Tag Archives: song

#432487 Can We Make a Musical Turing Test?

As artificial intelligence advances, we’re encountering the same old questions. How much of what we consider to be fundamentally human can be reduced to an algorithm? Can we create something sufficiently advanced that people can no longer distinguish between the two? This, after all, is the idea behind the Turing Test, which has yet to be passed.

At first glance, you might think music is beyond the realm of algorithms. Birds can sing, and people can compose symphonies. Music is evocative; it makes us feel. Very often, our intense personal and emotional attachments to music are because it reminds us of our shared humanity. We are told that creative jobs are the least likely to be automated. Creativity seems fundamentally human.

But I think above all, we view it as reductionist sacrilege: to dissect beautiful things. “If you try to strangle a skylark / to cut it up, see how it works / you will stop its heart from beating / you will stop its mouth from singing.” A human musician wrote that; a machine might be able to string words together that are happy or sad; it might even be able to conjure up a decent metaphor from the depths of some neural network—but could it understand humanity enough to produce art that speaks to humans?

Then, of course, there’s the other side of the debate. Music, after all, has a deeply mathematical structure; you can train a machine to produce harmonics. “In the teachings of Pythagoras and his followers, music was inseparable from numbers, which were thought to be the key to the whole spiritual and physical universe,” according to Grout in A History of Western Music. You might argue that the process of musical composition cannot be reduced to a simple algorithm, yet musicians have often done so. Mozart, with his “Dice Music,” used the roll of a dice to decide how to order musical fragments; creativity through an 18th-century random number generator. Algorithmic music goes back a very long way, with the first papers on the subject from the 1960s.

Then there’s the techno-enthusiast side of the argument. iTunes has 26 million songs, easily more than a century of music. A human could never listen to and learn from them all, but a machine could. It could also memorize every note of Beethoven. Music can be converted into MIDI files, a nice chewable data format that allows even a character-by-character neural net you can run on your computer to generate music. (Seriously, even I could get this thing working.)

Indeed, generating music in the style of Bach has long been a test for AI, and you can see neural networks gradually learn to imitate classical composers while trying to avoid overfitting. When an algorithm overfits, it essentially starts copying the existing music, rather than being inspired by it but creating something similar: a tightrope the best human artists learn to walk. Creativity doesn’t spring from nowhere; even maverick musical geniuses have their influences.

Does a machine have to be truly ‘creative’ to produce something that someone would find valuable? To what extent would listeners’ attitudes change if they thought they were hearing a human vs. an AI composition? This all suggests a musical Turing Test. Of course, it already exists. In fact, it’s run out of Dartmouth, the school that hosted that first, seminal AI summer conference. This year, the contest is bigger than ever: alongside the PoetiX, LimeriX and LyriX competitions for poetry and lyrics, there’s a DigiKidLit competition for children’s literature (although you may have reservations about exposing your children to neural-net generated content… it can get a bit surreal).

There’s also a pair of musical competitions, including one for original compositions in different genres. Key genres and styles are represented by Charlie Parker for Jazz and the Bach chorales for classical music. There’s also a free composition, and a contest where a human and an AI try to improvise together—the AI must respond to a human spontaneously, in real time, and in a musically pleasing way. Quite a challenge! In all cases, if any of the generated work is indistinguishable from human performers, the neural net has passed the Turing Test.

Did they? Here’s part of 2017’s winning sonnet from Charese Smiley and Hiroko Bretz:

The large cabin was in total darkness.
Come marching up the eastern hill afar.
When is the clock on the stairs dangerous?
Everything seemed so near and yet so far.
Behind the wall silence alone replied.
Was, then, even the staircase occupied?
Generating the rhymes is easy enough, the sentence structure a little trickier, but what’s impressive about this sonnet is that it sticks to a single topic and appears to be a more coherent whole. I’d guess they used associated “lexical fields” of similar words to help generate something coherent. In a similar way, most of the more famous examples of AI-generated music still involve some amount of human control, even if it’s editorial; a human will build a song around an AI-generated riff, or select the most convincing Bach chorale from amidst many different samples.

We are seeing strides forward in the ability of AI to generate human voices and human likenesses. As the latter example shows, in the fake news era people have focused on the dangers of this tech– but might it also be possible to create a virtual performer, trained on a dataset of their original music? Did you ever want to hear another Beatles album, or jam with Miles Davis? Of course, these things are impossible—but could we create a similar experience that people would genuinely value? Even, to the untrained eye, something indistinguishable from the real thing?

And if it did measure up to the real thing, what would this mean? Jaron Lanier is a fascinating technology writer, a critic of strong AI, and a believer in the power of virtual reality to change the world and provide truly meaningful experiences. He’s also a composer and a musical aficionado. He pointed out in a recent interview that translation algorithms, by reducing the amount of work translators are commissioned to do, have, in some sense, profited from stolen expertise. They were trained on huge datasets purloined from human linguists and translators. If you can train an AI on someone’s creative output and it produces new music, who “owns” it?

Although companies that offer AI music tools are starting to proliferate, and some groups will argue that the musical Turing test has been passed already, AI-generated music is hardly racing to the top of the pop charts just yet. Even as the line between human-composed and AI-generated music starts to blur, there’s still a gulf between the average human and musical genius. In the next few years, we’ll see how far the current techniques can take us. It may be the case that there’s something in the skylark’s song that can’t be generated by machines. But maybe not, and then this song might need an extra verse.

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Posted in Human Robots

#432031 Why the Rise of Self-Driving Vehicles ...

It’s been a long time coming. For years Waymo (formerly known as Google Chauffeur) has been diligently developing, driving, testing and refining its fleets of various models of self-driving cars. Now Waymo is going big. The company recently placed an order for several thousand new Chrysler Pacifica minivans and next year plans to launch driverless taxis in a number of US cities.

This deal raises one of the biggest unanswered questions about autonomous vehicles: if fleets of driverless taxis make it cheap and easy for regular people to get around, what’s going to happen to car ownership?

One popular line of thought goes as follows: as autonomous ride-hailing services become ubiquitous, people will no longer need to buy their own cars. This notion has a certain logical appeal. It makes sense to assume that as driverless taxis become widely available, most of us will eagerly sell the family car and use on-demand taxis to get to work, run errands, or pick up the kids. After all, vehicle ownership is pricey and most cars spend the vast majority of their lives parked.

Even experts believe commercial availability of autonomous vehicles will cause car sales to drop.

Market research firm KPMG estimates that by 2030, midsize car sales in the US will decline from today’s 5.4 million units sold each year to nearly half that number, a measly 2.1 million units. Another market research firm, ReThinkX, offers an even more pessimistic estimate (or optimistic, depending on your opinion of cars), predicting that autonomous vehicles will reduce consumer demand for new vehicles by a whopping 70 percent.

The reality is that the impending death of private vehicle sales is greatly exaggerated. Despite the fact that autonomous taxis will be a beneficial and widely-embraced form of urban transportation, we will witness the opposite. Most people will still prefer to own their own autonomous vehicle. In fact, the total number of units of autonomous vehicles sold each year is going to increase rather than decrease.

When people predict the demise of car ownership, they are overlooking the reality that the new autonomous automotive industry is not going to be just a re-hash of today’s car industry with driverless vehicles. Instead, the automotive industry of the future will be selling what could be considered an entirely new product: a wide variety of intelligent, self-guiding transportation robots. When cars become a widely used type of transportation robot, they will be cheap, ubiquitous, and versatile.

Several unique characteristics of autonomous vehicles will ensure that people will continue to buy their own cars.

1. Cost: Thanks to simpler electric engines and lighter auto bodies, autonomous vehicles will be cheaper to buy and maintain than today’s human-driven vehicles. Some estimates bring the price to $10K per vehicle, a stark contrast with today’s average of $30K per vehicle.

2. Personal belongings: Consumers will be able to do much more in their driverless vehicles, including work, play, and rest. This means they will want to keep more personal items in their cars.

3. Frequent upgrades: The average (human-driven) car today is owned for 10 years. As driverless cars become software-driven devices, their price/performance ratio will track to Moore’s law. Their rapid improvement will increase the appeal and frequency of new vehicle purchases.

4. Instant accessibility: In a dense urban setting, a driverless taxi is able to show up within minutes of being summoned. But not so in rural areas, where people live miles apart. For many, delay and “loss of control” over their own mobility will increase the appeal of owning their own vehicle.

5. Diversity of form and function: Autonomous vehicles will be available in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. Consumers will drive demand for custom-made, purpose-built autonomous vehicles whose form is adapted for a particular function.

Let’s explore each of these characteristics in more detail.

Autonomous vehicles will cost less for several reasons. For one, they will be powered by electric engines, which are cheaper to construct and maintain than gasoline-powered engines. Removing human drivers will also save consumers money. Autonomous vehicles will be much less likely to have accidents, hence they can be built out of lightweight, lower-cost materials and will be cheaper to insure. With the human interface no longer needed, autonomous vehicles won’t be burdened by the manufacturing costs of a complex dashboard, steering wheel, and foot pedals.

While hop-on, hop-off autonomous taxi-based mobility services may be ideal for some of the urban population, several sizeable customer segments will still want to own their own cars.

These include people who live in sparsely-populated rural areas who can’t afford to wait extended periods of time for a taxi to appear. Families with children will prefer to own their own driverless cars to house their childrens’ car seats and favorite toys and sippy cups. Another loyal car-buying segment will be die-hard gadget-hounds who will eagerly buy a sexy upgraded model every year or so, unable to resist the siren song of AI that is three times as safe, or a ride that is twice as smooth.

Finally, consider the allure of robotic diversity.

Commuters will invest in a home office on wheels, a sleek, traveling workspace resembling the first-class suite on an airplane. On the high end of the market, city-dwellers and country-dwellers alike will special-order custom-made autonomous vehicles whose shape and on-board gadgetry is adapted for a particular function or hobby. Privately-owned small businesses will buy their own autonomous delivery robot that could range in size from a knee-high, last-mile delivery pod, to a giant, long-haul shipping device.

As autonomous vehicles near commercial viability, Waymo’s procurement deal with Fiat Chrysler is just the beginning.

The exact value of this future automotive industry has yet to be defined, but research from Intel’s internal autonomous vehicle division estimates this new so-called “passenger economy” could be worth nearly $7 trillion a year. To position themselves to capture a chunk of this potential revenue, companies whose businesses used to lie in previously disparate fields such as robotics, software, ships, and entertainment (to name but a few) have begun to form a bewildering web of what they hope will be symbiotic partnerships. Car hailing and chip companies are collaborating with car rental companies, who in turn are befriending giant software firms, who are launching joint projects with all sizes of hardware companies, and so on.

Last year, car companies sold an estimated 80 million new cars worldwide. Over the course of nearly a century, car companies and their partners, global chains of suppliers and service providers, have become masters at mass-producing and maintaining sturdy and cost-effective human-driven vehicles. As autonomous vehicle technology becomes ready for mainstream use, traditional automotive companies are being forced to grapple with the painful realization that they must compete in a new playing field.

The challenge for traditional car-makers won’t be that people no longer want to own cars. Instead, the challenge will be learning to compete in a new and larger transportation industry where consumers will choose their product according to the appeal of its customized body and the quality of its intelligent software.

Melba Kurman and Hod Lipson are the authors of Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead and Fabricated: the New World of 3D Printing.

Image Credit: hfzimages / Shutterstock.com

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#431553 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

Boston Dynamics’ Atlas Robot Does Backflips Now and It’s Full-Tilt InsaneMatt Simon | Wired “To be clear: Humanoids aren’t supposed to be able to do this. It’s extremely difficult to make a bipedal robot that can move effectively, much less kick off a tumbling routine.”

This Is the Tesla Semi TruckZac Estrada | The Verge“What Tesla has done today is shown that it wants to invigorate a segment, rather than just make something to comply with more stringent emissions regulations… And in the process, it’s trying to do for heavy-duty commercial vehicles what it did for luxury cars—plough forward in its own lane.”
Should Facebook Notify Readers When They’ve Been Fed Disinformation?Austin Carr | Fast Company “It would be, Reed suggested, the social network equivalent of a newspaper correction—only one that, with the tech companies’ expansive data, could actually reach its intended audience, like, say, the 250,000-plus Facebook users who shared the debunked YourNewsWire.com story.”
Brain Implant Boosts Memory for First Time EverKristin Houser | NBC News “Once implanted in the volunteers, Song’s device could collect data on their brain activity during tests designed to stimulate either short-term memory or working memory. The researchers then determined the pattern associated with optimal memory performance and used the device’s electrodes to stimulate the brain following that pattern during later tests.”
Yale Professors Race Google and IBM to the First Quantum ComputerCade Metz | New York Times “Though Quantum Circuits is using the same quantum method as its bigger competitors, Mr. Schoelkopf argued that his company has an edge because it is tackling the problem differently. Rather than building one large quantum machine, it is constructing a series of tiny machines that can be networked together. He said this will make it easier to correct errors in quantum calculations—one of the main difficulties in building one of these complex machines.”
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#431371 Amazon Is Quietly Building the Robots of ...

Science fiction is the siren song of hard science. How many innocent young students have been lured into complex, abstract science, technology, engineering, or mathematics because of a reckless and irresponsible exposure to Arthur C. Clarke at a tender age? Yet Arthur C. Clarke has a very famous quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
It’s the prospect of making that… ahem… magic leap that entices so many people into STEM in the first place. A magic leap that would change the world. How about, for example, having humanoid robots? They could match us in dexterity and speed, perceive the world around them as we do, and be programmed to do, well, more or less anything we can do.
Such a technology would change the world forever.
But how will it arrive? While true sci-fi robots won’t get here right away—the pieces are coming together, and the company best developing them at the moment is Amazon. Where others have struggled to succeed, Amazon has been quietly progressing. Notably, Amazon has more than just a dream, it has the most practical of reasons driving it into robotics.
This practicality matters. Technological development rarely proceeds by magic; it’s a process filled with twists, turns, dead-ends, and financial constraints. New technologies often have to answer questions like “What is this good for, are you being realistic?” A good strategy, then, can be to build something more limited than your initial ambition, but useful for a niche market. That way, you can produce a prototype, have a reasonable business plan, and turn a profit within a decade. You might call these “stepping stone” applications that allow for new technologies to be developed in an economically viable way.
You need something you can sell to someone, soon: that’s how you get investment in your idea. It’s this model that iRobot, developers of the Roomba, used: migrating from military prototypes to robotic vacuum cleaners to become the “boring, successful robot company.” Compare this to Willow Garage, a genius factory if ever there was one: they clearly had ambitions towards a general-purpose, multi-functional robot. They built an impressive device—PR2—and programmed the operating system, ROS, that is still the industry and academic standard to this day.
But since they were unable to sell their robot for much less than $250,000, it was never likely to be a profitable business. This is why Willow Garage is no more, and many workers at the company went into telepresence robotics. Telepresence is essentially videoconferencing with a fancy robot attached to move the camera around. It uses some of the same software (for example, navigation and mapping) without requiring you to solve difficult problems of full autonomy for the robot, or manipulating its environment. It’s certainly one of the stepping-stone areas that various companies are investigating.
Another approach is to go to the people with very high research budgets: the military.
This was the Boston Dynamics approach, and their incredible achievements in bipedal locomotion saw them getting snapped up by Google. There was a great deal of excitement and speculation about Google’s “nightmare factory” whenever a new slick video of a futuristic militarized robot surfaced. But Google broadly backed away from Replicant, their robotics program, and Boston Dynamics was sold. This was partly due to PR concerns over the Terminator-esque designs, but partly because they didn’t see the robotics division turning a profit. They hadn’t found their stepping stones.
This is where Amazon comes in. Why Amazon? First off, they just announced that their profits are up by 30 percent, and yet the company is well-known for their constantly-moving Day One philosophy where a great deal of the profits are reinvested back into the business. But lots of companies have ambition.
One thing Amazon has that few other corporations have, as well as big financial resources, is viable stepping stones for developing the technologies needed for this sort of robotics to become a reality. They already employ 100,000 robots: these are of the “pragmatic, boring, useful” kind that we’ve profiled, which move around the shelves in warehouses. These robots are allowing Amazon to develop localization and mapping software for robots that can autonomously navigate in the simple warehouse environment.
But their ambitions don’t end there. The Amazon Robotics Challenge is a multi-million dollar competition, open to university teams, to produce a robot that can pick and package items in warehouses. The problem of grasping and manipulating a range of objects is not a solved one in robotics, so this work is still done by humans—yet it’s absolutely fundamental for any sci-fi dream robot.
Google, for example, attempted to solve this problem by hooking up 14 robot hands to machine learning algorithms and having them grasp thousands of objects. Although results were promising, the 10 to 20 percent failure rate for grasps is too high for warehouse use. This is a perfect stepping stone for Amazon; should they crack the problem, they will likely save millions in logistics.
Another area where humanoid robotics—especially bipedal locomotion, or walking, has been seriously suggested—is in the last mile delivery problem. Amazon has shown willingness to be creative in this department with their notorious drone delivery service. In other words, it’s all very well to have your self-driving car or van deliver packages to people’s doors, but who puts the package on the doorstep? It’s difficult for wheeled robots to navigate the full range of built environments that exist. That’s why bipedal robots like CASSIE, developed by Oregon State, may one day be used to deliver parcels.
Again: no one more than Amazon stands to profit from cracking this technology. The line from robotics research to profit is very clear.
So, perhaps one day Amazon will have robots that can move around and manipulate their environments. But they’re also working on intelligence that will guide those robots and make them truly useful for a variety of tasks. Amazon has an AI, or at least the framework for an AI: it’s called Alexa, and it’s in tens of millions of homes. The Alexa Prize, another multi-million-dollar competition, is attempting to make Alexa more social.
To develop a conversational AI, at least using the current methods of machine learning, you need data on tens of millions of conversations. You need to understand how people will try to interact with the AI. Amazon has access to this in Alexa, and they’re using it. As owners of the leading voice-activated personal assistant, they have an ecosystem of developers creating apps for Alexa. It will be integrated with the smart home and the Internet of Things. It is a very marketable product, a stepping stone for robot intelligence.
What’s more, the company can benefit from its huge sales infrastructure. For Amazon, having an AI in your home is ideal, because it can persuade you to buy more products through its website. Unlike companies like Google, Amazon has an easy way to make a direct profit from IoT devices, which could fuel funding.
For a humanoid robot to be truly useful, though, it will need vision and intelligence. It will have to understand and interpret its environment, and react accordingly. The way humans learn about our environment is by getting out and seeing it. This is something that, for example, an Alexa coupled to smart glasses would be very capable of doing. There are rumors that Alexa’s AI will soon be used in security cameras, which is an ideal stepping stone task to train an AI to process images from its environment, truly perceiving the world and any threats it might contain.
It’s a slight exaggeration to say that Amazon is in the process of building a secret robot army. The gulf between our sci-fi vision of robots that can intelligently serve us, rather than mindlessly assemble cars, is still vast. But in quietly assembling many of the technologies needed for intelligent, multi-purpose robotics—and with the unique stepping stones they have along the way—Amazon might just be poised to leap that gulf. As if by magic.
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Posted in Human Robots

#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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