Climate Change And Future Of Technology

“There can be no absolute reality, there can be no absolute truth”.                                  -Kevin Warwick

While we discuss the Climate Change mitigation through economic, social and political options available to us and also on being innovative to embrace a new life-style to lower our carbon foot-prints, technology, or more accurately low emission technology becomes one important aspect of that discussion. I do not personally feel that a blind faith on a technological ‘cure’ of Climate Change is wise, but science and technology have always remained one great window of human ingenuity and they can certainly come handy for effectively combating Climate Change.

So, what kind of technology we can place our wager on in future? Before we go on to look for the answer, we should take note of one important thing. Science, despite being known for its cold objectivity and detached aloofness about contemporary social-cultural scene, is not above Cultural Revolution in the long run. It is practiced by human beings and cannot escape, therefore, ethical values and human necessities in the end. Technology is a direct derivative of science and it is also constantly influenced by the same vectors. When Climate Change poses a challenge to humanity that requires us to rethink our ‘taken-for-granted’ attitude towards nature, a technology of future needs to fit that bill too.

What is technology after all? Many definitions are available, but I prefer to stick to the simplest of them: Technology is an intervention that changes life. Sometimes the change is good or excellent and in short term yet questionable or even harmful in the long run. Some other times, the change is trivial in short term and its long term benefit is simply overlooked. Changes that technologies bring in are often incremental but there are instances that it can be profoundly transformational, even disruptive as well. But whichever way we look at it, it is directed towards life and since we, humans, discover it and implement it, it is directed towards human life more particularly. If you view technology from this perspective, you cannot ignore the fact that human life in only one node in a vast and intricate network or web of life, a form of life that is deeply embedded into the fabric of earth as a huge life supporting system – a system so huge and a system that works on such grand scale of time that it is very difficult to assess what ultimate or long term effect will prevail in future while embracing an immediate change that a technology brings in. This is the first home assignment that we finished recently while studying Climate Change history.

The first corollary is: perhaps it is not wise if our technologies have such impacts that can disturb subtle natural balance.

Secondly, every event in the physical world is a transaction of energy and matter in a finite resource pool. Life is no exception. If we draw more energy/matter we have to pay back with more energy/matter too. There is no free lunch in nature. We cleverly manipulate these transactions where some people turn out to be ‘gainers’ and some ‘losers’ only temporarily. But taken as a whole, the balance-sheet has to show both debit and credit side equal – as nature does not permit a ‘net gain’. Cleverness in this context is no answer, Wisdom is. A technology that draws a lot of energy is, therefore, a technology that we need to unlearn.

The second corollary is: Common wisdom dictates that it is preferable if we can live on less energy and our technologies of future should have one clear direction – extreme energy efficiency.

These are two corollaries, two simple tests that a technology of future needs to pass. In my opinion, any technology that is dependent on fossil fuels will not pass the first test, since all of them contribute to destroying subtle natural balance. Climate Change is one such case in point. So it looks like that a technology of future has to be one that will run on renewable fuel. Technologies that run on fission based nuclear are out too. They do not cause Global Warming or Climate Change but they do destroy subtle natural balance. Nature is not devised to store tonnes of highly radioactive wastes of huge ‘half-life’ periods. So we are left with technologies that are designed to run on solar, wind, wave or geo-thermal energies. While these are possible options for industries, transportation systems will need refillable fuels. So a future technology for automobile, aviation or shipping will have to be compliant for hydrogen-based fuel cells. I do not see much future for bio-fuels, as it has unassessed potential of disturbing natural cycle.

When we introduce the second set of tests, one that demands extreme energy efficiency, we go into a different dimension of the problem. An ideal technology of future has to run on a limited number of source energies and on top of that it has to be extremely efficient to meet our current demand of energy. When I say current energy demand, we are talking about 17 Terawatts of energy and there is a sad reality that more than half of it is a luxury demand as viewed by more than half of world population who access less than survival demand. So my context on extreme energy efficiency tends to get a subtext: so energy efficient that it gets practically free so that none is ‘energy-poor’ .

It looks like we are looking for a black cat in a dark room. Correction: we are looking for a black cat in a darkroom blindfolded.

Let us see what Theo Jansen has to say about this. Interestingly Theo is an artist, not a technologist. But he sure can give one or two ideas to the technologists. See the video below:

Some call it eerie. I call it ingenious. Theo demonstrated something that can make the idea of our technology stand on its head.

Now if you are still with me, add to Theo’s idea the bio-mimicking or reverse engineering techniques proposed by UC Berkeley Biologist and we are already on the thresholds of a transportation revolution. Check the video below.

Again, Dr. Full is a biologist, not a technologist.

Perhaps examples like above hint at why we are after a black cat blindfolded. Our technologists are just out of sync. Their machines are too crude, too simplistic, too limited and energy guzzlers. They need to go back to the drawing boards and change their design approach and instead of trying to make machines on principles that are 200 years old, they should follow nature. Nature is replete with examples of machines that have been perfected under evolutionary pressures with massive trial and error and natural selection. They should change from ‘absolutely perfect’ to ‘just good enough’ approach. What better pre-production model does an engineer need?

This is exactly where the scope of future of our technologies lies. Our technologies MUST follow biological systems.

I also see a future of humanity where we will be energy harvesters and energy scavengers. So there is also a future of technologies in that direction.

If you think this is a day dream, well, how will you like to recharge your mobile phone from the wasted mechanical energy from your knee-caps during an enjoyable 10 minutes jogging in the morning? If you think that’s too little energy for such a big a ‘trouble’, how about the idea of converting the health clubs and gyms to convert into energy harvesting outlets where every conceivable kinetic energy from muscles can store enough energy to power your macbooks, mobile phones, iPods while generations of health conscious people run on tread-mills, push and pull on dipping bars? If you think that’s too little energy for our demands how about powering your whole office from the ambient vibrations by cars, people around the block ? Generating electricity from piezo-electric effect is not a new idea, it’s just that a new focus is coming on it. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency of US has already funded to harness energy from leg and arm motion, shoe impacts, and blood pressure for low level power to implantable or wearable sensors and energy stores. For a casual look the power generation may look tiny and only fit for very low power gadgets but with sufficient innovation this perception may change altogether. For example consider the picture below:

For a 500 meter long and 12 meter wide bridge, we can have 6 to 60 KW of energy which is sufficient to illuminate the bridge with LED powered illumination systems absolutely free! I love to dream about changing the sidewalk of my small office with a suitable contraption and have pedestrians to pay my electricity bills (at least partly) just by walking over it. This is truly people power and countries like India and China can immensely benefit from it.

I see bionics and energy scavenging/harvesting as future of technology because they are close to nature, free and extremely energy efficient. The possibilities are immense, for example, pyroelectricity that use edge-depolarizing electric field of a heated pyroelectric to convert heat energy into mechanical energy without drawing electric current, thermoelectricity that convert heat energy to electricity, blood-sugar energy harvesting that can make possible pace-makers battery free – none of these are science fiction anymore. By 2004 a fully functional human heart and cochlear implants were engineered. Trees infused with nanoparticles can replace streetlights due to bioluminescence . Warmth of human bodies in Paris Metro can heat new apartment complex .

This is no armchair science. This future of technology, which I hope help us solve the energy question one day and is tantalizingly balanced on the convergence of three branches of science, bio-technology, bio-engineering and bio-informatics. And this convergence is possibly aided by nanotechnology, which can work wonders beyond our wildest dreams. However, even in this future we will stand at a cross road where we will have two options: a) A chance to change ourselves culturally – this may bring a totally Avatar the movie like reality, where our lives will become completely decentralized and independent from commercial energy supply or b) A temptation to tinker with Life itself – this may bring a synthetic world and death of Nature itself.

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