Tag Archives: engineering

#435106 Could Artificial Photosynthesis Help ...

Plants are the planet’s lungs, but they’re struggling to keep up due to rising CO2 emissions and deforestation. Engineers are giving them a helping hand, though, by augmenting their capacity with new technology and creating artificial substitutes to help them clean up our atmosphere.

Imperial College London, one of the UK’s top engineering schools, recently announced that it was teaming up with startup Arborea to build the company’s first outdoor pilot of its BioSolar Leaf cultivation system at the university’s White City campus in West London.

Arborea is developing large solar panel-like structures that house microscopic plants and can be installed on buildings or open land. The plants absorb light and carbon dioxide as they photosynthesize, removing greenhouse gases from the air and producing organic material, which can be processed to extract valuable food additives like omega-3 fatty acids.

The idea of growing algae to produce useful materials isn’t new, but Arborea’s pitch seems to be flexibility and affordability. The more conventional approach is to grow algae in open ponds, which are less efficient and open to contamination, or in photo-bioreactors, which typically require CO2 to be piped in rather than getting it from the air and can be expensive to run.

There’s little detail on how the technology deals with issues like nutrient supply and harvesting or how efficient it is. The company claims it can remove carbon dioxide as fast as 100 trees using the surface area of just a single tree, but there’s no published research to back that up, and it’s hard to compare the surface area of flat panels to that of a complex object like a tree. If you flattened out every inch of a tree’s surface it would cover a surprisingly large area.

Nonetheless, the ability to install these panels directly on buildings could present a promising way to soak up the huge amount of CO2 produced in our cities by transport and industry. And Arborea isn’t the only one trying to give plants a helping hand.

For decades researchers have been working on ways to use light-activated catalysts to split water into oxygen and hydrogen fuel, and more recently there have been efforts to fuse this with additional processes to combine the hydrogen with carbon from CO2 to produce all kinds of useful products.

Most notably, in 2016 Harvard researchers showed that water-splitting catalysts could be augmented with bacteria that combines the resulting hydrogen with CO2 to create oxygen and biomass, fuel, or other useful products. The approach was more efficient than plants at turning CO2 to fuel and was built using cheap materials, but turning it into a commercially viable technology will take time.

Not everyone is looking to mimic or borrow from biology in their efforts to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. There’s been a recent glut of investment in startups working on direct-air capture (DAC) technology, which had previously been written off for using too much power and space to be practical. The looming climate change crisis appears to be rewriting some of those assumptions, though.

Most approaches aim to use the concentrated CO2 to produce synthetic fuels or other useful products, creating a revenue stream that could help improve their commercial viability. But we look increasingly likely to surpass the safe greenhouse gas limits, so attention is instead turning to carbon-negative technologies.

That means capturing CO2 from the air and then putting it into long-term storage. One way could be to grow lots of biomass and then bury it, mimicking the process that created fossil fuels in the first place. Or DAC plants could pump the CO2 they produce into deep underground wells.

But the former would take up unreasonably large amounts of land to make a significant dent in emissions, while the latter would require huge amounts of already scant and expensive renewable power. According to a recent analysis, artificial photosynthesis could sidestep these issues because it’s up to five times more efficient than its natural counterpart and could be cheaper than DAC.

Whether the technology will develop quickly enough for it to be deployed at scale and in time to mitigate the worst effects of climate change remains to be seen. Emissions reductions certainly present a more sure-fire way to deal with the problem, but nonetheless, cyborg plants could soon be a common sight in our cities.

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#435080 12 Ways Big Tech Can Take Big Action on ...

Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have invested $1 billion in Breakthrough Energy to fund next-generation solutions to tackle climate. But there is a huge risk that any successful innovation will only reach the market as the world approaches 2030 at the earliest.

We now know that reducing the risk of dangerous climate change means halving global greenhouse gas emissions by that date—in just 11 years. Perhaps Gates, Zuckerberg, and all the tech giants should invest equally in innovations to do with how their own platforms —search, social media, eCommerce—can support societal behavior changes to drive down emissions.

After all, the tech giants influence the decisions of four billion consumers every day. It is time for a social contract between tech and society.

Recently myself and collaborator Johan Falk published a report during the World Economic Forum in Davos outlining 12 ways the tech sector can contribute to supporting societal goals to stabilize Earth’s climate.

Become genuine climate guardians

Tech giants go to great lengths to show how serious they are about reducing their emissions. But I smell cognitive dissonance. Google and Microsoft are working in partnership with oil companies to develop AI tools to help maximize oil recovery. This is not the behavior of companies working flat-out to stabilize Earth’s climate. Indeed, few major tech firms have visions that indicate a stable and resilient planet might be a good goal, yet AI alone has the potential to slash greenhouse gas emissions by four percent by 2030—equivalent to the emissions of Australia, Canada, and Japan combined.

We are now developing a playbook, which we plan to publish later this year at the UN climate summit, about making it as simple as possible for a CEO to become a climate guardian.

Hey Alexa, do you care about the stability of Earth’s climate?

Increasingly, consumers are delegating their decisions to narrow artificial intelligence like Alexa and Siri. Welcome to a world of zero-click purchases.

Should algorithms and information architecture be designed to nudge consumer behavior towards low-carbon choices, for example by making these options the default? We think so. People don’t mind being nudged; in fact, they welcome efforts to make their lives better. For instance, if I want to lose weight, I know I will need all the help I can get. Let’s ‘nudge for good’ and experiment with supporting societal goals.

Use social media for good

Facebook’s goal is to bring the world closer together. With 2.2 billion users on the platform, CEO Mark Zuckerberg can reasonably claim this goal is possible. But social media has changed the flow of information in the world, creating a lucrative industry around a toxic brown-cloud of confusion and anger, with frankly terrifying implications for democracy. This has been linked to the rise of nationalism and populism, and to the election of leaders who shun international cooperation, dismiss scientific knowledge, and reverse climate action at a moment when we need it more than ever.

Social media tools need re-engineering to help people make sense of the world, support democratic processes, and build communities around societal goals. Make this your mission.

Design for a future on Earth

Almost everything is designed with computer software, from buildings to mobile phones to consumer packaging. It is time to make zero-carbon design the new default and design products for sharing, re-use and disassembly.

The future is circular

Halving emissions in a decade will require all companies to adopt circular business models to reduce material use. Some tech companies are leading the charge. Apple has committed to becoming 100 percent circular as soon as possible. Great.

While big tech companies strive to be market leaders here, many other companies lack essential knowledge. Tech companies can support rapid adoption in different economic sectors, not least because they have the know-how to scale innovations exponentially. It makes business sense. If economies of scale drive the price of recycled steel and aluminium down, everyone wins.

Reward low-carbon consumption

eCommerce platforms can create incentives for low-carbon consumption. The world’s largest experiment in greening consumer behavior is Ant Forest, set up by Chinese fintech giant Ant Financial.

An estimated 300 million customers—similar to the population of the United States—gain points for making low-carbon choices such as walking to work, using public transport, or paying bills online. Virtual points are eventually converted into real trees. Sure, big questions remain about its true influence on emissions, but this is a space for rapid experimentation for big impact.

Make information more useful

Science is our tool for defining reality. Scientific consensus is how we attain reliable knowledge. Even after the information revolution, reliable knowledge about the world remains fragmented and unstructured. Build the next generation of search engines to genuinely make the world’s knowledge useful for supporting societal goals.

We need to put these tools towards supporting shared world views of the state of the planet based on the best science. New AI tools being developed by startups like Iris.ai can help see through the fog. From Alexa to Google Home and Siri, the future is “Voice”, but who chooses the information source? The highest bidder? Again, the implications for climate are huge.

Create new standards for digital advertising and marketing

Half of global ad revenue will soon be online, and largely going to a small handful of companies. How about creating a novel ethical standard on what is advertised and where? Companies could consider promoting sustainable choices and healthy lifestyles and limiting advertising of high-emissions products such as cheap flights.

We are what we eat

It is no secret that tech is about to disrupt grocery. The supermarkets of the future will be built on personal consumer data. With about two billion people either obese or overweight, revolutions in choice architecture could support positive diet choices, reduce meat consumption, halve food waste and, into the bargain, slash greenhouse gas emissions.

The future of transport is not cars, it’s data

The 2020s look set to be the biggest disruption of the automobile industry since Henry Ford unveiled the Model T. Two seismic shifts are on their way.

First, electric cars now compete favorably with petrol engines on range. Growth will reach an inflection point within a year or two once prices reach parity. The death of the internal combustion engine in Europe and Asia is assured with end dates announced by China, India, France, the UK, and most of Scandinavia. Dates range from 2025 (Norway) to 2040 (UK and China).

Tech giants can accelerate the demise. Uber recently announced a passenger surcharge to help London drivers save around $1,500 a year towards the cost of an electric car.

Second, driverless cars can shift the transport economic model from ownership to service and ride sharing. A complete shift away from privately-owned vehicles is around the corner, with large implications for emissions.

Clean-energy living and working

Most buildings are barely used and inefficiently heated and cooled. Digitization can slash this waste and its corresponding emissions through measurement, monitoring, and new business models to use office space. While, just a few unicorns are currently in this space, the potential is enormous. Buildings are one of the five biggest sources of emissions, yet have the potential to become clean energy producers in a distributed energy network.

Creating liveable cities

More cities are setting ambitious climate targets to halve emissions in a decade or even less. Tech companies can support this transition by driving demand for low-carbon services for their workforces and offices, but also by providing tools to help monitor emissions and act to reduce them. Google, for example, is collecting travel and other data from across cities to estimate emissions in real time. This is possible through technologies like artificial intelligence and the internet of things. But beware of smart cities that turn out to be not so smart. Efficiencies can reduce resilience when cities face crises.

It’s a Start
Of course, it will take more than tech to solve the climate crisis. But tech is a wildcard. The actions of the current tech giants and their acolytes could serve to destabilize the climate further or bring it under control.

We need a new social contract between tech companies and society to achieve societal goals. The alternative is unthinkable. Without drastic action now, climate chaos threatens to engulf us all. As this future approaches, regulators will be forced to take ever more draconian action to rein in the problem. Acting now will reduce that risk.

Note: A version of this article was originally published on World Economic Forum

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#435043 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

The Microbots Are on Their Way
Kenneth Chang | The New York Times
“Like Frankenstein, Marc Miskin’s robots initially lie motionless. Then their limbs jerk to life. But these robots are the size of a speck of dust. Thousands fit side-by-side on a single silicon wafer similar to those used for computer chips, and, like Frankenstein coming to life, they pull themselves free and start crawling.”

Why the ‘Post-Natural’ Age Could Be Strange and Beautiful
Lauren Holt | BBC
“As long as humans have existed, we have been influencing our planet’s flora and fauna. So, if humanity continues to flourish far into the future, how will nature change? And how might this genetic manipulation affect our own biology and evolutionary trajectory? The short answer: it will be strange, potentially beautiful and like nothing we’re used to.”

Watch This Wild 3D-Printed Lung Air Sac Breathe
Amanda Kooser | CNET
“A research team led by bioengineers at the University of Washington and Rice University developed an open-source technique for bioprinting tissues ‘with exquisitely entangled vascular networks similar to the body’s natural passageways for blood, air, lymph and other vital fluids.’i”

A New Camera Can Photograph You From 45 Kilometers Away
Emerging Technology from the arXiv | MIT Technology Review
“Conventional images taken through the telescope show nothing other than noise. But the new technique produces images with a spatial resolution of about 60 cm, which resolves building windows.”

The Search for the Kryptonite That Can Stop CRISPR
Antonio Regalado | MIT Technology Review
“CRISPR weapons? We’ll leave it to your imagination exactly what one could look like. What is safe to say, though, is that DARPA has asked Doudna and others to start looking into prophylactic treatments or even pills you could take to stop gene editing, just the way you can swallow antibiotics if you’ve gotten an anthrax letter in the mail.”

The Holy Grail of Robotics: Inside the Quest to Build a Mechanical Human Hand
Luke Dormehl | Digital Trends
“For real-life roboticists, building the perfect robot hand has long been the Holy Grail. It is the hardware yin to the software yang of creating an artificial mind. Seeking out the ultimate challenge, robotics experts gravitated to recreating what is one of the most complicated and beautiful pieces of natural engineering found in the human body.”

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#434837 In Defense of Black Box AI

Deep learning is powering some amazing new capabilities, but we find it hard to scrutinize the workings of these algorithms. Lack of interpretability in AI is a common concern and many are trying to fix it, but is it really always necessary to know what’s going on inside these “black boxes”?

In a recent perspective piece for Science, Elizabeth Holm, a professor of materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, argued in defense of the black box algorithm. I caught up with her last week to find out more.

Edd Gent: What’s your experience with black box algorithms?

Elizabeth Holm: I got a dual PhD in materials science and engineering and scientific computing. I came to academia about six years ago and part of what I wanted to do in making this career change was to refresh and revitalize my computer science side.

I realized that computer science had changed completely. It used to be about algorithms and making codes run fast, but now it’s about data and artificial intelligence. There are the interpretable methods like random forest algorithms, where we can tell how the machine is making its decisions. And then there are the black box methods, like convolutional neural networks.

Once in a while we can find some information about their inner workings, but most of the time we have to accept their answers and kind of probe around the edges to figure out the space in which we can use them and how reliable and accurate they are.

EG: What made you feel like you had to mount a defense of these black box algorithms?

EH: When I started talking with my colleagues, I found that the black box nature of many of these algorithms was a real problem for them. I could understand that because we’re scientists, we always want to know why and how.

It got me thinking as a bit of a contrarian, “Are black boxes all bad? Must we reject them?” Surely not, because human thought processes are fairly black box. We often rely on human thought processes that the thinker can’t necessarily explain.

It’s looking like we’re going to be stuck with these methods for a while, because they’re really helpful. They do amazing things. And so there’s a very pragmatic realization that these are the best methods we’ve got to do some really important problems, and we’re not right now seeing alternatives that are interpretable. We’re going to have to use them, so we better figure out how.

EG: In what situations do you think we should be using black box algorithms?

EH: I came up with three rules. The simplest rule is: when the cost of a bad decision is small and the value of a good decision is high, it’s worth it. The example I gave in the paper is targeted advertising. If you send an ad no one wants it doesn’t cost a lot. If you’re the receiver it doesn’t cost a lot to get rid of it.

There are cases where the cost is high, and that’s then we choose the black box if it’s the best option to do the job. Things get a little trickier here because we have to ask “what are the costs of bad decisions, and do we really have them fully characterized?” We also have to be very careful knowing that our systems may have biases, they may have limitations in where you can apply them, they may be breakable.

But at the same time, there are certainly domains where we’re going to test these systems so extensively that we know their performance in virtually every situation. And if their performance is better than the other methods, we need to do it. Self driving vehicles are a significant example—it’s almost certain they’re going to have to use black box methods, and that they’re going to end up being better drivers than humans.

The third rule is the more fun one for me as a scientist, and that’s the case where the black box really enlightens us as to a new way to look at something. We have trained a black box to recognize the fracture energy of breaking a piece of metal from a picture of the broken surface. It did a really good job, and humans can’t do this and we don’t know why.

What the computer seems to be seeing is noise. There’s a signal in that noise, and finding it is very difficult, but if we do we may find something significant to the fracture process, and that would be an awesome scientific discovery.

EG: Do you think there’s been too much emphasis on interpretability?

EH: I think the interpretability problem is a fundamental, fascinating computer science grand challenge and there are significant issues where we need to have an interpretable model. But how I would frame it is not that there’s too much emphasis on interpretability, but rather that there’s too much dismissiveness of uninterpretable models.

I think that some of the current social and political issues surrounding some very bad black box outcomes have convinced people that all machine learning and AI should be interpretable because that will somehow solve those problems.

Asking humans to explain their rationale has not eliminated bias, or stereotyping, or bad decision-making in humans. Relying too much on interpreted ability perhaps puts the responsibility in the wrong place for getting better results. I can make a better black box without knowing exactly in what way the first one was bad.

EG: Looking further into the future, do you think there will be situations where humans will have to rely on black box algorithms to solve problems we can’t get our heads around?

EH: I do think so, and it’s not as much of a stretch as we think it is. For example, humans don’t design the circuit map of computer chips anymore. We haven’t for years. It’s not a black box algorithm that designs those circuit boards, but we’ve long since given up trying to understand a particular computer chip’s design.

With the billions of circuits in every computer chip, the human mind can’t encompass it, either in scope or just the pure time that it would take to trace every circuit. There are going to be cases where we want a system so complex that only the patience that computers have and their ability to work in very high-dimensional spaces is going to be able to do it.

So we can continue to argue about interpretability, but we need to acknowledge that we’re going to need to use black boxes. And this is our opportunity to do our due diligence to understand how to use them responsibly, ethically, and with benefits rather than harm. And that’s going to be a social conversation as well as as a scientific one.

*Responses have been edited for length and style

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#434823 The Tangled Web of Turning Spider Silk ...

Spider-Man is one of the most popular superheroes of all time. It’s a bit surprising given that one of the more common phobias is arachnophobia—a debilitating fear of spiders.

Perhaps more fantastical is that young Peter Parker, a brainy high school science nerd, seemingly developed overnight the famous web-shooters and the synthetic spider silk that he uses to swing across the cityscape like Tarzan through the jungle.

That’s because scientists have been trying for decades to replicate spider silk, a material that is five times stronger than steel, among its many superpowers. In recent years, researchers have been untangling the protein-based fiber’s structure down to the molecular level, leading to new insights and new potential for eventual commercial uses.

The applications for such a material seem near endless. There’s the more futuristic visions, like enabling robotic “muscles” for human-like movement or ensnaring real-life villains with a Spider-Man-like web. Near-term applications could include the biomedical industry, such as bandages and adhesives, and as a replacement textile for everything from rope to seat belts to parachutes.

Spinning Synthetic Spider Silk
Randy Lewis has been studying the properties of spider silk and developing methods for producing it synthetically for more than three decades. In the 1990s, his research team was behind cloning the first spider silk gene, as well as the first to identify and sequence the proteins that make up the six different silks that web slingers make. Each has different mechanical properties.

“So our thought process was that you could take that information and begin to to understand what made them strong and what makes them stretchy, and why some are are very stretchy and some are not stretchy at all, and some are stronger and some are weaker,” explained Lewis, a biology professor at Utah State University and director of the Synthetic Spider Silk Lab, in an interview with Singularity Hub.

Spiders are naturally territorial and cannibalistic, so any intention to farm silk naturally would likely end in an orgy of arachnid violence. Instead, Lewis and company have genetically modified different organisms to produce spider silk synthetically, including inserting a couple of web-making genes into the genetic code of goats. The goats’ milk contains spider silk proteins.

The lab also produces synthetic spider silk through a fermentation process not entirely dissimilar to brewing beer, but using genetically modified bacteria to make the desired spider silk proteins. A similar technique has been used for years to make a key enzyme in cheese production. More recently, companies are using transgenic bacteria to make meat and milk proteins, entirely bypassing animals in the process.

The same fermentation technology is used by a chic startup called Bolt Threads outside of San Francisco that has raised more than $200 million for fashionable fibers made out of synthetic spider silk it calls Microsilk. (The company is also developing a second leather-like material, Mylo, using the underground root structure of mushrooms known as mycelium.)

Lewis’ lab also uses transgenic silkworms to produce a kind of composite material made up of the domesticated insect’s own silk proteins and those of spider silk. “Those have some fairly impressive properties,” Lewis said.

The researchers are even experimenting with genetically modified alfalfa. One of the big advantages there is that once the spider silk protein has been extracted, the remaining protein could be sold as livestock feed. “That would bring the cost of spider silk protein production down significantly,” Lewis said.

Building a Better Web
Producing synthetic spider silk isn’t the problem, according to Lewis, but the ability to do it at scale commercially remains a sticking point.

Another challenge is “weaving” the synthetic spider silk into usable products that can take advantage of the material’s marvelous properties.

“It is possible to make silk proteins synthetically, but it is very hard to assemble the individual proteins into a fiber or other material forms,” said Markus Buehler, head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, in an email to Singularity Hub. “The spider has a complex spinning duct in which silk proteins are exposed to physical forces, chemical gradients, the combination of which generates the assembly of molecules that leads to silk fibers.”

Buehler recently co-authored a paper in the journal Science Advances that found dragline spider silk exhibits different properties in response to changes in humidity that could eventually have applications in robotics.

Specifically, spider silk suddenly contracts and twists above a certain level of relative humidity, exerting enough force to “potentially be competitive with other materials being explored as actuators—devices that move to perform some activity such as controlling a valve,” according to a press release.

Studying Spider Silk Up Close
Recent studies at the molecular level are helping scientists learn more about the unique properties of spider silk, which may help researchers develop materials with extraordinary capabilities.

For example, scientists at Arizona State University used magnetic resonance tools and other instruments to image the abdomen of a black widow spider. They produced what they called the first molecular-level model of spider silk protein fiber formation, providing insights on the nanoparticle structure. The research was published last October in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A cross section of the abdomen of a black widow (Latrodectus Hesperus) spider used in this study at Arizona State University. Image Credit: Samrat Amin.
Also in 2018, a study presented in Nature Communications described a sort of molecular clamp that binds the silk protein building blocks, which are called spidroins. The researchers observed for the first time that the clamp self-assembles in a two-step process, contributing to the extensibility, or stretchiness, of spider silk.

Another team put the spider silk of a brown recluse under an atomic force microscope, discovering that each strand, already 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, is made up of thousands of nanostrands. That helps explain its extraordinary tensile strength, though technique is also a factor, as the brown recluse uses a special looping method to reinforce its silk strands. The study also appeared last year in the journal ACS Macro Letters.

Making Spider Silk Stick
Buehler said his team is now trying to develop better and faster predictive methods to design silk proteins using artificial intelligence.

“These new methods allow us to generate new protein designs that do not naturally exist and which can be explored to optimize certain desirable properties like torsional actuation, strength, bioactivity—for example, tissue engineering—and others,” he said.

Meanwhile, Lewis’ lab has discovered a method that allows it to solubilize spider silk protein in what is essentially a water-based solution, eschewing acids or other toxic compounds that are normally used in the process.

That enables the researchers to develop materials beyond fiber, including adhesives that “are better than an awful lot of the current commercial adhesives,” Lewis said, as well as coatings that could be used to dampen vibrations, for example.

“We’re making gels for various kinds of of tissue regeneration, as well as drug delivery, and things like that,” he added. “So we’ve expanded the use profile from something beyond fibers to something that is a much more extensive portfolio of possible kinds of materials.”

And, yes, there’s even designs at the Synthetic Spider Silk Lab for developing a Spider-Man web-slinger material. The US Navy is interested in non-destructive ways of disabling an enemy vessel, such as fouling its propeller. The project also includes producing synthetic proteins from the hagfish, an eel-like critter that exudes a gelatinous slime when threatened.

Lewis said that while the potential for spider silk is certainly headline-grabbing, he cautioned that much of the hype is not focused on the unique mechanical properties that could lead to advances in healthcare and other industries.

“We want to see spider silk out there because it’s a unique material, not because it’s got marketing appeal,” he said.

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