regarded as a mental disorder in the future: a disruption to societies balance that cannot and will not be tolerated for the inequality, fear, and violence that may spring forth from it.

Think about crime today, almost all of which is motivated in one way or another, by money. Either directly in the acts of stealing, drug turf wars, or actual wars between nations over resources. Or indirectly, through the emotional suffering inherent in unequal societies, and the stress, cortisol, and lost family time to name a few effects. What will happen to crime? Person-on-person violence is at an all-time low, the twentieth century was the most peaceful century of human history (accounting for both World Wars), as shown by Steven Pinker’s TED talk, The Myth of Violence, and there is no reason, given future projections and technological progression, that it won’t dive even further.

Technology is accelerating at an exponential rate and will continue in such a manner for as long as human co-operation continues. Our current forms of politics, governance, and society cannot, perhaps will not be able to transition into such a futuristic society. We need new ways of governing that don’t conflict with the fast-changing means of production that will start changing in increasingly smaller periods of time, with each cycle bringing with it greater change than the last (the Law of Accelerating Returns).

Transitions are painful, an unfortunate fact of life. Especially for local and linear oriented biological life as are we. Not to mention we don’t deal well with change, which is why we tend to end up in societal systems for far longer than we should, and why history repeats itself with dictators, tyrants, monarchies,  economic fantasies, and republics of the people who end up serving the state first, the people enough to placate, and war after war needlessly conducted to the detriment and distraction of said placated people. As remarks one of America’s literary genius’s, Mark Twain “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” A sad fact of the human condition. However, this will be the first time in the history of civilization that we will truly have an alternative, an option not bound to the fallacies and falsities that are inherently created when millions of people converge on a society with their dreams, desires, ego’s, and jealousies. Once we arrive at that critical juncture, we will have the ability to free everyone from the confines of manual labor and mindless repetitive work and set people free.

We will be able to truly provide everyone on this Earth with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, instead of having them as words on paper paraded through the wheels of time as if they actually meant something.

A common point made in response to such claims, is that people derive meaning and purpose from work. Assuming that in a world where mindless work is not done, people would sit about the couch all day watching television re-runs of an age gone (since apparently people will stop making media). But this is a shortsighted notion. For one, people today do all kinds of things without the incentive of a monetary reward. Wikipedia and Linux are just two visible examples of thousands of volunteers contributing millions of man-hours freely to building something of considerable value. Aside from those, people of all stripes and colors regularly and without want or need of reward regularly read and write books, gather knowledge, learn, collect trinkets and widgets, exercise their body and mind, create art and media, and contribute to many millions of activities and hobbies. In a world free of the unnecessary (and time-sucking) jobs of today, we would have far more energy and time to focus such activities, as well as with our family and friends, and on other efforts we truly enjoy. Lifelong learning may become the new universal occupation.

“The role of work will be to create knowledge of all kinds, from music and art to math and science. The role of play will be, well, to create knowledge, so there won’t be a clear distinction between work and play.” ~ Ray Kurzweil (Inventor)

There is a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering in this world today, and there probably will be more before this transition is over, and yet more still if we collectively make the wrong choice. Though the pain of this transition, if done right, will be infinitely less than the pain of stopping or rolling back the wheels of progress.

Money may very well be a thing of the past one day. Here is to the future, and to the people and technology that will abolish human suffering once and for all. We can only dream for now, but the future is fast upon us. Without knowledge, wisdom, and a steady resolve, we cannot push into the future for there will always be those holding us back, either for immediate personal gain or an irrational fear of the unknown.

“Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.” ~ Carl Sagan (Astrophysicist)

Future of Tech

tech future

This is probably my favourite chapter. Here be sub-chapter #19, of Chapter #5, Technology, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. I would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the full PDF of the book, then you can download it by clicking here—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published. If you wish to read the previous chapters in one convenient place online, please follow this link, and lastly, thanks for reading!


FUTURE OF TECH

 

The future is going to be very bright, brighter than a lot of us can imagine, though that is predicated on getting out-of-the-way of the engineers, scientists, and companies that will make it happen. (Not that we shouldn’t keep a watchful eye.) And if we do, the stars are the limit.

This chapter will focus on two emerging technologies that have the potential to bring about a beautiful future, and try as hard as I might, it will more than likely be an under-estimation because well… I’m dumb. You think I wrote this book? I was compelled to write it by something claiming to call itself free will, but I digress…for the last time…maybe.

 

3D Printing

3D printing has the potential to render the factory obsolete, and for very simple reasons; technology is beginning to move past economies of scale. Economies of scale refers to making so much of one product that the individual cost per unit is brought down by the mass quantities, which can be sold for a cheaper price, thus selling more quantities and increasing the likelihood of turning a profit.

A physical book makes a fine example (so long as I ignore print-on-demand). When a book is published, a certain number of books have to be printed, bound, distributed and subsequently sold to entail pricing it at say, thirty-dollars. Otherwise, the manufacturers’ and publisher take a loss. If that manufacturer is only printing a quantity that is one-quarter as large, the price results in a book that costs four-times as much, which makes recouping the initial investment increasingly difficult. Making more books allows each individual book to be sold cheaper and therefore increases the chances of recouping the investment, turning a profit, keeping people in work, and, in at least this case, increasing overall knowledge.

With eBooks, there is no such restriction on the cost per unit of the product as it is digital, and there is no difference between having one copy or one million copies. It is a simple command between the two quantities. An eBook has become a digital information technology. This is happening to objects. Physical objects are becoming (slowly for now, but increasing in speed) a digital information technology.

Today, every Jane and her Joe has a printer in the home; this printer is capable of printing rudimentary, usually multicolored, characters onto a 2D sheet of paper.

The future of printing goes well beyond this seemingly simple technology; we will soon be printing physical 3D objects. The 3D printer, otherwise known as an additive printer, will be able to ‘print’ any object that can fit within the length, width, and height of its laser-equipped arms; the user will be able to make three-dimensional, solid objects from digital files.

The first consumer 3D printers were released in 2012, but big corporations have been using these magic machines for decades for the purpose of prototyping. If they needed to make a spanner, a spare car part, an intricate widget, or whatever else tickled their fancy, they simply printed it out to touch it in real life. No theory, no spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to have it custom-made in a special factory somewhere far away, but created, tested, and demonstrated to management and engineering without lag time or exorbitant costs right there in the office, allowing many more innovative and riskier projects as a result of the cost savings. Before 3D printing, the shoemaker Timberland had to spend $1,200 and one week to create a prototype sole.Today, it takes them ninety-minutes and costs them $35. The airliner, EADS that makes the iconic Airbus A380 (the largest plane in the world), are printing shoe-sized titanium landing-gear brackets for use in their airplanes. Normally, such a device would be made via a process called subtractive manufacturing, which results in ninety-percent of the titanium being wasted (since you have to start with a square block and titanium ain’t cheap, and whittle it down to the final design). Additive printing is the complete opposite, which also allows more efficient structural changes and integrity. They eventually hope to print out an entire aircraft wing! The savings in material and reduced time to production is enormous. 3D Systems (which invented additive manufacturing twenty-five years ago), is involved in a consortium printing hundreds of parts for the F-18 and F-35 fighter jets: clearly machines that demand the utmost precision in their capability. If it’s good enough for some of the most expensive machines in history (between $154 to $236.8 million a pop), then surely our home accessories and cars will be more than satisfied.

Slightly off-topic, something similar—decrease in cost and production time—will soon be happening with semiconductors (used in computer chips, batteries, and solar panels), where a new manufacturing process has been demonstrated, in which gallium arsenide semiconductors are assembled by growing them from freely suspended nano-particles of gold, instead of using the more traditional subtractive methods from silicon wafers, accelerating their creation by thousands of times. This tech, while not explicitly part of the 3D manufacturing framework operates on similar principles (by reversing the subtractive process) and is expected to be operational within two to four years, and will result in just as significant a cost-savings. By the end of this decade, computer chips will cost about a penny, and they’ll be used with throw-away mentality. We’ll be able to afford to put them in everything; clothes, tabletops, walls, you name it. A simple way to think of the increasing speed, efficiency, and clockwork reliability of the exponential increase of computers is like this: we are using computers to build faster computers, which we then use to build faster’er computers and so forth. (The same goes for 3D printing, which is why I went on this little detour. )

Back to 3D printing. The manner in which additive printing works is quite simple. An object (encoded as a digital file) is selected and sent for printing. The printer then goes to work building it one two-dimensional layer at a time from the ground up, using (in the first mainstream devices) a plastic resin that is laid down and heated with focused lasers, solidifying in the process. This process continues, layer by layer, creating multitudes of two-dimensional layers that gradually build up until printing is completed, and a three-dimensional object stands revealed. The size of the object is limited only by the 3-Dimensional space of the arms, though nothing will stop you from assembling objects piece-by-piece; such as a table, chair, or plane.

This technology, once it comes down in price for the mass-market will explode. The first ones that are rolling onto the consumer shelves are of the world of plastic, and therefore, only able to print, or create, products in plastic. With time, silicon, metals, et al. will be added to the mix, then eventually all of them will be combined in one to be able to print electronics, watches (Rolex anyone?), cars, food, drugs, and has recently been used to print human body parts; a human lower jaw, blood vessels, bones (five-to-ten years away),  teeth, and even DNA. The tech that goes into making the 3D printer, is subject to Moore’s Law. (Doubling of price-performance per 12-18 months, so ten years from now, they will be approximately one-thousand more powerful and intricate.)

These products are functional now; the one obstacle that remains is of making them mainstream. Something that technology is exceptionally good at doing. Forty-years ago, a normal (or back then, state of the art) computer was a building in size and cost $100 million. Today, a phone a million times smaller and a thousand times more powerful is probably in your pocket as you read this. This is known as Moore’s Law. Every twelve-to-eighteen months, the computational capacity doubles for the same price (adjusted for inflation), and 3D Printers are subject to this exponential increase in capability without a subsequent cost increase, and if you forego the increased capability, the cost of any current technology becomes half the cost in the same time frame. The same goes for solar panels, every year they become roughly thirty-percent cheaper (compounded), and fifty-percent more efficient (also compounded). Since 2009, solar costs have dropped seventy-five-percent, even while contending with the Global Financial Crisis.

Decades ago, Bill Gates stipulated his dream of having a computer in every home. The new dream is to put a 3D printer in every home and with the exponentially declining costs and increasing capability, we may be no more than a decade or two from this goal.

 

“The rate at which the technology is getting faster is itself getting faster.” ~ Peter Diamandis (CEO)

 

Maybe one day you’ll break a mug and gasp; it was your favorite mug. There are no more stores to sell such antiquated mugs because you’re living in the future! Who knew? So you jump on your computer, open AutoDesk (or some other consumer-friendly program), and design the same mug again, perhaps adding your signature this time or a picture of your girlfriend. Perhaps you made a digital backup of it, or took some photos that can now be converted into its digital equivalent to save the work of designing it again. With that finished, you send it to your printer, and off it goes layering, resining, and laser’ing your new mug, layer by incremental layer. Voila! A few minutes later, you’re making yourself a new cup of coffee. Imagine the possibilities: toys, tables, chairs (assembled piece-by-piece), plates, cutlery, bikes, cars, or anything else you have in your home, or that you can dream of. Recently, a pair of students printed off a plane part-by-part, assembled it themselves, and flew it at a hundred-mph (it was unmanned), at a cost of $2,000. Just five-years ago, a plane of similar size and capability would have cost $250,000 to build. Imagine what we will be able to create five-years from now when it is another order-of-magnitude cheaper to print and create. This technology is taking a hammer to the rich-poor divide, though it will not completely obliterate it. (Something else will, and I’ll get to it in a few paragraphs.)

Now, some might think that we will be utterly dependent on the companies who will make these nifty, life-giving contraptions, much as we are to the energy conglomerates now, but technology sometimes has a funny way of being made of pure awesomeness. When your printer nears the end of its life, you’ll be able to print yourself a new one. Todays 3D printers can print off seventy-percent of the parts to create a new model of itself. Five to ten-years from now, it will print one-hundred-percent of its own parts. It will be next to impossible to monopolize this technology, and even if safeguards were built into it, the hacker mentality will sprout up to circumvent such restrictions. You will more than likely be reliant on someone for the printer cartridge. Though, the feed should be easy enough to make so that a distributed market is created out of it, with no one entity having a monopoly.

Economics will be thrown out the door in so violent a manner; it will be the Italian Renaissance all over again, with far-reaching consequences: negative in the short-term for working people, positive in the long-term for everyone. Look at what the printing press did to the dark ages. Gunpowder to knights. Cars to horse carts. Planes to boat travel. The cellphone to the landline. The CD burner  (and Napster and Bit-torrent and consumers and artists) to the music industry. iPads to netbooks, and I leave you with the homework of imagining what will happen to every industry once the 3D printer is mainstream.

iPrint, therefore I am?

The most groundbreaking example of this technology is what the Italian Enrico Dini, has set his life’s purpose to. He can print a house! Albeit only a small one for now as the technology is still in its infancy, but again, this technology exponentially increases in capability, so we won’t have to wait long. Imagine having the home of your dreams built exactly the way you want, to exacting specifications, with high-quality materials, no human labor, and no supply chain (save the cartridge). What previously required the work of a dozen men working tirelessly for months could be done by one man in one day! No more living with your in-laws while you wait for your dream home to be completed. Not to mention that within the three-dimensional reach of the printer, you will not be restricted to the boxy walls and triangular roofs we’ve grown accustomed to. All number of shapes, contours, and home-types will be possible. Want an upside-down fish bowl home? No Problem. Wavy home? Easy. Roman Pillars? Call me when you’re ready to start using your imagination. Again, numerous prototypes of 3D-building homes (also called contour crafting) exist around the world in many companies and inventors. What remains is bringing it to the mass-market, and I imagine the developing world will be the first to embrace it. Just as they did with mobile phones, completely skipping the antiquated resource-intensive landline telephone. There are several other people and companies pursuing this technology. One among them, Professor of Systems Engineering at the University of Southern California, Behrokh Khoshnevis, though he calls it by the latter name, Contour Crafting. (I highly recommend you watch his TED Talk on the subject. Google ‘contour crafting TED’, but suffice it to say; plumbers, electricians, and constructions are going to have a tough-time of it.)

3D printing, Additive Manufacturing, Contour Crafting, or whatever we want to call it will snatch from the future and bring into the present an economy with very little waste, unimaginable possibilities, huge economic and energy savings, and most importantly very little lag time between creativity and creation (see quote below). This will allow the ingenuity of humankind to spring forth and create a beautiful world not bound to the rules and bylaws of monopolistic practices that have manifested themselves as a result of the consolidation of knowledge, influence, and power into the hands of a few, and subsequent protection of that monopoly through government conscription. Human creativity, in short, is becoming unbounded, and technology is the great equalizer that makes it so!

As the futurist Jason Silva ruminates in his short-form video, Imagination, “If you were able to look at human progress, as if through a timelapse of the last hundred years, you would see that literally thoughts spill over into the world in the form of technology. We engage in feedback loops with that technology, which then extends our ability to instantiate new realities.” 

 

Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is considered to be the technological Holy Grail. If nanotechnology were to fulfill its ideal, then every single material problem we’ve ever had or ever will have will disappear, or simply not exist to begin with. Nanotechnology, in its simplest form, is building with computers on an atomic level, usually between 1 and 100 nanometers (nm). To put that in perspective, the DNA double helix is approximately 2nm wide. It is essentially creating, or building things a few atoms at a time from the bottom up, with zero waste.

Some examples: carbon nanotubes assembled in this fashion into solid metallic-like objects are one-hundred times stronger than steel, yet six times lighter. Someday in the future, cars and airplanes will be made with them, increasing fuel efficiency and passenger safety. Some scientists want to build a space elevator with this miraculous substance reaching 22,000 miles into space. The cost of putting objects into space would drop from thousands of dollars per pound down to a few tens of dollars, which would begin a third space renaissance (Apollo and SpaceX were the first two)—and I’ll stop using renaissance now.

In medicine, current research is pointing to nanobots programmed to attack only cancerous cells and viruses, carrying the required medicine directly to the point of contact, thereby affecting only the targeted unhealthy tissue, leaving healthy tissue nearby unaffected—no more balding chemotherapy patients! The bandana industry is going to suffer—rally the goldfi…uh politicians to protect their jobs! And as I alluded to in Fear of Fission, we can get down into the nitty-gritty radioactive waste, rendering inert—or isolating—the oxidative ions that are stripped away forming the radiation, leaving behind an inert, harmless substance.

Nano-tech surgery is on the horizon. Infinitely more precise and able to perform functions such as diagnosing and correcting internal disease or trauma, free of slips of the surgeons’ hands, potential infections, and without need of surgical cuts, all from the inside out. (And if you recall from Future of Food, antibiotic super-bacteria are evolving that will make surgery all but impossible potentially within the next decade.) That is, individual intelligent nanobots will be able to travel to the trauma; assess the damage, and repair only the affected tissue, while skipping over healthy cells. We will potentially enter an age where life expectancy takes another huge leap, much as it did in the twentieth century, from a worldwide average of forty-years to kissing eighty years, and in some parts of the world, moving beyond. It’s helpful to note that in twenty-five years, computers (nanobots as we may call them then) will be a hundred-thousand times smaller than the iPhones and Android smartphones we use today, as well as being a billion times faster, i.e., they will be the size of blood cells.

We may even reach a point where a person never dies of old age and is kept in optimal health by an array of nanobots floating throughout his or her body, attaching to cells and repairing them daily. We could stay twenty-five forever! Consider this quote by the Foresight Institute:

 

“Nanobots work like tiny surgeons as they reach into a cell, sense damaged parts; repair them by reformatting new atoms, and leave. By repairing and rearranging cells and surrounding structures, nanobots can restore every tissue and bone in the body to perfect health – including replacing aging skin with new, resilient skin, restoring youthful looks and good health.”

 

That’s a future they think is possible by 2020. Eight short years away, but a more realistic timeline by Ray Kurzweil, inventor and futurist, is the late 20s. I’m already counting down the days because as a non-theist heathen, there’s no heaven waiting for me, just a boring eternal darkness where I can’t even get bored—how boring! Now, to not accidentally die in the next eight to eighteen years is the task I have given myself…

Don’t make the mistake of thinking this technology is only for the rich. The concept of poor and rich exists only in environments of scarcity, as does the concepts of the trading and price. While the rich will most surely have first access to miracles such as nanotechnology, as they will be the investors—so thank you rich people!—the concept of nanotechnology is that each nano-computer, or nanobot, can turn anything else into another nano-computer. It defies the very laws of scarcity and economics that we live in today.

One nanobot becomes two, two nanobots becomes four, four become eight, eight become sixteen, sixteen transmute into thirty-two, and forty-four steps later, thirty-two is 5,600,000,000,000,000 nanobots. Try assigning a price to that!

Now, there are numerous dangers in having unrestrained nanobot replication in the world; known as The Gray Goo Scenario, in which the biomass of the Earth is turned into dead matter. The envisioned controls are a bit beyond the scope of this book (as well as my limited expertise), but such control systems would more than likely involve Artificial Intelligence and centralized replication servers that keep things in check by doling out permission or denial requests for nanobots in light of the predisposed environment and usage. Perhaps using quantum cryptography security systems: unbreakable codes generated by quantum entangled states, which take advantage of a quantum state known as quantum superposition, where a change in one particle (after it has been entangled with another), invokes an instantaneous (and equal) change in the other entangled particle; thus if an eavesdropper listens in, he or she irreparably change, by way of observation, the quantum state. The security system is just a guess on my part, and there will undoubtedly be many layers of increasingly difficult to crack security to protect us from the harmful effects of nanotechnology, and ensure only the positive effects are unleashed into the world, to the benefit of all. For a more in-depth primer on this, exploring in far greater detail, the pro’s and con’s of nanotechnology, Ray Kurzweil’s, The Singularity is Near, is an excellent read on the subject (as well as on biotechnology, additive manufacturing, increasing computational capacity, turning the Universe into God et al).

The potential of the human race is being realized, and it will usher in a future brighter than any one of us can imagine. There will be pains along the way, especially economic (though due to technology, per-capita income worldwide has tripled in the last century), and the usual social unrest that accompanies such pain, but technology, as it has done so in the past, is the only thing that will alleviate us from the woes of the twentieth century, and all those that came before it, and the only thing that can provide a beautiful life to all seven billion people on this little blue rock, so it must be embraced with open arms and from a platform of knowledge, as opposed to ignorance, as is usually the case when we enter turbulent, exciting times. It is, and perhaps always will be, easier to invent new technologies, than re-programming the irrational hearts and rationalizing minds of billions of people.

 

We didn’t stay in the caves, we didn’t stay on the planet, and we won’t stay with the limitations of our biology.” ~ Ray Kurzweil (Inventor)


Note: the book is fully sourced, but because of the writing program I use, the links don’t transfer over to WordPress, and I can’t be bothered inserting them in one at a time. The final book will have all the relevant sources in the proper locations.

The Future of Food

Future of Food

Almost at the end, then my readers can stop getting annoyed at my incessant posting as I go back to my bi-weekly or monthly schedule. (Even I’m looking forward to that.) This is sub-chapter #18, of Chapter #5, Technology, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. I would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the full PDF of the book, then you can download it by clicking here—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published. If you wish to read the previous chapters in one convenient place online, please follow this link, and lastly, thanks for reading!


A FUTURE OF FOOD

Food security is a very big deal these days, with many countries, most publicly the UN, trying to fix it to ensure future food security. Even my dad and girlfriend are helping, working at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

According to projections by the UN, by 2050, there will be at least nine billion people on this planet. Water demand will increase by 70-90% with current crop technologies. Agriculture, as it stands today, accounts for thirty-percent of human green house gases (more than the transportation, electricity, and manufacturing sectors, making it the single-largest contributor, as well as accounting for 70% of sustainable water use).

Each of these statistics is scary in and of themselves, and taken together, paint a bleak picture of the future of food and by extension, humanity. As a result, many countries around the world are actively implementing more of the same policies to ensure they get their slice of the pie, instead of embracing smarter technologies so that everybody gets a slice of the pie. (Did we need more evidence government is ill-equipped to deal with the problems of the 21st century?)

The Chinese, the Saudi’s, the Egyptian’s, and the Emirati’s, among others are buying up farmland in different areas of the world to supply food to their own populations. It almost sounds like they are trying to placate their people for fear of social unrest—undoubtedly the biggest motivator in revolutions past, and those ongoing in 2012 and 2013.

So where is all this extra food going to come from to feed these two billion extra hungry mouths, let alone the billion hungry people we have today?

It’s not like you can just grow food anywhere; you need certain types of soil, climate, sun-exposure, fresh-water, fertilizers, pesticides, tractors, plows, farm hands, trucks, and last of all, seeds. And those are only the vegetables. Animal-meat requires far more in resources: 15 oz of meat on average requires 100 oz of vegetable protein. None of that is easy.

Running any farm is a lot of work. Then there is the added factor that food today travels an inordinate distance before reaching its destination. Every one of the above factors is linked to the price of oil; from the petrochemicals in the fertilizer to the diesel that runs the tractors and trucks, to the delivery of goods to factories, to the packaging of those foods and re-delivery to distributors and then to supermarkets. Food is going to get very expensive the further we move away from peak oil, unless things are drastically changed. Thankfully, this is beginning to happen.

It is not a reasonable course of action to simply rely on big corporations and governments to solve the problem of these essential services. Especially as they mismanage our remaining resources and politically misprioritize urgent national agendas—well, from our perspectives, at least (climate-change has been on the agenda since 1992 with little—some may say, if any—progress since then).

On governments, people who usually don’t have a clue how things work have a funny habit of running for office in the latter stages of democracy, and people who want to use that ignorance to further a private agenda tend to surround them like leeches. Governments are also wasteful and prone to unending expansion, as Mother History tells us. As such, conscripting government is usually a dead-end, at least until after results are demonstrable by the private sector, where they’ll swoop in and claim some of the credit. This makes it easier to justify spending. It’s very similar to a tragedy that cost lives spurring legislation to be voted on. Before the tragedy; no politician cared. After the tragedy, they had to show they cared.

On corporations, let us not believe the over-generalized meme that all corporations are evil. The truth is more likely that some might be evil, others are good, and most are benign. However, individual corporate philosophies tend to favor maximizing profits in an ever-competitive and increasingly economically troubled world, and this does not bode well from a qualitative perspective with what we will want to put into our bodies. You are what you eat, and this author doesn’t want to be cheap genetically modified anything (without the relevant long-term scientific studies attesting to its safety), unless superpowers come with it. However, I make that statement with a caveat. Most people don’t realize that most food, even organic, is genetically modified. To be more exact, the process of natural selection by random mutation (evolution), has been co-oped by humans for ten-thousands years. We’ve been effectively breeding what we want into the plants, and leaving out undesirable traits. Genetic Engineering is merely the same process done on a condensed timescale. With our selective breeding, some of the plants we routinely eat would not have survived in the natural world; such as corn, which without us, would have gone extinct, though I hear of no anti-GMO activist pushing to let natural selection run its course for corn. In the beginning of the 20th century, mutation-induced radiation was all the rage (and still is), beginning in 1920 by Dr. Lewis Stadler at the University of Missouri and continuing still to this day in dozens of countries around the world. And thanks to this process, we now get to enjoy new varieties of rice, wheat, barley, pears, peas, cotton, peppermint, sunflowers, peanuts, grapefruit, sesame, cassava, and sorghum. In the words of William J. Broad of the NYTimes, “The mutations can improve yield, quality, taste, size and resistance to disease and can help plants adapt to diverse climates and conditions.” Radiation breeding co-opts natural selection and accelerates it (not adding or removing anything that nature wouldn’t add or remove herself), and has saved hundreds of crops around the world from disease, potential extinction, and thus people from famine. GMO however, involves silencing genes (nature often does no different), or inserting foreign genes, which is what scares everyone. However, there is nothing inherently wrong with the process, it is how it is used. Technology has always been a double-edged sword; it can be used for good or bad. But since it exists and is not going away, we must endeavor to push the corporations using it to focus it on the good side, not merely to ban it. This chapter may at times seem anti-GMO, though I have endeavored for it not to, but that is just selection bias—I talk more about the bad GMO’s than the good ones.

Cost-cutting of corporations is the biggest issue we have from a nutritional standpoint, with the plethora of unhealthy foods so prevalent in the western world and working their way into the developing world, causing obesity and diabetic health problems that ‘encourage’ economic expansion in the form of insurance and medical expenses—hardly frontier pushing. It is rather disturbing that eighty-percent of the 600,000 items in the US food supply are laced with added sugar. (I can’t help but feel that most anti-GMO activism is rooted in the false equivalence of cheap, unhealthy food with GM food. Indeed, you can engineer unhealthy garbage, loosely refer to it as food, and sell it, though that in no way, makes the case that all GM food will likewise fit under such an umbrella.)

In the end, a corporation’s goal is to reduce the cost of production, in the process undercutting competition. In food production, the methods used to achieve such aims (so far and in the majority) are deleterious on all save the short-term economic viewpoint our capitalism has seemingly devolved into.

On the production of meat: animals are kept rounded up in factory-farms their whole lives, never see the sun, are injected with antibiotics, often live in their own feces, and are pumped full of steroids and growth hormones. All while eating an unnatural diet that makes them fat and sick instead of strong and healthy. While these methods are detestable, it’s all part of cutting costs and providing to the consumer a cost-effective product. It’s up to the consumers to vote with their wallets. As far as the corporation can tell, their product is selling. And so far, it seems, people either don’t know yet,  are ok with it, or are unable to afford better-quality food. Not to mention that the practice of giving animals antibiotics (as well as human abuse of antibiotics) is causing normal bacteria to evolve into antibiotic resistant super-bacteria. In the next decade or so, if we are lucky, our current crop of antibiotics will cease being effective worldwide. (That is almost the only reason needed to overturn the meat industry: worldwide pandemic? No thank you!)

On the plant side, it’s much more cost-effective to plant a lot of one variety of plant than a multitude of different varieties as the industrial process can be streamlined to fit one crop type. As we produce more and more food, and as the farming business becomes ever more dominated by big agriculture (Big Ag), crop diversity is decreasing. And as we increase usage of arable land due to geographic reorganization, companies like Monsanto are genetically engineering plants to increase yield and resistance to insects to stave off naturally declining yields, which are only adding to the problem (think of the soil as a drug addict: petrochemical fertilizers are added to increase yields, but more has to be added every year as the soil becomes even more dependent on the fertilizer, as improper crop rotation is not allowing the soil to replenish itself naturally, and ever more amounts of fertilizer are needed). In India, 200,000 farmers have taken their own lives since 1997 because of the debt they have to take on to afford these seeds and fertilizers, and unable to pay back their debts, they end their own lives instead.

Decreasing crop diversity is dangerous in so many ways, as it is inherent in nature for a reason; everything in this world is susceptible to something else. The less variety there is within a particular species, the more likely its extinction is. There are billions of different types of fungus, bacteria, and insects that eat, affect, or infect different types of plants; some plants are resistant to some but not all. The danger in reducing our crop diversity is that it increases the chances that a singular cause can wipe out a huge proportion of our food supply, and mass famine would ensue.

Small farmers, such as the Indian farmers, contribute to this important crop diversity by virtue of being decentralized relative to each other and they are being driven out of business due to the economies of scale that work in favor of Big Ag. And Monsanto isn’t helping by not allowing farmers to re-use their seeds, eating into their already razor-thin profit margins, thereby increasing the dominance of the handful of companies that can afford them and the Roundup pesticide that only Monsanto sells, which only works with their seeds.

These few companies will—and basically pretty much already do—control our food supply with present processes and methodologies, and have little incentive to update their processes for as long as it is profitable.

A few examples of cost-cutting strategies used today:

  • Honey is cheap, ultra-filtered, and pollen-less to mask its origins. Pollen-less honey is not considered honey by the FDA (hint: shady companies in China)
  • Plumping chicken-meat with saltwater solution to increase the weight and therefore price (average weight increase is thirty-percent)
  • Meat scraps which would otherwise be thrown away are being glued together and sold as prime meat (yes, glued. Though the glue is not the problem, but the leftover scraps being misrepresented)
  • Farmed salmon are artificially dyed to make them pink, making it appear to be wild salmon that is considered healthier
  • Majority (75%) of the world’s olive oil is diluted with sunflower oil. Real olives only making up between 10-30% of the product

It’s all a bit depressing, but this chapter is titled, Future of Food, so let’s move on to the optimistic side for the positive news.

There are three new and exciting technologies and methodologies that will allow us to feed everyone with healthier, cheaper food while having a drastically smaller environmental footprint, perhaps even a surplus of food, which would alleviate the motherly induced guilt of having leftover food on the plate when there are starving kids somewhere else. In time, it might even lead to the demise of the multinational conglomerates of the food industry if implemented correctly, as food production would (or should) naturally move into the local arena. All of the following three solutions to be discussed are parts of what is called Vertical Farming (farming upwards in skyscrapers as opposed to outwards in land).

First up, the low-tech solution: aquaponics. It is, at its simplest, merely two pools of water, one with small fish in it and the other with floating pods in little pods, with plants growing out of them. The water circulates through the two pools in a circle-of-life manner. It can be in a spare bedroom, outside in a greenhouse, or on acres of space outside. It can be as small or as big as you like.

The fish poop in the water, and that water is routed to the plants, where the plants use the poop as fertilizer, cleaning the water to be circulated around back to the fish. In this manner, the fish aren’t poisoned by their own feces and have clean water to live in, and the plants receive free fertilizer, filtering the water, and grow.

Water is only added to compensate for what the plants themselves use, or the small amount of evaporation that happens. Aside from this, it is essentially self-maintaining and uses very few resources. It also becomes in time, an organic environment that supports itself, much as a lake does, creating a thriving ecosystem of bacteria and other life forms that support the healthy development of both plant and fish.

An aquaponics system uses about five-percent of the water that in-ground farming uses for the same output, has 90% less land requirements, uses electricity instead of diesel fuel (so it can be coupled with renewable energy if need be), eliminates waste, and even with the right kind of fish, can eradicate mosquitoes in a large surrounding area if its usage is widespread. All the while growing dozens of different types of fruit and vegetables from bananas to lettuce to tomatoes and many more.

Aquaponics is a cheap, economical, sustainable method of food production that anyone can learn and set up, either in a spare bedroom, backyard, skyscraper, or on a farm. No stage of production is utterly reliant on oil or fossil fuels unless that’s where your electricity comes from, and this can be just as easily converted to run using renewable energy sources. On top of aquaponics, there is also aeroponics (pioneered by NASA). Instead of plant pods floating on water and sucking up the nutrients expelled by the fish, a watery mist is used to deliver nutrients to the plants in an indoor environment that has the same benefits of aquaponics, using UV lights for the plants to perform photosynthesis. They are similar processes, though aeroponics requires more high-tech equipment than does aquaponics.

The second solution is a little on the high-tech side. In the Netherlands, a company called Plantlab has created an entire underground farm lit up by blue and red LED lights specifically tailored to each plant, such that it instigates the fastest growth possible.

It turns out that plant cells are more effective at converting certain wavelengths of light (in combination with carbon dioxide and water) to energy than others. The underground setup of this Dutch company is designed to maximize those wavelengths of light tailored specifically to each plant, providing the perfect conditions in every respect in order to get us the food we need faster, with less energy, no pesticides, reduced fertilizers, no tractors, no plows, or pollution, ninety-percent less water, and a fraction of the required labor. They also use plant science, mathematical models, and carbon dioxide models to regulate the fresh weight, dry matter, and developmental speed of their plants. They also use automation to control the climate so it stays perfect, and record thousands of data points for each growing cycle to distill and capture the most efficient patterns of growing. Pretty much a farm on steroids, using Big Data to create ever more efficient models of plant growth, nutrient feed, and food quality.

It looks like the effervescent fauna from Pandora in the movie Avatar, with fluorescent vegetables, herbs, and fruits abounding.

Above-ground farming is dependent on nature, and is surprisingly inefficient; from the water runoff, soil depletion, inability to grow at night, vast land requirements (forty-percent of the world’s land surface), geographical reorganization (contributing to desertification and droughts), and the oil-dependent machinery to plow, seed, and harvest the food. Then natural photosynthesis converts approximately nine-percent of the available light into energy, while Plantlab is able to currently convert approximately twelve to fifteen-percent, with a goal of eighteen-percent—doubling the yield, using a tenth of the land requirements and water, and no negative environmental impacts. Amazing!

Lastly (and luckily scientists didn’t forget about us meat-lovers), current research is pointing towards the inevitability of In-Vitro Meat (IVM) to accommodate those who will never, or can’t ever, give up their meat.

First, let’s look at the price we pay for meat today. The full price, not just the supermarket price, which doesn’t account for externalized costs such as CO2, environmental degradation, and so on:

  • Worldwide meat consumption was approximately 326,200,000,000kg of meat in 2011, and increasing every year, expected to double by 2050
  • Each kilogram of meat (2.2 pounds) requires 6.6 kilograms (14.5 pounds) of plant protein
  • Eighty-percent of the worlds antibiotics are used on livestock, and seventy-five percent of those antibiotics are not absorbed by the animals, leading to the evolution of super-bacteria, which will render conventional surgery obsolete in ten-years
  • Factory farms contribute negatively to surrounding environments by creating dead-zones in rivers and oceans (killing millions of fish), and are known to poison fresh-water supplies
  • Worldwide, livestock accounts for eighteen-percent of greenhouse-gases, 40% of methane gas emissions (twenty-five times more potent than CO2), and sixty-five percent of nitrous oxide emissions (three-hundred times more potent than CO2)

There is a growing organic movement in the West to move towards more sustainable practices. With meat, that entails switching to pasture-raised animals that have been fed real food (by real, food that they are evolutionarily programmed to eat, i.e., grass, not corn or grain) and have been given freedom to wander around in the sun. While this is a step-up for human health, it is not for environmental health. These animals generate more emissions (per animal) than those cooped up in the factory farm hell hole, and require even more land. We currently use forty-percent of the world’s arable land for farming and raising animals for meat consumption. If we switched to pasture-raised animals in the West (where we eat the most amount of meat), that forty-percent would most assuredly increase along with the environmental consequences that go with it.

So let’s start with IVM; first by detailing what it is. It involves growing meat using stem-cells that envelop and grow around a string of animal-tissue (this is what nature does if it sounds gross, using DNA instead of tissue). Scientists take a string of tissue from an animal painlessly (and without killing it), from an area such as the rump or breast or any such desirable area. Simultaneously, they’ll extract the animals own stem-cells, or reverse-engineer stem-cells from other cell-types (a Nobel prize was given out for demonstration of this process in 2012), and put the two together in a scaffolding that binds them. The stem-cells naturally take on the exact genetic properties of the meat, and begin to grow out onto a biodegradable or edible scaffolding, which feeds nutrients into the meat, and stretches and twists it, stimulating muscle development and increasing tissue-strength. The result? A steak, chicken breast, or pork sausage indistinguishable from a cut of meat that came from a living, breathing mammal. And this is where some get a bit confused, it will actually be indistinguishable at a genetic level; it won’t be imitation meat, or fake-meat, but real meat!

Once we get over the fact that IVM is oddly disembodied, we’ll be thankful that it doesn’t shit, burp, fart, eat, over graze, drink, bleed, or scream in pain.” ~ Humanity+

The only way that this process differs from nature, is it’s done without the biological machinery of two parent animals, using human-engineered machinery instead. Otherwise, it is the same process that nature uses. The mother and father animal pass on their DNA via egg and sperm, and nature employs stem cells and nutrients to grow a new animal that’s a genetic variant of the inputted DNA. We’ll take a tissue sample of an animal along with its stem-cells, and create more tissue just like that without artificial chemicals, antibiotics, possible transmission of disease (bye-bye mad cow disease and salmonella), and without the waste and pollution that current practices emit.

In-Vitro Meat Facts:

  • Reduce energy use by 7-45%
  • Reduce greenhouse emissions by 96% (the emissions that remain can be used to generate electricity potentially allowing 100% reduction)
  • Reduce land-use by 99%
  • Reduce freshwater use by 96%
  • Genetic manipulation to speed up life-cycle or ratio of edible meat to weight would be unnecessary
  • No more outbreaks of swine flu, mad cow disease, avid flu, tuberculosis, brucellosis, or any other animal-to-human plagues
  • No more unnecessary suffering for animals and people like. There’ll be no need to kill animals, and the transmission of diseases to humans will essentially cease

Coupled with agricultural vertical-farming, forty-percent of the Earth’s arable land currently utilized for agricultural and livestock purposes, could be returned to nature increasing biodiversity, pollution sequestration, and perhaps put a damper on the sixth great extinction, occurring overwhelmingly due to habitat-loss (a Belgium-sized chunk of the Amazon rainforest is cut down every year to be used as grazing grounds for cows to name one example among many). All that is being done with IVM is the same process and outlook humanity used to invent and propagate agriculture some twelve-thousand years ago. That is, appropriating nature’s laws in such a way as to be conducive to humanity, and which will, unlike with agriculture, reduce our ecological and environmental footprint. Healthier humans. Better off animals (and less disease). Happier planet! Who could object to that?  More pointedly, who’d want object? There will come a time soon when IVM becomes economically competitive with slaughterhouse-steaks, and I’ve a feeling people in the future will look upon us as barbarians for killing our food. Even Winston Churchill saw it coming six-decades ago.

“Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” ~ Winston Churchill (Former Prime Minister)

Very soon, we will be able to economically grow any type of food locally using climate-controlled, 24/7 underground/indoor farms and save all that energy we currently use shipping exotic foods from one side of the planet to the other, on more productive pursuits.

This food revolution is long overdue. Above-ground farming has a cost, from increasing desertification, to agricultural runoff creating dead zones in our oceans, plus the inordinate amount of energy required from start to finish that drives up the base product that our economies run on: oil.

In late 2012, Singapore unveiled its first Vertical Farm (VF), growing half a ton of vegetables per day, at just 10-20 cents higher than conventionally farmed produce shipped in from overseas, with a goal of two-tonnes of fresh, local chemical-free produce by mid-2013. The VF uses 120 twenty-feet tall rotating cylinders, and is rated at between five to ten times more productive than agricultural farmland per square foot. With just a small-scale implementation, the price differential is astoundingly small. Imagine how cheap it would be on a larger scale, when economies-of-scale takes over?

The traditional farm may very well become a distant memory, as it moves into skyscrapers, people’s homes and into underground basements in various locales around the world in cities providing fresh, chemical-free, cheap, and local organic food all year round without the waste or the environmental degradation that accompanies traditional agriculture. This will simultaneously alleviate the concerns, often unfounded, of anti-GMO activists, of our bodies, of our dear planet Earth, and our wallets.


Note: the book is fully sourced, but because of the writing program I use, the links don’t transfer over to WordPress, and I can’t be bothered inserting them in one at a time. The final book will have all the relevant sources in the proper locations.

Driving and Flying

flying and driving

This is sub-chapter #17, of Chapter #5, Technology, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. I would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the full PDF of the book, then you can download it by clicking here—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published. If you wish to read the previous chapters in one convenient place online, please follow this link, and lastly, thanks for reading!


DRIVING AND FLYING

I promised you positivity, enough to outweigh the tedium of the preceding chapters, and here it be.

What do planes and automobiles have in common? Well, right now, not so much, aside from getting you from point A to point B. But soon, a whole lot more, and it will make life easier and better for everyone.

Let’s start with airplanes today and extrapolate out into the near future with cars. We don’t have everyone today clamoring to own an airplane, as we do with cars, because they are excessively expensive to buy, to maintain, and to fuel. Instead, large companies are built around them that own and lease them out on an as-needed basis for those who need to travel. In order for these companies to keep costs down (and thus, keep ticket prices as cheap as possible), they routinely fly their airplanes as often as is safely possible. Airplanes often have about a ninety-six percent usage rate (cars have approximately a ninety-six percent idle rate).

That’s why we don’t have a billion airplanes everywhere, but why we do have a billion cars. Cars are dumb machines, much as a phone used to be, only able to send and receive calls and SMS. (It’s almost difficult to remember such phones.) A car needs to be driven everywhere by a human driver. Also, we humans aren’t nearly as rational, safe, and proficient as we like to think we are, and we often make mistakes. Sometimes we hit other cars or other people. Sometimes we drive ourselves off the road, or neglect to take local weather conditions into account and various other factors that cause a significant amount of damage around the world, both personal and monetary. (Why I’m bringing up bad and dangerous driving will make sense soon.)

That’s all about to change. Google is developing and testing the self-driving car, and to conclude the phone analogy above; it is the iPhone of cars. It has had over 300,000 miles of road testing with nary a hiccup to its name, or the equivalent of driving twelve times around the world. (It was involved in two accidents, but was being manually operated both times.) The necessary legislation that will allow it to drive on the road has already been approved in three US states; Nevada, California, and Florida. (And I’m sure many more to come; the one thing you can count on politicians to do is try to play catch-up)

These self-driving G-cars are a miracle in disguise, and in more ways than one. Imagine never needing more than one car per household (or per street). Imagine accidents being a thing of the past, or driving to the bar to get your drink on and back home risk free. Imagine traffic jams and congestions being a distant memory. Imagine all the money you won’t spend on insurance and parking tickets. Imagine never losing a dear friend or loved one at the wheels of a drunk driver or wet road. Imagine not having to worry about your teenage child going out late at night and all the other positive consequences I’m too dumb to think of.

Ninety-three percent of all automobile crashes are wholly or indirectly attributed to human error; intoxication, texting or calling while driving, and various other human factors. Global traffic accidents are in the range of fifty-million per year, and deaths as a result of those accidents are in the neighborhood of 1.3 million per year according (to the World Health Organization, though there are other estimates that put the number at $230 billion). Not being able to count the human cost of such tragedy (nor should one try), the millions of injuries incur costs of roughly $100 billion per year. By 2019, human deaths are projected to hit 1.9 million. The potential for change with the driverless car is nothing short of huge.

Here is a fictional scenario of a family of three in a not-too-distant future.

Husband, on his drive in to work in the morning; checks his work email on his smart phone, listens to the news on the dashboard TV, and sips his coffee with nary a glance at the road. Upon arriving at work, he instructs Car, as one would a pet, to return home. Fifteen minutes later, Wife gets a message that Car has returned as it pulls into the driveway, so she walks Kid outside and helps him hop aboard, telling Car to drive him to school, as one would of a chauffeur. Car drives with Kid in tow, while Wife goes back inside to finish her now-peaceful morning coffee. Car drives smoothly through traffic and, at full speed, straight through a roundabout without stopping thanks to its array of sensors on-board that monitor the environment in every direction thousands of times per second, as well as keep in contact wirelessly with nearby cars; all of whom, in unison, plot a course so that, with minimal disruption to speed, they criss-cross with ease and nary a hiccup. Coming up to a red light, it smoothly glides to a stop. As the red light turns green, all the other networked cars simultaneously start driving forward; their radars and 3D cameras preventing them from ever hitting each other, eliminating congestion on the once-chaotic roads. What was once a thirty-minute drive is now a relaxing twelve. As Car arrives at the school and stops at the sidewalk, Kid hurriedly shouts at the car to go back home as he disembarks and runs to the playground to find his friends. Twelve minutes later, Wife receives another message, picking up her handbag as she reads it; she strolls out onto the driveway, jumps in, and says, “Take me to work.

Once cars become self-driving, it will be feasible, cost-effective, safer, and environmentally friendlier to have a handful of cars service multiple households, perhaps an entire street. In fact, there may well be  citywide car-sharing companies (using Big Data and statistical analysis), determining how many cars can service the entire population: the city of Paris is currently in such trials, though the cars they are using are not self-driving. Time, traffic, parking, accidents, and congestion cease to be problems anymore. You might not be able to stroke your ego with your big new car anymore, but your small personal loss will result in the long-term gain of the human race and our biosphere.

That is a future that can be made possible due to the driverless car, and it could not have come at a better time either.

According to the International Energy Agency, global peak oil was reached in 2006. So we’re officially past the halfway mark of the world’s cheap oil supply, with an increasingly energy-hungry and population-heavy developing world competing with the developed world going forward for what remains. China and India are spending tens of billions of dollars buying up oil-fields around the world. Using nothing more than logic, we can be sure that the second half won’t last nearly as long, nor be nearly as cheap, as the first half, though this does not preclude us from using dirtier oil sources such as Tar Sands and Heavy Crude etc, though they are far worse for the environment, human health, and far more expensive. The act of making a car in itself is a hugely oil-intensive task, let alone filling up the tank, and this will only become more so.

If a technology such as self-driving cars makes the transition from development to mass-market adoption; we’ll have fewer cars on the road, efficient roads, no accidents, no injuries or deaths, no congestion or traffic jams, and perhaps even no traffic lights. The cost savings that will result from a resource, medical, productivity, and environmental standpoint will be enormous and could potentially reinvigorate lagging economies (by repurposing money sunk into oil, cars, congestion, etc., into new businesses and investments), and we will all be better off—that is, if money still exists at this point (more on this in the Future of Work). Larry Page, the CEO of Google, recently went on the record that it would save Google itself hundreds of millions of dollars in parking costs. Imagine what it will save the rest of the world? And this, rather greedily and perhaps shortsightedly, speaks only of cash.

There may even come a time—nay, will if mass-adopted—that governments (perhaps even insurance companies) forbid manual driving due to the danger it poses others. Taxi, bus, and truck drivers, and traffic light repairmen et al, will be out of work, and it is unfortunate that such progress comes with such pain, but unfortunately, there is no way around that. As Gary Marcus from the New Yorker writes, “it would be immoral of you to drive, because the risk of you hurting yourself or another person will be far greater than if you allowed a machine to do the work.”

Everything has a cost, and that cost must be paid in full, for the sake of progress and the betterment of all human life.