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#435423 Moving Beyond Mind-Controlled Limbs to ...

Brain-machine interface enthusiasts often gush about “closing the loop.” It’s for good reason. On the implant level, it means engineering smarter probes that only activate when they detect faulty electrical signals in brain circuits. Elon Musk’s Neuralink—among other players—are readily pursuing these bi-directional implants that both measure and zap the brain.

But to scientists laboring to restore functionality to paralyzed patients or amputees, “closing the loop” has broader connotations. Building smart mind-controlled robotic limbs isn’t enough; the next frontier is restoring sensation in offline body parts. To truly meld biology with machine, the robotic appendage has to “feel one” with the body.

This month, two studies from Science Robotics describe complementary ways forward. In one, scientists from the University of Utah paired a state-of-the-art robotic arm—the DEKA LUKE—with electrically stimulating remaining nerves above the attachment point. Using artificial zaps to mimic the skin’s natural response patterns to touch, the team dramatically increased the patient’s ability to identify objects. Without much training, he could easily discriminate between the small and large and the soft and hard while blindfolded and wearing headphones.

In another, a team based at the National University of Singapore took inspiration from our largest organ, the skin. Mimicking the neural architecture of biological skin, the engineered “electronic skin” not only senses temperature, pressure, and humidity, but continues to function even when scraped or otherwise damaged. Thanks to artificial nerves that transmit signals far faster than our biological ones, the flexible e-skin shoots electrical data 1,000 times quicker than human nerves.

Together, the studies marry neuroscience and robotics. Representing the latest push towards closing the loop, they show that integrating biological sensibilities with robotic efficiency isn’t impossible (super-human touch, anyone?). But more immediately—and more importantly—they’re beacons of hope for patients who hope to regain their sense of touch.

For one of the participants, a late middle-aged man with speckled white hair who lost his forearm 13 years ago, superpowers, cyborgs, or razzle-dazzle brain implants are the last thing on his mind. After a barrage of emotionally-neutral scientific tests, he grasped his wife’s hand and felt her warmth for the first time in over a decade. His face lit up in a blinding smile.

That’s what scientists are working towards.

Biomimetic Feedback
The human skin is a marvelous thing. Not only does it rapidly detect a multitude of sensations—pressure, temperature, itch, pain, humidity—its wiring “binds” disparate signals together into a sensory fingerprint that helps the brain identify what it’s feeling at any moment. Thanks to over 45 miles of nerves that connect the skin, muscles, and brain, you can pick up a half-full coffee cup, knowing that it’s hot and sloshing, while staring at your computer screen. Unfortunately, this complexity is also why restoring sensation is so hard.

The sensory electrode array implanted in the participant’s arm. Image Credit: George et al., Sci. Robot. 4, eaax2352 (2019)..
However, complex neural patterns can also be a source of inspiration. Previous cyborg arms are often paired with so-called “standard” sensory algorithms to induce a basic sense of touch in the missing limb. Here, electrodes zap residual nerves with intensities proportional to the contact force: the harder the grip, the stronger the electrical feedback. Although seemingly logical, that’s not how our skin works. Every time the skin touches or leaves an object, its nerves shoot strong bursts of activity to the brain; while in full contact, the signal is much lower. The resulting electrical strength curve resembles a “U.”

The LUKE hand. Image Credit: George et al., Sci. Robot. 4, eaax2352 (2019).
The team decided to directly compare standard algorithms with one that better mimics the skin’s natural response. They fitted a volunteer with a robotic LUKE arm and implanted an array of electrodes into his forearm—right above the amputation—to stimulate the remaining nerves. When the team activated different combinations of electrodes, the man reported sensations of vibration, pressure, tapping, or a sort of “tightening” in his missing hand. Some combinations of zaps also made him feel as if he were moving the robotic arm’s joints.

In all, the team was able to carefully map nearly 120 sensations to different locations on the phantom hand, which they then overlapped with contact sensors embedded in the LUKE arm. For example, when the patient touched something with his robotic index finger, the relevant electrodes sent signals that made him feel as if he were brushing something with his own missing index fingertip.

Standard sensory feedback already helped: even with simple electrical stimulation, the man could tell apart size (golf versus lacrosse ball) and texture (foam versus plastic) while blindfolded and wearing noise-canceling headphones. But when the team implemented two types of neuromimetic feedback—electrical zaps that resembled the skin’s natural response—his performance dramatically improved. He was able to identify objects much faster and more accurately under their guidance. Outside the lab, he also found it easier to cook, feed, and dress himself. He could even text on his phone and complete routine chores that were previously too difficult, such as stuffing an insert into a pillowcase, hammering a nail, or eating hard-to-grab foods like eggs and grapes.

The study shows that the brain more readily accepts biologically-inspired electrical patterns, making it a relatively easy—but enormously powerful—upgrade that seamlessly integrates the robotic arms with the host. “The functional and emotional benefits…are likely to be further enhanced with long-term use, and efforts are underway to develop a portable take-home system,” the team said.

E-Skin Revolution: Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin (ACES)
Flexible electronic skins also aren’t new, but the second team presented an upgrade in both speed and durability while retaining multiplexed sensory capabilities.

Starting from a combination of rubber, plastic, and silicon, the team embedded over 200 sensors onto the e-skin, each capable of discerning contact, pressure, temperature, and humidity. They then looked to the skin’s nervous system for inspiration. Our skin is embedded with a dense array of nerve endings that individually transmit different types of sensations, which are integrated inside hubs called ganglia. Compared to having every single nerve ending directly ping data to the brain, this “gather, process, and transmit” architecture rapidly speeds things up.

The team tapped into this biological architecture. Rather than pairing each sensor with a dedicated receiver, ACES sends all sensory data to a single receiver—an artificial ganglion. This setup lets the e-skin’s wiring work as a whole system, as opposed to individual electrodes. Every sensor transmits its data using a characteristic pulse, which allows it to be uniquely identified by the receiver.

The gains were immediate. First was speed. Normally, sensory data from multiple individual electrodes need to be periodically combined into a map of pressure points. Here, data from thousands of distributed sensors can independently go to a single receiver for further processing, massively increasing efficiency—the new e-skin’s transmission rate is roughly 1,000 times faster than that of human skin.

Second was redundancy. Because data from individual sensors are aggregated, the system still functioned even when any individual receptors are damaged, making it far more resilient than previous attempts. Finally, the setup could easily scale up. Although the team only tested the idea with 240 sensors, theoretically the system should work with up to 10,000.

The team is now exploring ways to combine their invention with other material layers to make it water-resistant and self-repairable. As you might’ve guessed, an immediate application is to give robots something similar to complex touch. A sensory upgrade not only lets robots more easily manipulate tools, doorknobs, and other objects in hectic real-world environments, it could also make it easier for machines to work collaboratively with humans in the future (hey Wall-E, care to pass the salt?).

Dexterous robots aside, the team also envisions engineering better prosthetics. When coated onto cyborg limbs, for example, ACES may give them a better sense of touch that begins to rival the human skin—or perhaps even exceed it.

Regardless, efforts that adapt the functionality of the human nervous system to machines are finally paying off, and more are sure to come. Neuromimetic ideas may very well be the link that finally closes the loop.

Image Credit: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering.. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435152 The Futuristic Tech Disrupting Real ...

In the wake of the housing market collapse of 2008, one entrepreneur decided to dive right into the failing real estate industry. But this time, he didn’t buy any real estate to begin with. Instead, Glenn Sanford decided to launch the first-ever cloud-based real estate brokerage, eXp Realty.

Contracting virtual platform VirBELA to build out the company’s mega-campus in VR, eXp Realty demonstrates the power of a dematerialized workspace, throwing out hefty overhead costs and fundamentally redefining what ‘real estate’ really means. Ten years later, eXp Realty has an army of 14,000 agents across all 50 US states, 3 Canadian provinces, and 400 MLS market areas… all without a single physical office.

But VR is just one of many exponential technologies converging to revolutionize real estate and construction. As floating cities and driverless cars spread out your living options, AI and VR are together cutting out the middleman.

Already, the global construction industry is projected to surpass $12.9 trillion in 2022, and the total value of the US housing market alone grew to $33.3 trillion last year. Both vital for our daily lives, these industries will continue to explode in value, posing countless possibilities for disruption.

In this blog, I’ll be discussing the following trends:

New prime real estate locations;
Disintermediation of the real estate broker and search;
Materials science and 3D printing in construction.

Let’s dive in!

Location Location Location
Until today, location has been the name of the game when it comes to hunting down the best real estate. But constraints on land often drive up costs while limiting options, and urbanization is only exacerbating the problem.

Beyond the world of virtual real estate, two primary mechanisms are driving the creation of new locations.

(1) Floating Cities

Offshore habitation hubs, floating cities have long been conceived as a solution to rising sea levels, skyrocketing urban populations, and threatened ecosystems. In success, they will soon unlock an abundance of prime real estate, whether for scenic living, commerce, education, or recreation.

One pioneering model is that of Oceanix City, designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and a host of other domain experts. Intended to adapt organically over time, Oceanix would consist of a galaxy of mass-produced, hexagonal floating modules, built as satellite “cities” off coastal urban centers and sustained by renewable energies.

While individual 4.5-acre platforms would each sustain 300 people, these hexagonal modules are designed to link into 75-acre tessellations sustaining up to 10,000 residents. Each anchored to the ocean floor using biorock, Oceanix cities are slated to be closed-loop systems, as external resources are continuously supplied by automated drone networks.

Electric boats or flying cars might zoom you to work, city-embedded water capture technologies would provide your water, and while vertical and outdoor farming supply your family meal, share economies would dominate goods provision.

AERIAL: Located in calm, sheltered waters, near coastal megacities, OCEANIX City will be an adaptable, sustainable, scalable, and affordable solution for human life on the ocean. Image Credit: OCEANIX/BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group.
Joined by countless government officials whose islands risk submersion at the hands of sea level rise, the UN is now getting on board. And just this year, seasteading is exiting the realm of science fiction and testing practical waters.

As French Polynesia seeks out robust solutions to sea level rise, their government has now joined forces with the San Francisco-based Seasteading Institute. With a newly designated special economic zone and 100 acres of beachfront, this joint Floating Island Project could even see up to a dozen inhabitable structures by 2020. And what better to fund the $60 million project than the team’s upcoming ICO?

But aside from creating new locations, autonomous vehicles (AVs) and flying cars are turning previously low-demand land into the prime real estate of tomorrow.

(2) Autonomous Electric Vehicles and Flying Cars

Today, the value of a location is a function of its proximity to your workplace, your city’s central business district, the best schools, or your closest friends.

But what happens when driverless cars desensitize you to distance, or Hyperloop and flying cars decimate your commute time? Historically, every time new transit methods have hit the mainstream, tolerance for distance has opened up right alongside them, further catalyzing city spread.

And just as Hyperloop and the Boring Company aim to make your commute immaterial, autonomous vehicle (AV) ridesharing services will spread out cities in two ways: (1) by drastically reducing parking spaces needed (vertical parking decks = more prime real estate); and (2) by untethering you from the steering wheel. Want an extra two hours of sleep on the way to work? Schedule a sleeper AV and nap on your route to the office. Need a car-turned-mobile-office? No problem.

Meanwhile, aerial taxis (i.e. flying cars) will allow you to escape ground congestion entirely, delivering you from bedroom to boardroom at decimated time scales.

Already working with regulators, Uber Elevate has staked ambitious plans for its UberAIR airborne taxi project. By 2023, Uber anticipates rolling out flying drones in its two first pilot cities, Los Angeles and Dallas. Flying between rooftop skyports, drones would carry passengers at a height of 1,000 to 2,000 feet at speeds between 100 to 200 mph. And while costs per ride are anticipated to resemble those of an Uber Black based on mileage, prices are projected to soon drop to those of an UberX.

But the true economic feat boils down to this: if I were to commute 50 to 100 kilometers, I could get two or three times the house for the same price. (Not to mention the extra living space offered up by my now-unneeded garage.)

All of a sudden, virtual reality, broadband, AVs, or high-speed vehicles are going to change where we live and where we work. So rather than living in a crowded, dense urban core for access to jobs and entertainment, our future of personalized, autonomous, low-cost transport opens the luxury of rural areas to all without compromising the benefits of a short commute.

Once these drivers multiply your real estate options, how will you select your next home?

Disintermediation: Say Bye to Your Broker
In a future of continuous and personalized preference-tracking, why hire a human agent who knows less about your needs and desires than a personal AI?

Just as disintermediation is cutting out bankers and insurance agents, so too is it closing in on real estate brokers. Over the next decade, as AI becomes your agent, VR will serve as your medium.

To paint a more vivid picture of how this will look, over 98 percent of your home search will be conducted from the comfort of your couch through next-generation VR headgear.

Once you’ve verbalized your primary desires for home location, finishings, size, etc. to your personal AI, it will offer you top picks, tour-able 24/7, with optional assistance by a virtual guide and constantly updated data. As a seller, this means potential buyers from two miles, or two continents, away.

Throughout each immersive VR tour, advanced eye-tracking software and a permissioned machine learning algorithm follow your gaze, further learn your likes and dislikes, and intelligently recommend other homes or commercial residences to visit.

Curious as to what the living room might look like with a fresh coat of blue paint and a white carpet? No problem! VR programs will be able to modify rendered environments instantly, changing countless variables, from furniture materials to even the sun’s orientation. Keen to input your own furniture into a VR-rendered home? Advanced AIs could one day compile all your existing furniture, electronics, clothing, decorations, and even books, virtually organizing them across any accommodating new space.

As 3D scanning technologies make extraordinary headway, VR renditions will only grow cheaper and higher resolution. One company called Immersive Media (disclosure: I’m an investor and advisor) has a platform for 360-degree video capture and distribution, and is already exploring real estate 360-degree video.

Smaller firms like Studio 216, Vieweet, Arch Virtual, ArX Solutions, and Rubicon Media can similarly capture and render models of various properties for clients and investors to view and explore. In essence, VR real estate platforms will allow you to explore any home for sale, do the remodel, and determine if it truly is the house of your dreams.

Once you’re ready to make a bid, your AI will even help estimate a bid, process and submit your offer. Real estate companies like Zillow, Trulia, Move, Redfin, ZipRealty (acquired by Realogy in 2014) and many others have already invested millions in machine learning applications to make search, valuation, consulting, and property management easier, faster, and much more accurate.

But what happens if the home you desire most means starting from scratch with new construction?

New Methods and Materials for Construction
For thousands of years, we’ve been constrained by the construction materials of nature. We built bricks from naturally abundant clay and shale, used tree limbs as our rooftops and beams, and mastered incredible structures in ancient Rome with the use of cement.

But construction is now on the cusp of a materials science revolution. Today, I’d like to focus on three key materials:

Upcycled Materials

Imagine if you could turn the world’s greatest waste products into their most essential building blocks. Thanks to UCLA researchers at CO2NCRETE, we can already do this with carbon emissions.

Today, concrete produces about five percent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But what if concrete could instead conserve greenhouse emissions? CO2NCRETE engineers capture carbon from smokestacks and combine it with lime to create a new type of cement. The lab’s 3D printers then shape the upcycled concrete to build entirely new structures. Once conquered at scale, upcycled concrete will turn a former polluter into a future conserver.

Or what if we wanted to print new residences from local soil at hand? Marking an extraordinary convergence between robotics and 3D printing, the Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC) is already working on a solution.

In a major feat for low-cost construction in remote zones, IAAC has found a way to convert almost any soil into a building material with three times the tensile strength of industrial clay. Offering myriad benefits, including natural insulation, low GHG emissions, fire protection, air circulation, and thermal mediation, IAAC’s new 3D printed native soil can build houses on-site for as little as $1,000.

Nanomaterials

Nano- and micro-materials are ushering in a new era of smart, super-strong, and self-charging buildings. While carbon nanotubes dramatically increase the strength-to-weight ratio of skyscrapers, revolutionizing their structural flexibility, nanomaterials don’t stop here.

Several research teams are pioneering silicon nanoparticles to capture everyday light flowing through our windows. Little solar cells at the edges of windows then harvest this energy for ready use. Researchers at the US National Renewable Energy Lab have developed similar smart windows. Turning into solar panels when bathed in sunlight, these thermochromic windows will power our buildings, changing color as they do.

Self-Healing Infrastructure

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the US needs to spend roughly $4.5 trillion to fix nationwide roads, bridges, dams, and common infrastructure by 2025. But what if infrastructure could fix itself?

Enter self-healing concrete. Engineers at Delft University have developed bio-concrete that can repair its own cracks. As head researcher Henk Jonkers explains, “What makes this limestone-producing bacteria so special is that they are able to survive in concrete for more than 200 years and come into play when the concrete is damaged. […] If cracks appear as a result of pressure on the concrete, the concrete will heal these cracks itself.”

But bio-concrete is only the beginning of self-healing technologies. As futurist architecture firms start printing plastic and carbon-fiber houses like the stunner seen below (using Branch Technologies’ 3D printing technology), engineers have begun tackling self-healing plastic.

And in a bid to go smart, burgeoning construction projects have started embedding sensors for preemptive detection. Beyond materials and sensors, however, construction methods are fast colliding into robotics and 3D printing.

While some startups and research institutes have leveraged robot swarm construction (namely, Harvard’s robotic termite-like swarm of programmed constructors), others have taken to large-scale autonomous robots.

One such example involves Fastbrick Robotics. After multiple iterations, the company’s Hadrian X end-to-end bricklaying robot can now autonomously build a fully livable, 180-square meter home in under 3 days. Using a laser-guided robotic attachment, the all-in-one brick-loaded truck simply drives to a construction site and directs blocks through its robotic arm in accordance with a 3D model.

Layhead. Image Credit: Fastbrick Robotics.
Meeting verified building standards, Hadrian and similar solutions hold massive promise in the long term, deployable across post-conflict refugee sites and regions recovering from natural catastrophes.

Imagine the implications. Eliminating human safety concerns and unlocking any environment, autonomous builder robots could collaboratively build massive structures in space or deep underwater habitats.

Final Thoughts
Where, how, and what we live in form a vital pillar of our everyday lives. The concept of “home” is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. At the same time, real estate and construction are two of the biggest playgrounds for technological convergence, each on the verge of revolutionary disruption.

As underlying shifts in transportation, land reclamation, and the definition of “space” (real vs. virtual) take hold, the real estate market is about to explode in value, spreading out urban centers on unprecedented scales and unlocking vast new prime “property.”

Meanwhile, converging advancements in AI and VR are fundamentally disrupting the way we design, build, and explore new residences. Just as mirror worlds create immersive, virtual real estate economies, VR tours and AI agents are absorbing both sides of the coin to entirely obliterate the middleman.

And as materials science breakthroughs meet new modes of construction, the only limits to tomorrow’s structures are those of our own imagination.

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Image Credit: OCEANIX/BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435145 How Big Companies Can Simultaneously Run ...

We live in the age of entrepreneurs. New startups seem to appear out of nowhere and challenge not only established companies, but entire industries. Where startup unicorns were once mythical creatures, they now seem abundant, not only increasing in numbers but also in the speed with which they can gain the minimum one-billion-dollar valuations to achieve this status.

But no matter how well things go for innovative startups, how many new success stories we hear, and how much space they take up in the media, the story that they are the best or only source of innovation isn’t entirely accurate.

Established organizations, or legacy organizations, can be incredibly innovative too. And while innovation is much more difficult in established organizations than in startups because they have much more complex systems—nobody is more likely to succeed in their innovation efforts than established organizations.

Unlike startups, established organizations have all the resources. They have money, customers, data, suppliers, partners, and infrastructure, which put them in a far better position to transform new ideas into concrete, value-creating, successful offerings than startups.

However, for established organizations, becoming an innovation champion in these times of rapid change requires new rules of engagement.

Many organizations commit the mistake of engaging in innovation as if it were a homogeneous thing that should be approached in the same way every time, regardless of its purpose. In my book, Transforming Legacy Organizations, I argue that innovation in established organizations must actually be divided into three different tracks: optimizing, augmenting, and mutating innovation.

All three are important, and to complicate matters further, organizations must execute all three types of innovation at the same time.

Optimizing Innovation
The first track is optimizing innovation. This type of innovation is the majority of what legacy organizations already do today. It is, metaphorically speaking, the extra blade on the razor. A razor manufacturer might launch a new razor that has not just three, but four blades, to ensure an even better, closer, and more comfortable shave. Then one or two years later, they say they are now launching a razor that has not only four, but five blades for an even better, closer, and more comfortable shave. That is optimizing innovation.

Adding extra blades on the razor is where the established player reigns.

No startup with so much as a modicum of sense would even try to beat the established company in this type of innovation. And this continuous optimization, both on the operational and customer facing sides, is important. In the short term. It pays the rent. But it’s far from enough. There are limits to how many blades a razor needs, and optimizing innovation only improves upon the past.

Augmenting Innovation
Established players must also go beyond optimization and prepare for the future through augmenting innovation.

The digital transformation projects that many organizations are initiating can be characterized as augmenting innovation. In the first instance, it is about upgrading core offerings and processes from analog to digital. Or, if you’re born digital, you’ve probably had to augment the core to become mobile-first. Perhaps you have even entered the next augmentation phase, which involves implementing artificial intelligence. Becoming AI-first, like the Amazons, Microsofts, Baidus, and Googles of the world, requires great technological advancements. And it’s difficult. But technology may, in fact, be a minor part of the task.

The biggest challenge for augmenting innovation is probably culture.

Only legacy organizations that manage to transform their cultures from status quo cultures—cultures with a preference for things as they are—into cultures full of incremental innovators can thrive in constant change.

To create a strong innovation culture, an organization needs to thoroughly understand its immune systems. These are the mechanisms that protect the organization and operate around the clock to keep it healthy and stable, just as the body’s immune system operates to keep the body healthy and stable. But in a rapidly changing world, many of these defense mechanisms are no longer appropriate and risk weakening organizations’ innovation power.

When talking about organizational immune systems, there is a clear tendency to simply point to the individual immune system, people’s unwillingness to change.

But this is too simplistic.

Of course, there is human resistance to change, but the organizational immune system, consisting of a company’s key performance indicators (KPIs), rewards systems, legacy IT infrastructure and processes, and investor and shareholder demands, is far more important. So is the organization’s societal immune system, such as legislative barriers, legacy customers and providers, and economic climate.

Luckily, there are many culture hacks that organizations can apply to strengthen their innovation cultures by upgrading their physical and digital workspaces, transforming their top-down work processes into decentralized, agile ones, and empowering their employees.

Mutating Innovation
Upgrading your core and preparing for the future by augmenting innovation is crucial if you want success in the medium term. But to win in the long run and be as or more successful 20 to 30 years from now, you need to invent the future, and challenge your core, through mutating innovation.

This requires involving radical innovators who have a bold focus on experimenting with that which is not currently understood and for which a business case cannot be prepared.

Here you must also physically move away from the core organization when you initiate and run such initiatives. This is sometimes called “innovation on the edges” because the initiatives will not have a chance at succeeding within the core. It will be too noisy as they challenge what currently exists—precisely what the majority of the organization’s employees are working to optimize or augment.

Forward-looking organizations experiment to mutate their core through “X divisions,” sometimes called skunk works or innovation labs.

Lowe’s Innovation Labs, for instance, worked with startups to build in-store robot assistants and zero-gravity 3D printers to explore the future. Mutating innovation might include pursuing partnerships across all imaginable domains or establishing brand new companies, rather than traditional business units, as we see automakers such as Toyota now doing to build software for autonomous vehicles. Companies might also engage in radical open innovation by sponsoring others’ ingenuity. Japan’s top airline ANA is exploring a future of travel that does not involve flying people from point A to point B via the ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition.

Increasing technological opportunities challenge the core of any organization but also create unprecedented potential. No matter what product, service, or experience you create, you can’t rest on your laurels. You have to bring yourself to a position where you have a clear strategy for optimizing, augmenting, and mutating your core and thus transforming your organization.

It’s not an easy job. But, hey, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Those who make it, on the other hand, will be the innovation champions of the future.

Image Credit: rock-the-stock / Shutterstock.com

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Posted in Human Robots

#435110 5 Coming Breakthroughs in Energy and ...

The energy and transportation industries are being aggressively disrupted by converging exponential technologies.

In just five days, the sun provides Earth with an energy supply exceeding all proven reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas. Capturing just 1 part in 8,000 of this available solar energy would allow us to meet 100 percent of our energy needs.

As we leverage renewable energy supplied by the sun, wind, geothermal sources, and eventually fusion, we are rapidly heading towards a future where 100 percent of our energy needs will be met by clean tech in just 30 years.

During the past 40 years, solar prices have dropped 250-fold. And as these costs plummet, solar panel capacity continues to grow exponentially.

On the heels of energy abundance, we are additionally witnessing a new transportation revolution, which sets the stage for a future of seamlessly efficient travel at lower economic and environmental costs.

Top 5 Transportation Breakthroughs (2019-2024)
Entrepreneur and inventor Ramez Naam is my go-to expert on all things energy and environment. Currently serving as the Energy Co-Chair at Singularity University, Naam is the award-winning author of five books, including the Nexus series of science fiction novels. Having spent 13 years at Microsoft, his software has touched the lives of over a billion people. Naam holds over 20 patents, including several shared with co-inventor Bill Gates.

In the next five years, he forecasts five respective transportation and energy trends, each poised to disrupt major players and birth entirely new business models.

Let’s dive in.

Autonomous cars drive 1 billion miles on US roads. Then 10 billion

Alphabet’s Waymo alone has already reached 10 million miles driven in the US. The 600 Waymo vehicles on public roads drive a total of 25,000 miles each day, and computer simulations provide an additional 25,000 virtual cars driving constantly. Since its launch in December, the Waymo One service has transported over 1,000 pre-vetted riders in the Phoenix area.

With more training miles, the accuracy of these cars continues to improve. Since last year, GM Cruise has improved its disengagement rate by 321 percent since last year, trailing close behind with only one human intervention per 5,025 miles self-driven.

Autonomous taxis as a service in top 20 US metro areas

Along with its first quarterly earnings released last week, Lyft recently announced that it would expand its Waymo partnership with the upcoming deployment of 10 autonomous vehicles in the Phoenix area. While individuals previously had to partake in Waymo’s “early rider program” prior to trying Waymo One, the Lyft partnership will allow anyone to ride in a self-driving vehicle without a prior NDA.

Strategic partnerships will grow increasingly essential between automakers, self-driving tech companies, and rideshare services. Ford is currently working with Volkswagen, and Nvidia now collaborates with Daimler (Mercedes) and Toyota. Just last week, GM Cruise raised another $1.15 billion at a $19 billion valuation as the company aims to launch a ride-hailing service this year.

“They’re going to come to the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Houston, other cities with relatively good weather,” notes Naam. “In every major city within five years in the US and in some other parts of the world, you’re going to see the ability to hail an autonomous vehicle as a ride.”

Cambrian explosion of vehicle formats

Naam explains, “If you look today at the average ridership of a taxi, a Lyft, or an Uber, it’s about 1.1 passengers plus the driver. So, why do you need a large four-seater vehicle for that?”

Small electric, autonomous pods that seat as few as two people will begin to emerge, satisfying the majority of ride-hailing demands we see today. At the same time, larger communal vehicles will appear, such as Uber Express, that will undercut even the cheapest of transportation methods—buses, trams, and the like. Finally, last-mile scooter transit (or simply short-distance walks) might connect you to communal pick-up locations.

By 2024, an unimaginably diverse range of vehicles will arise to meet every possible need, regardless of distance or destination.

Drone delivery for lightweight packages in at least one US city

Wing, the Alphabet drone delivery startup, recently became the first company to gain approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make deliveries in the US. Having secured approval to deliver to 100 homes in Canberra, Australia, Wing additionally plans to begin delivering goods from local businesses in the suburbs of Virginia.

The current state of drone delivery is best suited for lightweight, urgent-demand payloads like pharmaceuticals, thumb drives, or connectors. And as Amazon continues to decrease its Prime delivery times—now as speedy as a one-day turnaround in many cities—the use of drones will become essential.

Robotic factories drive onshoring of US factories… but without new jobs

The supply chain will continue to shorten and become more agile with the re-onshoring of manufacturing jobs in the US and other countries. Naam reasons that new management and software jobs will drive this shift, as these roles develop the necessary robotics to manufacture goods. Equally as important, these robotic factories will provide a more humane setting than many of the current manufacturing practices overseas.

Top 5 Energy Breakthroughs (2019-2024)

First “1 cent per kWh” deals for solar and wind signed

Ten years ago, the lowest price of solar and wind power fell between 10 to 12 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), over twice the price of wholesale power from coal or natural gas.

Today, the gap between solar/wind power and fossil fuel-generated electricity is nearly negligible in many parts of the world. In G20 countries, fossil fuel electricity costs between 5 to 17 cents per kWh, while the average cost per kWh of solar power in the US stands at under 10 cents.

Spanish firm Solarpack Corp Technological recently won a bid in Chile for a 120 MW solar power plant supplying energy at 2.91 cents per kWh. This deal will result in an estimated 25 percent drop in energy costs for Chilean businesses by 2021.

Naam indicates, “We will see the first unsubsidized 1.0 cent solar deals in places like Chile, Mexico, the Southwest US, the Middle East, and North Africa, and we’ll see similar prices for wind in places like Mexico, Brazil, and the US Great Plains.”

Solar and wind will reach >15 percent of US electricity, and begin to drive all growth

Just over eight percent of energy in the US comes from solar and wind sources. In total, 17 percent of American energy is derived from renewable sources, while a whopping 63 percent is sourced from fossil fuels, and 17 percent from nuclear.

Last year in the U.K., twice as much energy was generated from wind than from coal. For over a week in May, the U.K. went completely coal-free, using wind and solar to supply 35 percent and 21 percent of power, respectively. While fossil fuels remain the primary electricity source, this week-long experiment highlights the disruptive potential of solar and wind power that major countries like the U.K. are beginning to emphasize.

“Solar and wind are still a relatively small part of the worldwide power mix, only about six percent. Within five years, it’s going to be 15 percent in the US and more than close to that worldwide,” Naam predicts. “We are nearing the point where we are not building any new fossil fuel power plants.”

It will be cheaper to build new solar/wind/batteries than to run on existing coal

Last October, Northern Indiana utility company NIPSCO announced its transition from a 65 percent coal-powered state to projected coal-free status by 2028. Importantly, this decision was made purely on the basis of financials, with an estimated $4 billion in cost savings for customers. The company has already begun several initiatives in solar, wind, and batteries.

NextEra, the largest power generator in the US, has taken on a similar goal, making a deal last year to purchase roughly seven million solar panels from JinkoSolar over four years. Leading power generators across the globe have vocalized a similar economic case for renewable energy.

ICE car sales have now peaked. All car sales growth will be electric

While electric vehicles (EV) have historically been more expensive for consumers than internal combustion engine-powered (ICE) cars, EVs are cheaper to operate and maintain. The yearly cost of operating an EV in the US is about $485, less than half the $1,117 cost of operating a gas-powered vehicle.

And as battery prices continue to shrink, the upfront costs of EVs will decline until a long-term payoff calculation is no longer required to determine which type of car is the better investment. EVs will become the obvious choice.

Many experts including Naam believe that ICE-powered vehicles peaked worldwide in 2018 and will begin to decline over the next five years, as has already been demonstrated in the past five months. At the same time, EVs are expected to quadruple their market share to 1.6 percent this year.

New storage technologies will displace Li-ion batteries for tomorrow’s most demanding applications

Lithium ion batteries have dominated the battery market for decades, but Naam anticipates new storage technologies will take hold for different contexts. Flow batteries, which can collect and store solar and wind power at large scales, will supply city grids. Already, California’s Independent System Operator, the nonprofit that maintains the majority of the state’s power grid, recently installed a flow battery system in San Diego.

Solid-state batteries, which consist of entirely solid electrolytes, will supply mobile devices in cars. A growing body of competitors, including Toyota, BMW, Honda, Hyundai, and Nissan, are already working on developing solid-state battery technology. These types of batteries offer up to six times faster charging periods, three times the energy density, and eight years of added lifespan, compared to lithium ion batteries.

Final Thoughts
Major advancements in transportation and energy technologies will continue to converge over the next five years. A case in point, Tesla’s recent announcement of its “robotaxi” fleet exemplifies the growing trend towards joint priority of sustainability and autonomy.

On the connectivity front, 5G and next-generation mobile networks will continue to enable the growth of autonomous fleets, many of which will soon run on renewable energy sources. This growth demands important partnerships between energy storage manufacturers, automakers, self-driving tech companies, and ridesharing services.

In the eco-realm, increasingly obvious economic calculi will catalyze consumer adoption of autonomous electric vehicles. In just five years, Naam predicts that self-driving rideshare services will be cheaper than owning a private vehicle for urban residents. And by the same token, plummeting renewable energy costs will make these fuels far more attractive than fossil fuel-derived electricity.

As universally optimized AI systems cut down on traffic, aggregate time spent in vehicles will decimate, while hours in your (or not your) car will be applied to any number of activities as autonomous systems steer the way. All the while, sharing an electric vehicle will cut down not only on your carbon footprint but on the exorbitant costs swallowed by your previous SUV. How will you spend this extra time and money? What new natural resources will fuel your everyday life?

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#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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