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Trees are a low-tech, high-efficiency way to offset much of humankind’s negative impact on the climate. What’s even better, we have plenty of room for a lot more of them.
A new study conducted by researchers at Switzerland’s ETH-Zürich, published in Science, details how Earth could support almost an additional billion hectares of trees without the new forests pushing into existing urban or agricultural areas. Once the trees grow to maturity, they could store more than 200 billion metric tons of carbon.
Great news indeed, but it still leaves us with some huge unanswered questions. Where and how are we going to plant all the new trees? What kind of trees should we plant? How can we ensure that the new forests become a boon for people in those areas?
Answers to all of the above likely involve technology.
Math + Trees = Challenges
The ETH-Zürich research team combined Google Earth mapping software with a database of nearly 80,000 existing forests to create a predictive model for optimal planting locations. In total, 0.9 billion hectares of new, continuous forest could be planted. Once mature, the 500 billion new trees in these forests would be capable of storing about two-thirds of the carbon we have emitted since the industrial revolution.
Other researchers have noted that the study may overestimate how efficient trees are at storing carbon, as well as underestimate how much carbon humans have emitted over time. However, all seem to agree that new forests would offset much of our cumulative carbon emissions—still an impressive feat as the target of keeping global warming this century at under 1.5 degrees Celsius becomes harder and harder to reach.
Recently, there was a story about a Brazilian couple who replanted trees in the valley where they live. The couple planted about 2.7 million trees in two decades. Back-of-the-napkin math shows that they on average planted 370 trees a day, meaning planting 500 billion trees would take about 3.7 million years. While an over-simplification, the point is that planting trees by hand is not realistic. Even with a million people going at a rate of 370 trees a day, it would take 83 years. Current technologies are also not likely to be able to meet the challenge, especially in remote locations.
Technology can speed up the planting process, including a new generation of drones that take tree planting to the skies. Drone planting generally involves dropping biodegradable seed pods at a designated area. The pods dissolve over time, and the tree seeds grow in the earth below. DroneSeed is one example; its 55-pound drones can plant up to 800 seeds an hour. Another startup, Biocarbon Engineering, has used various techniques, including drones, to plant 38 different species of trees across three continents.
Drone planting has distinct advantages when it comes to planting in hard-to-access areas—one example is mangrove forests, which are disappearing rapidly, increasing the risk of floods and storm surges.
Challenges include increasing the range and speed of drone planting, and perhaps most importantly, the success rate, as automatic planting from a height is still likely to be less accurate when it comes to what depth the tree saplings are planted. However, drones are already showing impressive numbers for sapling survival rates.
AI, Sensors, and Eye-In-the-Sky
Planting the trees is the first step in a long road toward an actual forest. Companies are leveraging artificial intelligence and satellite imagery in a multitude of ways to increase protection and understanding of forested areas.
20tree.ai, a Portugal-based startup, uses AI to analyze satellite imagery and monitor the state of entire forests at a fraction of the cost of manual monitoring. The approach can lead to faster identification of threats like pest infestation and a better understanding of the state of forests.
AI can also play a pivotal role in protecting existing forest areas by predicting where deforestation is likely to occur.
Closer to the ground—and sometimes in it—new networks of sensors can provide detailed information about the state and needs of trees. One such project is Trace, where individual trees are equipped with a TreeTalker, an internet of things-based device that can provide real-time monitoring of the tree’s functions and well-being. The information can be used to, among other things, optimize the use of available resources, such as providing the exact amount of water a tree needs.
Budding Technologies Are Controversial
Trees are in many ways fauna’s marathon runners—slow-growing and sturdy, but still susceptible to sickness and pests. Many deforested areas are likely not as rich in nutrients as they once were, which could slow down reforestation. Much of the positive impact that said trees could have on carbon levels in the atmosphere is likely decades away.
Bioengineering, for example through CRISPR, could provide solutions, making trees more resistant and faster-growing. Such technologies are being explored in relation to Ghana’s at-risk cocoa trees. Other exponential technologies could also hold much future potential—for instance micro-robots to assist the dwindling number of bees with pollination.
These technologies remain mired in controversy, and perhaps rightfully so. Bioengineering’s massive potential is for many offset by the inherent risks of engineered plants out-competing existing fauna or growing beyond our control. Micro-robots for pollination may solve a problem, but don’t do much to address the root cause: that we seem to be disrupting and destroying integral parts of natural cycles.
Tech Not The Whole Answer
So, is it realistic to plant 500 billion new trees? The short answer would be that yes, it’s possible—with the help of technology.
However, there are many unanswered challenges. For example, many of areas identified by the ETH-Zürich research team are not readily available for reforestation. Some are currently reserved for grazing, others owned by private entities, and others again are located in remote areas or areas prone to political instability, beyond the reach of most replanting efforts.
If we do wish to plant 500 billion trees to offset some of the negative impacts we have had on the planet, we might well want to combine the best of exponential technology with reforestation as well as a move to other forms of agriculture.
Such an approach might also help address a major issue: that few of the proposed new forests will likely succeed without ensuring that people living in and around the areas where reforestation takes place become involved, and can reap rewards from turning arable land into forests.
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The question of whether an artificial general intelligence will be developed in the future—and, if so, when it might arrive—is controversial. One (very uncertain) estimate suggests 2070 might be the earliest we could expect to see such technology.
Some futurists point to Moore’s Law and the increasing capacity of machine learning algorithms to suggest that a more general breakthrough is just around the corner. Others suggest that extrapolating exponential improvements in hardware is unwise, and that creating narrow algorithms that can beat humans at specialized tasks brings us no closer to a “general intelligence.”
But evolution has produced minds like the human mind at least once. Surely we could create artificial intelligence simply by copying nature, either by guided evolution of simple algorithms or wholesale emulation of the human brain.
Both of these ideas are far easier to conceive of than they are to achieve. The 302 neurons of the nematode worm’s brain are still an extremely difficult engineering challenge, let alone the 86 billion in a human brain.
Leaving aside these caveats, though, many people are worried about artificial general intelligence. Nick Bostrom’s influential book on superintelligence imagines it will be an agent—an intelligence with a specific goal. Once such an agent reaches a human level of intelligence, it will improve itself—increasingly rapidly as it gets smarter—in pursuit of whatever goal it has, and this “recursive self-improvement” will lead it to become superintelligent.
This “intelligence explosion” could catch humans off guard. If the initial goal is poorly specified or malicious, or if improper safety features are in place, or if the AI decides it would prefer to do something else instead, humans may be unable to control our own creation. Bostrom gives examples of how a seemingly innocuous goal, such as “Make everyone happy,” could be misinterpreted; perhaps the AI decides to drug humanity into a happy stupor, or convert most of the world into computing infrastructure to pursue its goal.
Drexler and Comprehensive AI Services
These are increasingly familiar concerns for an AI that behaves like an agent, seeking to achieve its goal. There are dissenters to this picture of how artificial general intelligence might arise. One notable alternative point of view comes from Eric Drexler, famous for his work on molecular nanotechnology and Engines of Creation, the book that popularized it.
With respect to AI, Drexler believes our view of an artificial intelligence as a single “agent” that acts to maximize a specific goal is too narrow, almost anthropomorphizing AI, or modeling it as a more realistic route towards general intelligence. Instead, he proposes “Comprehensive AI Services” (CAIS) as an alternative route to artificial general intelligence.
What does this mean? Drexler’s argument is that we should look more closely at how machine learning and AI algorithms are actually being developed in the real world. The optimization effort is going into producing algorithms that can provide services and perform tasks like translation, music recommendations, classification, medical diagnoses, and so forth.
AI-driven improvements in technology, argues Drexler, will lead to a proliferation of different algorithms: technology and software improvement, which can automate increasingly more complicated tasks. Recursive improvement in this regime is already occurring—take the newer versions of AlphaGo, which can learn to improve themselves by playing against previous versions.
Many Smart Arms, No Smart Brain
Instead of relying on some unforeseen breakthrough, the CAIS model of AI just assumes that specialized, narrow AI will continue to improve at performing each of its tasks, and the range of tasks that machine learning algorithms will be able to perform will become wider. Ultimately, once a sufficient number of tasks have been automated, the services that an AI will provide will be so comprehensive that they will resemble a general intelligence.
One could then imagine a “general” intelligence as simply an algorithm that is extremely good at matching the task you ask it to perform to the specialized service algorithm that can perform that task. Rather than acting like a single brain that strives to achieve a particular goal, the central AI would be more like a search engine, looking through the tasks it can perform to find the closest match and calling upon a series of subroutines to achieve the goal.
For Drexler, this is inherently a safety feature. Rather than Bostrom’s single, impenetrable, conscious and superintelligent brain (which we must try to psychoanalyze in advance without really knowing what it will look like), we have a network of capabilities. If you don’t want your system to perform certain tasks, you can simply cut it off from access to those services. There is no superintelligent consciousness to outwit or “trap”: more like an extremely high-level programming language that can respond to complicated commands by calling upon one of the myriad specialized algorithms that have been developed by different groups.
This skirts the complex problem of consciousness and all of the sticky moral quandaries that arise in making minds that might be like ours. After all, if you could simulate a human mind, you could simulate it experiencing unimaginable pain. Black Mirror-esque dystopias where emulated minds have no rights and are regularly “erased” or forced to labor in dull and repetitive tasks, hove into view.
Drexler argues that, in this world, there is no need to ever build a conscious algorithm. Yet it seems likely that, at some point, humans will attempt to simulate our own brains, if only in the vain attempt to pursue immortality. This model cannot hold forever. Yet its proponents argue that any world in which we could develop general AI would probably also have developed superintelligent capabilities in a huge range of different tasks, such as computer programming, natural language understanding, and so on. In other words, CAIS arrives first.
The Future In Our Hands?
Drexler argues that his model already incorporates many of the ideas from general AI development. In the marketplace, algorithms compete all the time to perform these services: they undergo the same evolutionary pressures that lead to “higher intelligence,” but the behavior that’s considered superior is chosen by humans, and the nature of the “general intelligence” is far more shaped by human decision-making and human programmers. Development in AI services could still be rapid and disruptive.
But in Drexler’s case, the research and development capacity comes from humans and organizations driven by the desire to improve algorithms that are performing individualized and useful tasks, rather than from a conscious AI recursively reprogramming and improving itself.
In other words, this vision does not absolve us of the responsibility of making our AI safe; if anything, it gives us a greater degree of responsibility. As more and more complex “services” are automated, performing what used to be human jobs at superhuman speed, the economic disruption will be severe.
Equally, as machine learning is trusted to carry out more complex decisions, avoiding algorithmic bias becomes crucial. Shaping each of these individual decision-makers—and trying to predict the complex ways they might interact with each other—is no less daunting a task than specifying the goal for a hypothetical, superintelligent, God-like AI. Arguably, the consequences of the “misalignment” of these services algorithms are already multiplying around us.
The CAIS model bridges the gap between real-world AI, machine learning developments, and real-world safety considerations, as well as the speculative world of superintelligent agents and the safety considerations involved with controlling their behavior. We should keep our minds open as to what form AI and machine learning will take, and how it will influence our societies—and we must take care to ensure that the systems we create don’t end up forcing us all to live in a world of unintended consequences.
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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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Robots have been masters of manufacturing at speed and precision for decades, but give them a seemingly simple task like stacking shelves, and they quickly get stuck. That’s changing, though, as engineers build systems that can take on the deceptively tricky tasks most humans can do with their eyes closed.
Boston Dynamics is famous for dramatic reveals of robots performing mind-blowing feats that also leave you scratching your head as to what the market is—think the bipedal Atlas doing backflips or Spot the galloping robot dog.
Last week, the company released a video of a robot called Handle that looks like an ostrich on wheels carrying out the seemingly mundane task of stacking boxes in a warehouse.
It might seem like a step backward, but this is exactly the kind of practical task robots have long struggled with. While the speed and precision of industrial robots has seen them take over many functions in modern factories, they’re generally limited to highly prescribed tasks carried out in meticulously-controlled environments.
That’s because despite their mechanical sophistication, most are still surprisingly dumb. They can carry out precision welding on a car or rapidly assemble electronics, but only by rigidly following a prescribed set of motions. Moving cardboard boxes around a warehouse might seem simple to a human, but it actually involves a variety of tasks machines still find pretty difficult—perceiving your surroundings, navigating, and interacting with objects in a dynamic environment.
But the release of this video suggests Boston Dynamics thinks these kinds of applications are close to prime time. Last week the company doubled down by announcing the acquisition of start-up Kinema Systems, which builds computer vision systems for robots working in warehouses.
It’s not the only company making strides in this area. On the same day the video went live, Google unveiled a robot arm called TossingBot that can pick random objects from a box and quickly toss them into another container beyond its reach, which could prove very useful for sorting items in a warehouse. The machine can train on new objects in just an hour or two, and can pick and toss up to 500 items an hour with better accuracy than any of the humans who tried the task.
And an apple-picking robot built by Abundant Robotics is currently on New Zealand farms navigating between rows of apple trees using LIDAR and computer vision to single out ripe apples before using a vacuum tube to suck them off the tree.
In most cases, advances in machine learning and computer vision brought about by the recent AI boom are the keys to these rapidly improving capabilities. Robots have historically had to be painstakingly programmed by humans to solve each new task, but deep learning is making it possible for them to quickly train themselves on a variety of perception, navigation, and dexterity tasks.
It’s not been simple, though, and the application of deep learning in robotics has lagged behind other areas. A major limitation is that the process typically requires huge amounts of training data. That’s fine when you’re dealing with image classification, but when that data needs to be generated by real-world robots it can make the approach impractical. Simulations offer the possibility to run this training faster than real time, but it’s proved difficult to translate policies learned in virtual environments into the real world.
Recent years have seen significant progress on these fronts, though, and the increasing integration of modern machine learning with robotics. In October, OpenAI imbued a robotic hand with human-level dexterity by training an algorithm in a simulation using reinforcement learning before transferring it to the real-world device. The key to ensuring the translation went smoothly was injecting random noise into the simulation to mimic some of the unpredictability of the real world.
And just a couple of weeks ago, MIT researchers demonstrated a new technique that let a robot arm learn to manipulate new objects with far less training data than is usually required. By getting the algorithm to focus on a few key points on the object necessary for picking it up, the system could learn to pick up a previously unseen object after seeing only a few dozen examples (rather than the hundreds or thousands typically required).
How quickly these innovations will trickle down to practical applications remains to be seen, but a number of startups as well as logistics behemoth Amazon are developing robots designed to flexibly pick and place the wide variety of items found in your average warehouse.
Whether the economics of using robots to replace humans at these kinds of menial tasks makes sense yet is still unclear. The collapse of collaborative robotics pioneer Rethink Robotics last year suggests there are still plenty of challenges.
But at the same time, the number of robotic warehouses is expected to leap from 4,000 today to 50,000 by 2025. It may not be long until robots are muscling in on tasks we’ve long assumed only humans could do.
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