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#431343 How Technology Is Driving Us Toward Peak ...

At some point in the future—and in some ways we are already seeing this—the amount of physical stuff moving around the world will peak and begin to decline. By “stuff,” I am referring to liquid fuels, coal, containers on ships, food, raw materials, products, etc.
New technologies are moving us toward “production-at-the-point-of-consumption” of energy, food, and products with reduced reliance on a global supply chain.
The trade of physical stuff has been central to globalization as we’ve known it. So, this declining movement of stuff may signal we are approaching “peak globalization.”
To be clear, even as the movement of stuff may slow, if not decline, the movement of people, information, data, and ideas around the world is growing exponentially and is likely to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.
Peak globalization may provide a pathway to preserving the best of globalization and global interconnectedness, enhancing economic and environmental sustainability, and empowering individuals and communities to strengthen democracy.
At the same time, some of the most troublesome aspects of globalization may be eased, including massive financial transfers to energy producers and loss of jobs to manufacturing platforms like China. This shift could bring relief to the “losers” of globalization and ease populist, nationalist political pressures that are roiling the developed countries.
That is quite a claim, I realize. But let me explain the vision.
New Technologies and Businesses: Digital, Democratized, Decentralized
The key factors moving us toward peak globalization and making it economically viable are new technologies and innovative businesses and business models allowing for “production-at-the-point-of-consumption” of energy, food, and products.
Exponential technologies are enabling these trends by sharply reducing the “cost of entry” for creating businesses. Driven by Moore’s Law, powerful technologies have become available to almost anyone, anywhere.
Beginning with the microchip, which has had a 100-billion-fold improvement in 40 years—10,000 times faster and 10 million times cheaper—the marginal cost of producing almost everything that can be digitized has fallen toward zero.
A hard copy of a book, for example, will always entail the cost of materials, printing, shipping, etc., even if the marginal cost falls as more copies are produced. But the marginal cost of a second digital copy, such as an e-book, streaming video, or song, is nearly zero as it is simply a digital file sent over the Internet, the world’s largest copy machine.* Books are one product, but there are literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in once-physical, separate products jammed into our devices at little to no cost.
A smartphone alone provides half the human population access to artificial intelligence—from SIRI, search, and translation to cloud computing—geolocation, free global video calls, digital photography and free uploads to social network sites, free access to global knowledge, a million apps for a huge variety of purposes, and many other capabilities that were unavailable to most people only a few years ago.
As powerful as dematerialization and demonetization are for private individuals, they’re having a stronger effect on businesses. A small team can access expensive, advanced tools that before were only available to the biggest organizations. Foundational digital platforms, such as the internet and GPS, and the platforms built on top of them by the likes of Google, Apple, Amazon, and others provide the connectivity and services democratizing business tools and driving the next generation of new startups.

“As these trends gain steam in coming decades, they’ll bleed into and fundamentally transform global supply chains.”

An AI startup, for example, doesn’t need its own server farm to train its software and provide service to customers. The team can rent computing power from Amazon Web Services. This platform model enables small teams to do big things on the cheap. And it isn’t just in software. Similar trends are happening in hardware too. Makers can 3D print or mill industrial grade prototypes of physical stuff in a garage or local maker space and send or sell designs to anyone with a laptop and 3D printer via online platforms.
These are early examples of trends that are likely to gain steam in coming decades, and as they do, they’ll bleed into and fundamentally transform global supply chains.
The old model is a series of large, connected bits of centralized infrastructure. It makes sense to mine, farm, or manufacture in bulk when the conditions, resources, machines, and expertise to do so exist in particular places and are specialized and expensive. The new model, however, enables smaller-scale production that is local and decentralized.
To see this more clearly, let’s take a look at the technological trends at work in the three biggest contributors to the global trade of physical stuff—products, energy, and food.
3D printing (additive manufacturing) allows for distributed manufacturing near the point of consumption, eliminating or reducing supply chains and factory production lines.
This is possible because product designs are no longer made manifest in assembly line parts like molds or specialized mechanical tools. Rather, designs are digital and can be called up at will to guide printers. Every time a 3D printer prints, it can print a different item, so no assembly line needs to be set up for every different product. 3D printers can also print an entire finished product in one piece or reduce the number of parts of larger products, such as engines. This further lessens the need for assembly.
Because each item can be customized and printed on demand, there is no cost benefit from scaling production. No inventories. No shipping items across oceans. No carbon emissions transporting not only the final product but also all the parts in that product shipped from suppliers to manufacturer. Moreover, 3D printing builds items layer by layer with almost no waste, unlike “subtractive manufacturing” in which an item is carved out of a piece of metal, and much or even most of the material can be waste.
Finally, 3D printing is also highly scalable, from inexpensive 3D printers (several hundred dollars) for home and school use to increasingly capable and expensive printers for industrial production. There are also 3D printers being developed for printing buildings, including houses and office buildings, and other infrastructure.
The technology for finished products is only now getting underway, and there are still challenges to overcome, such as speed, quality, and range of materials. But as methods and materials advance, it will likely creep into more manufactured goods.
Ultimately, 3D printing will be a general purpose technology that involves many different types of printers and materials—such as plastics, metals, and even human cells—to produce a huge range of items, from human tissue and potentially human organs to household items and a range of industrial items for planes, trains, and automobiles.
Renewable energy production is located at or relatively near the source of consumption.
Although electricity generated by solar, wind, geothermal, and other renewable sources can of course be transmitted over longer distances, it is mostly generated and consumed locally or regionally. It is not transported around the world in tankers, ships, and pipelines like petroleum, coal, and natural gas.
Moreover, the fuel itself is free—forever. There is no global price on sun or wind. The people relying on solar and wind power need not worry about price volatility and potential disruption of fuel supplies as a result of political, market, or natural causes.
Renewables have their problems, of course, including intermittency and storage, and currently they work best if complementary to other sources, especially natural gas power plants that, unlike coal plants, can be turned on or off and modulated like a gas stove, and are half the carbon emissions of coal.
Within the next decades or so, it is likely the intermittency and storage problems will be solved or greatly mitigated. In addition, unlike coal and natural gas power plants, solar is scalable, from solar panels on individual homes or even cars and other devices, to large-scale solar farms. Solar can be connected with microgrids and even allow for autonomous electricity generation by homes, commercial buildings, and communities.
It may be several decades before fossil fuel power plants can be phased out, but the development cost of renewables has been falling exponentially and, in places, is beginning to compete with coal and gas. Solar especially is expected to continue to increase in efficiency and decline in cost.
Given these trends in cost and efficiency, renewables should become obviously cheaper over time—if the fuel is free for solar and has to be continually purchased for coal and gas, at some point the former is cheaper than the latter. Renewables are already cheaper if externalities such as carbon emissions and environmental degradation involved in obtaining and transporting the fuel are included.
Food can be increasingly produced near the point of consumption with vertical farms and eventually with printed food and even printed or cultured meat.
These sources bring production of food very near the consumer, so transportation costs, which can be a significant portion of the cost of food to consumers, are greatly reduced. The use of land and water are reduced by 95% or more, and energy use is cut by nearly 50%. In addition, fertilizers and pesticides are not required and crops can be grown 365 days a year whatever the weather and in more climates and latitudes than is possible today.
While it may not be practical to grow grains, corn, and other such crops in vertical farms, many vegetables and fruits can flourish in such facilities. In addition, cultured or printed meat is being developed—the big challenge is scaling up and reducing cost—that is based on cells from real animals without slaughtering the animals themselves.
There are currently some 70 billion animals being raised for food around the world [PDF] and livestock alone counts for about 15% of global emissions. Moreover, livestock places huge demands on land, water, and energy. Like vertical farms, cultured or printed meat could be produced with no more land use than a brewery and with far less water and energy.
A More Democratic Economy Goes Bottom Up
This is a very brief introduction to the technologies that can bring “production-at-the-point-of-consumption” of products, energy, and food to cities and regions.
What does this future look like? Here’s a simplified example.
Imagine a universal manufacturing facility with hundreds of 3D printers printing tens of thousands of different products on demand for the local community—rather than assembly lines in China making tens of thousands of the same product that have to be shipped all over the world since no local market can absorb all of the same product.
Nearby, a vertical farm and cultured meat facility produce much of tomorrow night’s dinner. These facilities would be powered by local or regional wind and solar. Depending on need and quality, some infrastructure and machinery, like solar panels and 3D printers, would live in these facilities and some in homes and businesses.
The facilities could be owned by a large global corporation—but still locally produce goods—or they could be franchised or even owned and operated independently by the local population. Upkeep and management at each would provide jobs for communities nearby. Eventually, not only would global trade of parts and products diminish, but even required supplies of raw materials and feed stock would decline since there would be less waste in production, and many materials would be recycled once acquired.

“Peak globalization could be a viable pathway to an economic foundation that puts people first while building a more economically and environmentally sustainable future.”

This model suggests a shift toward a “bottom up” economy that is more democratic, locally controlled, and likely to generate more local jobs.
The global trends in democratization of technology make the vision technologically plausible. Much of this technology already exists and is improving and scaling while exponentially decreasing in cost to become available to almost anyone, anywhere.
This includes not only access to key technologies, but also to education through digital platforms available globally. Online courses are available for free, ranging from advanced physics, math, and engineering to skills training in 3D printing, solar installations, and building vertical farms. Social media platforms can enable local and global collaboration and sharing of knowledge and best practices.
These new communities of producers can be the foundation for new forms of democratic governance as they recognize and “capitalize” on the reality that control of the means of production can translate to political power. More jobs and local control could weaken populist, anti-globalization political forces as people recognize they could benefit from the positive aspects of globalization and international cooperation and connectedness while diminishing the impact of globalization’s downsides.
There are powerful vested interests that stand to lose in such a global structural shift. But this vision builds on trends that are already underway and are gaining momentum. Peak globalization could be a viable pathway to an economic foundation that puts people first while building a more economically and environmentally sustainable future.
This article was originally posted on Open Democracy (CC BY-NC 4.0). The version above was edited with the author for length and includes additions. Read the original article on Open Democracy.
* See Jeremy Rifkin, The Zero Marginal Cost Society, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Part II, pp. 69-154.
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#431155 What It Will Take for Quantum Computers ...

Quantum computers could give the machine learning algorithms at the heart of modern artificial intelligence a dramatic speed up, but how far off are we? An international group of researchers has outlined the barriers that still need to be overcome.
This year has seen a surge of interest in quantum computing, driven in part by Google’s announcement that it will demonstrate “quantum supremacy” by the end of 2017. That means solving a problem beyond the capabilities of normal computers, which the company predicts will take 49 qubits—the quantum computing equivalent of bits.
As impressive as such a feat would be, the demonstration is likely to be on an esoteric problem that stacks the odds heavily in the quantum processor’s favor, and getting quantum computers to carry out practically useful calculations will take a lot more work.
But these devices hold great promise for solving problems in fields as diverse as cryptography or weather forecasting. One application people are particularly excited about is whether they could be used to supercharge the machine learning algorithms already transforming the modern world.
The potential is summarized in a recent review paper in the journal Nature written by a group of experts from the emerging field of quantum machine learning.
“Classical machine learning methods such as deep neural networks frequently have the feature that they can both recognize statistical patterns in data and produce data that possess the same statistical patterns: they recognize the patterns that they produce,” they write.
“This observation suggests the following hope. If small quantum information processors can produce statistical patterns that are computationally difficult for a classical computer to produce, then perhaps they can also recognize patterns that are equally difficult to recognize classically.”
Because of the way quantum computers work—taking advantage of strange quantum mechanical effects like entanglement and superposition—algorithms running on them should in principle be able to solve problems much faster than the best known classical algorithms, a phenomenon known as quantum speedup.
Designing these algorithms is tricky work, but the authors of the review note that there has been significant progress in recent years. They highlight multiple quantum algorithms exhibiting quantum speedup that could act as subroutines, or building blocks, for quantum machine learning programs.
We still don’t have the hardware to implement these algorithms, but according to the researchers the challenge is a technical one and clear paths to overcoming them exist. More challenging, they say, are four fundamental conceptual problems that could limit the applicability of quantum machine learning.
The first two are the input and output problems. Quantum computers, unsurprisingly, deal with quantum data, but the majority of the problems humans want to solve relate to the classical world. Translating significant amounts of classical data into the quantum systems can take so much time it can cancel out the benefits of the faster processing speeds, and the same is true of reading out the solution at the end.
The input problem could be mitigated to some extent by the development of quantum random access memory (qRAM)—the equivalent to RAM in a conventional computer used to provide the machine with quick access to its working memory. A qRAM can be configured to store classical data but allow the quantum computers to access all that information simultaneously as a superposition, which is required for a variety of quantum algorithms. But the authors note this is still a considerable engineering challenge and may not be sustainable for big data problems.
Closely related to the input/output problem is the costing problem. At present, the authors say very little is known about how many gates—or operations—a quantum machine learning algorithm will require to solve a given problem when operated on real-world devices. It’s expected that on highly complex problems they will offer considerable improvements over classical computers, but it’s not clear how big problems have to be before this becomes apparent.
Finally, whether or when these advantages kick in may be hard to prove, something the authors call the benchmarking problem. Claiming that a quantum algorithm can outperform any classical machine learning approach requires extensive testing against these other techniques that may not be feasible.
They suggest that this could be sidestepped by lowering the standards quantum machine learning algorithms are currently held to. This makes sense, as it doesn’t really matter whether an algorithm is intrinsically faster than all possible classical ones, as long as it’s faster than all the existing ones.
Another way of avoiding some of these problems is to apply these techniques directly to quantum data, the actual states generated by quantum systems and processes. The authors say this is probably the most promising near-term application for quantum machine learning and has the added benefit that any insights can be fed back into the design of better hardware.
“This would enable a virtuous cycle of innovation similar to that which occurred in classical computing, wherein each generation of processors is then leveraged to design the next-generation processors,” they conclude.
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#431140 Click beetles inspire design of ...

Robots perform many tasks that humans can't or don't want to perform, getting around on intricately designed wheels and limbs. If they tip over, however, they are rendered almost useless. A team of University of Illinois mechanical engineers and entomologists are looking to click beetles, who can right themselves without the use of their legs, to solve this robotics challenge. Continue reading

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#431110 Soft robotics: self-contained soft ...

Researchers at Columbia Engineering have solved a long-standing issue in the creation of untethered soft robots whose actions and movements can help mimic natural biological systems. A group in the Creative Machines lab led by Hod Lipson, professor of mechanical engineering, has developed a 3D-printable synthetic soft muscle, a one-of-a-kind artificial active tissue with intrinsic expansion ability that does not require an external compressor or high voltage equipment as previous muscles required. The new material has a strain density (expansion per gram) that is 15 times larger than natural muscle, and can lift 1000 times its own weight. Continue reading

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#431078 This Year’s Awesome Robot Stories From ...

Each week we scour the web for great articles and fascinating advances across our core topics, from AI to biotech and the brain. But robots have a special place in our hearts. This week, we took a look back at 2017 so far and unearthed a few favorite robots for your reading and viewing pleasure.
Tarzan the Swinging Robot Could Be the Future of FarmingMariella Moon | Engadget“Tarzan will be able to swing over crops using its 3D-printed claws and parallel guy-wires stretched over fields. It will then take measurements and pictures of each plant with its built-in camera while suspended…While it may take some time to achieve that goal, the researchers plan to start testing the robot soon.”
Grasping Robots Compete to Rule Amazon’s Warehouses Tom Simonite | Wired“Robots able to help with so-called picking tasks would boost Amazon’s efficiency—and make it much less reliant on human workers. It’s why the company has invited a motley crew of mechanical arms, grippers, suction cups—and their human handlers—to Nagoya, Japan, this week to show off their manipulation skills.”
Robots Learn to Speak Body LanguageAlyssa Pagano | IEEE Spectrum“One notable feature of the OpenPose system is that it can track not only a person’s head, torso, and limbs but also individual fingers. To do that, the researchers used CMU’s Panoptic Studio, a dome lined with 500 cameras, where they captured body poses at a variety of angles and then used those images to build a data set.”
I Watched Two Robots Chat Together on Stage at a Tech EventJon Russell | TechCrunch“The robots in question are Sophia and Han, and they belong to Hanson Robotics, a Hong Kong-based company that is developing and deploying artificial intelligence in humanoids. The duo took to the stage at Rise in Hong Kong with Hanson Robotics’ Chief Scientist Ben Goertzel directing the banter. The conversation, which was partially scripted, wasn’t as slick as the human-to-human panels at the show, but it was certainly a sight to behold for the packed audience.”
How This Japanese Robotics Master Is Building Better, More Human AndroidsHarry McCracken | Fast Company“On the tech side, making a robot look and behave like a person involves everything from electronics to the silicone Ishiguro’s team uses to simulate skin. ‘We have a technology to precisely control pneumatic actuators,’ he says, noting, as an example of what they need to re-create, that ‘the human shoulder has four degrees of freedom.’”
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