Sunday, 18 March 2018

Smart phone, dumb people: is technology really reducing our intelligence?

IQ testing is one of those areas that always seems to polarise opinion, with many considering it useful for children as long as it is understood to be related to specific areas of intelligence rather than a person's entire intellectual capabilities. However, many organisations, including some employers, use IQ tests as a primary filter, so unfortunately it cannot be ignored as either irrelevant or outdated. Just as much of the education system is still geared towards passing exams, IQ tests are seen as a valid method to sort potential candidates. They may not be completely valid, but are used as a short-cut tool that serves a limited purpose.

James Flynn of the University of Otago in New Zealand has undertaken long-term research into intelligence, so much so that the 'Flynn Effect' is the name given to the worldwide increase in intelligence since IQ tests were developed over a century ago. The reasons behind this increase are not fully understood, but are probably due to the complex interaction of numerous environmental factors such as enriched audio-visual stimulation, better - and more interactive - education methods, even good artificial lighting for longer hours of reading and writing. It is interesting that as developing nations rapidly gain these improvements to society and infrastructure, their average IQ shows a correspondingly rapid increase when compared to the already developed West and its more staid advancement.

Research suggests that while young children's IQ continues to increase in developed nations, albeit at a reduced rate, the intelligence of teenagers in these countries has been in slow decline over the past thirty years. What is more, the higher the income decile, the larger the decrease. This hints that the causes are more predominant in middle-class lifestyles; basically, family wealth equates to loss of IQ! Data for the UK and Scandinavian countries indicates that a key factor may be the development of consumer electronics, starting with VCRs, games consoles and home computers and now complemented by smart phones, tablets and social media. This would align with the statistics, since the drop is highest among children likely to have greatest access to the devices. So could it be true that our digital distractions are dumbing us down?

1) Time

By spending more time on electronic devices, children live in a narrower world, where audio-visual stimulation aims for maximum enjoyment with minimal effort, the information and imagery flying by at dizzying speed. This isn't just the AV presentation of course: digital content itself closely aligns to pop cultural cornerstones, being glamorous, gimmicky, transient and expendable. As such, the infinitesimally small gradations of social status and friendship that exist amongst children and teenagers requires enormous effort on their part to maintain a constant online presence, both pro-actively and reactively responding to their peers' (and role models') endless inanities.

The amount of effort it would take to filter this is mind-boggling and presumably takes away a lot of time that could be much better spent on other activities. This doesn't have to be something as constructive as reading or traditional studying: going outdoors has been shown to have all sorts of positive effects, as described in Richard Louv's 2005 best-seller Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.

Studies around the world have shown that there are all sorts of positive effects, including on mood, by mere immersion in nature, not just strenuous physical activity. Whether humans have an innate need for observing the intricate fractal patterns of vegetation (grass lawns and playing fields have been found to be ineffective) or whether it's noticing the seemingly unorganised behaviour of non-human life forms, the Japanese government have promoted Shinrin-yoku or 'forest air bathing' as a counterbalance to the stresses of urbanised existence. It sounds a bit New Age, but there is enough research to back up the idea that time spent in the natural environment can profoundly affect us.

Meanwhile, other nations appear to have given in, as if admitting that their citizens have turned into digitally-preoccupied zombies. Last year, the Dutch town of Bodegraven decided to reduce accidents to mobile-distracted pedestrians by installing red and green LED strips at a busy road junction, so that phone users could tell if it was safe to cross without having to look up!

2) Speed

One obvious change in the past four decades has been in the increased pace of life in developed nations. As we have communication and information retrieval tools that are relatively instantaneous, so employers expect their workforce to respond in tune with the speed of these machines. This act-now approach hardly encourages in-depth cogitation but relies upon seat-of-the-pants thinking, which no doubt requires a regular input of caffeine and adrenaline. The emphasis on rapid turnaround, when coupled with lack of patience, has led to an extremely heavy reliance on the first page of online search results: being smart at sifting through other people's data is fast becoming a replacement for original thought, as lazy students have discovered and no doubt as many school teachers and university lecturers could testify.

Having a convenient source of information means that it is easier for anyone to find a solution to almost anything rather than working something out for themselves. This can lead to a decline in initiative, something which separates thought leaders from everyone else. There is a joy to figuring out something, which after all is a key motivation for many STEM professionals. Some scientists and engineers have explained that being able to understand the inner workings of common objects was a key component of their childhood, leading to an obvious career choice. For example, New Zealand-based scientist and science communicator Michelle Dickinson (A.K.A. Nanogirl) spent her childhood dismantling and repairing such disparate household items as home computers and toasters, echoing Ellie Arroway, the heroine in Carl Sagan's novel Contact, who as a child repaired a defective valve radio before going on to become a radio astronomer.

Of course, these days it would be more difficult to repair contemporary versions of these items, since they are often built so that they cannot even be opened except in a machine shop. Laptops and tablets are prime examples and I've known cases where the likes of Microsoft simply replace rather than repair a screen-damaged device. When I had a desktop computer I frequently installed video and memory cards, but then how-to videos are ubiquitous on YouTube. The latest generation of technology doesn't allow for such do-it-yourself upgrades, to the manufacturer's advantage and the consumer's detriment. As an aside, it's worrying that so many core skills such as basic repairs or map navigation are being lost; in the event of a massive power and/or network outage due to the likes of a solar flare, there could be a lot of people stuck in headless chicken mode. Squawk!

3) Quality

While the World Wide Web covers every subject imaginable (if being of immensely variable quality), that once fairly reliable source of information, television, has largely downgraded the sometimes staid but usually authoritative documentaries of yesteryear into music promo-style pieces of infotainment. Frequently unnecessary computer graphics and overly-dramatic reconstructions and voice overs are interwoven between miniscule sound bites from the experts, the amount of actual information being conveyed reduced to a bare minimum.

In many cases, the likes of the Discovery Channel are even disguising pure fiction as fact, meaning that children - and frequently adults - are hard-placed to differentiate nonsense from reality. This blurring of demarcation does little to encourage critical or even sustained thinking; knowledge in the media and online has been reduced to a consumer-led circus with an emphasis on marketing and hype. Arguably, radio provides the last media format where the majority of content maintains a semblance of sustained, informative discussion on STEM issues.

4) Quantity

The brave new world of technology that surrounds us is primarily geared towards consumerism; after all, even social media is fundamentally a tool for targeted marketing. If there's one thing that manufacturers do not want it is inquisitive customers, since the buzzwords and hype often hide a lack of quality underneath. Unfortunately, the ubiquity of social media and online news in general means that ridiculous ideas rapidly become must-have fads.

Even such commodities as food and drink have become mired with trendy products like charcoal-infused juice, unpasteurised milk and now raw water, attracting the same sort of uncritical punters who think that nutrition gurus know what really constituted human diets in the Palaeolithic. The fact that some of Silicon Valley's smartest have failed to consider the numerous dangers of raw water shows that again, analytical thinking is taking a back seat to whatever is the latest 'awesome' and 'cool' lifestyle choice.

Perhaps then certain types of thinking are becoming difficult to inculcate and sustain in our mentally vulnerable teenagers due to the constant demands of consumerism and its oh-so-seductive delivery channels. Whether today's youth will fall into the viewing habits of older generations, such as the myriad of 'food porn' shows remains to be seen; with so much on offer, is it any wonder people spend entire weekends binge watching series, oblivious to the wider world?

The desire to fit into a peer group and not be left behind by lack of knowledge about some trivia or other, for example about the latest series on Netflix, means that so much time is wasted on activities that only require a limited number of thought processes. Even a good memory isn't required anymore, with electronic calendars and calculators among the simplest of tools available to replace brain power. Besides which, the transience in popular culture means there's little need to remember most of what happened last week!

Ultimately, western nations are falling prey to the insular decadence well known from history as great civilisations pass their prime. Technology and the pace of contemporary life dictated by it must certainly play a part in any decline in IQ, although the human brain being what it is - after all, the most complex object in the known universe - I wouldn't dare guess how much is due to them.

There are probably other causes that are so familiar as to be practically invisible. Take for instance background noise, both visual and aural, which permeates man-made environments. My commute yesterday offers a typical example of the latter sort, with schoolchildren on my train playing loud music on their phones that could be heard some metres away to the two building sites I walked by, plus a main road packed with vehicles up to the size of construction trucks. As a final bonus, I passed ten shops and cafes that were all playing loud if inane pop music that could be heard on the street, through open doors. Gone are the days of tedious elevator muzak: even fairly expensive restaurants play material so fast and loud it barely constitutes the term 'background music'. If such sensory pollution is everywhere, when do we get to enjoy quality cogitation time?

If you think that consumerism isn't as all-encompassing as I state, then consider that the USA spends more per year on pet grooming than it does on nuclear fusion research. I mean, do you honestly really need a knee-high wall-mounted video phone to keep in touch with your dog or cat while you're at work? Talking of which, did you know that in 2015 the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform's Exploding Kittens card game raised almost US$9 million in less than a month? Let's be frank, we've got some work to do if we are to save subsequent generations from declining into trivia-obsessed sheeple. Baa!

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Hi-tech roadblock: is some upcoming technology just too radical for society to handle?

Many people still consider science to be a discipline wholly separate from other facets of human existence. If there's one thing I've learnt during the eight years I've been writing this blog it's that there are so many connections between STEM and society that much of the scientific enterprise cannot be considered in isolation.

Cutting-edge theories can take a long time to be assimilated into mainstream society, in some cases their complexity (for example, quantum mechanics) or their emotive value (most obviously, natural selection) meaning that they get respectively misinterpreted or rejected. New technologies emerge out of scientific principles and methodology, if not always from the archetypal laboratory. STEM practitioners are sometimes the driving force behind new devices aimed at the mass market; could it be that their enthusiasm and in-depth knowledge prohibits them from realising that the world isn't yet ready for their brainchild? In some cases the "Hey, wow, cool, look what we can do!" excitement masks the elaborate web of socio-economic factors that mean the invention will never be suitable for a world outside the test environment.

There are plenty of examples of pioneering consumer-oriented technology that either could never fit into its intended niche (such as the UK's Sinclair C5 electric vehicle of the mid-1980s), or missed public demand, the Sony Betamax video recorder having been aimed at home movie makers rather than audiences just wanting to watch pre-recorded material (hence losing out to the inferior-quality VHS format).

At the opposite pole, mobile phone manufacturers in the early 1990s completely underestimated the public interest in their products, which were initially aimed at business users. Bearing in mind that there is considerable worldwide interest in certain new radical technologies that will presumably be aimed at the widest possible market, I thought I'd look at their pros and cons so as to ascertain whether non-STEM factors are likely to dictate their fortunes.

1) Driverless automobiles

There has been recent confirmation that in the next month or so vehicle manufacturers may be able to test their autonomous cars on California's state highways. With Nissan poised to test self-driving taxis in time for a 2020 launch, the era of human drivers could be entering its last few decades. Critics of the technology usually focus on the potential dangers, as shown by the system's first fatality in May 2016.

But what of the reverse? Could the widespread introduction of driverless road vehicles - once the public is convinced of their superior safety attributes - be opposed by authorities or multinational corporations? After all, in 2016 almost 21% of drivers in the USA received a speeding ticket, generating enormous revenue. Exact figures for these fines are unknown, but estimates for annual totals usually centre around six billion dollars. In addition to the fines themselves adding to national or local government coffers (for all sorts of traffic misdemeanours including parking offences), insurance companies benefit from the increase in premiums for drivers with convictions.

Whether vested interests would find the economic losses suitably offset by the prevention of thousands of deaths due to driver error remains to be seen. This stance might seem unjustly anti-corporate, but when the past half-century's history of private profit ahead of public interest is examined (for example, the millions paid by the fossil fuel and tobacco industries to support their products) there are obvious precedents.

One key scientific method is parsimony, A.K.A. Occam's razor. According to this principle, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, at least in classical science; quantum mechanics plays by its own rules. An example counter to this line of thought can be seen in the work of the statistician, geneticist and tobacco industry spokesman R.A. Fisher, a keen pipe smoker who argued that rather than a cause-and-effect between smoking and lung cancer, there was a more complicated correlation between people who were both genetically susceptible to lung disease and hereditarily predisposed to nicotine addiction! Cigarette, anyone?

As for relinquishing the steering wheel to a machine, I think that a fair proportion of the public enjoy the 'freedom' of driving and that a larger contingent than just boy racers won't give up manual control without a fight, i.e. state intervention will required to put safety ahead of individuality.

2) Extending human lifespan

It might seem odd that anyone would want to oppose technology that could increase longevity, but there would have to be some fairly fundamental changes to society to accommodate anything beyond the most moderate of extended lifespans. According to a 2009 report in The Lancet medical journal, about half of all children born since 2000 could reach their hundredth birthday.

Various reports state that from 2030-2050 - about as far in the future as anyone can offer realistic prognostication for - the proportion of retirees, including far greater numbers of Alzheimer and dementia sufferers, will require many times more geriatricians than are practicing today. The ratio of working-age population to retiree will also drop, from 5:1 to 3:1 in the case of the USA, implying a far greater pensions crisis than that already looming. Numerous companies are using cutting-edge biotech to find cell renewal techniques, including the fifteen teams racing for the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, so the chances of a breakthrough are fairly high.

Japan offers a hint of how developed nations will alter once extended lifespans are available on a widespread basis: one-third of the population are over sixty and one in eight over seventy-five. In 2016 its public debt was more double the GDP and Japan also faces low labour productivity compared to other nations within the OECD. Figures such as these show that governments will find it economically challenging to support the corresponding population demographics, even if many of the healthcare issues usually associated with the elderly are diminished.

However, unlike driverless cars it's difficult to conceive of arguments in favour of legislation to prevent extended lifespans. If all nations achieved equilibrium in economy, technology and demographics there would be far fewer issues, but the gap between developed and developing nations is wide enough to deem that unlikely for many decades.

Discussions around quality of life for the elderly will presumably become more prominent as the age group gains as a proportion of the electorate. There are already various types of companion robots for those living alone, shaped anything from cats to bears to anthropomorphic designs such as the French Buddy and German Care-O-bot, the latter to my mind resembling a giant, mobile chess piece.

3) Artificial intelligence

I've already looked at international attitudes to the expansion and development of AI but if there's one thing most reports discuss it is the loss of jobs to even semi-intelligent machines. Even if there is a lower proportion of younger people, there will still be a need to keep the populace engaged, constructive or otherwise.

Surveys suggest that far from reducing working hours, information technology has caused employees in developed nations to spend more time outside work still working. For example, over half of all American and British employees now check their work email while on holiday. Therefore will governments be able to fund and organise replacement activities for an obsolete workforce, involving for example life-long learning and job sharing?

The old adage about idle hands rings true and unlike during the Great Depression, the sophistication of modern technology doesn't allow for commissioning of large-scale infrastructure projects utilising an unskilled labour pool. Granted that AI will generate new jobs in novel specialisms, but these will be a drop in the ocean compared to the lost roles. So far, the internet and home computing have created work, frequently in areas largely unpredicted by futurists, but it seems doubtful the trend will continue once heuristic machines and the 'internet of things' become commonplace.

So is it possible that governments will interfere with the implementation of cutting-edge technology in order to preserve the status quo, at least until the impending paradigm shift becomes manageable? I could include other examples, but many are developments that are more likely to incur the annoyance of certain industries rather than governments or societies as a whole. One of the prominent examples used for the up-coming Internet of Things is the smart fridge, which would presumably reduce grocery wastage - and therefore lower sales - via its cataloguing of use-by dates.

Also, if people can buy cheap (or dare I mention pirated?) plans for 3D printing at home, they won't have to repeatedly pay for physical goods, plus in some cases their delivery costs. Current designs that are available to print items for use around the home and garage range from soap dishes to measuring cups, flower vases to car windscreen ice scrapers. Therefore it's obvious that a lot of companies producing less sophisticated household goods are in for a sticky future as 3D printers become ubiquitous.

If these examples prove anything, it's that scientific advances cannot be treated in isolation when they have the potential of direct implementation in the real world. It's also difficult to predict how a technology developed for a single purpose can end up being co-opted into wholly other sectors, as happened with ferrofluids, designed to pump rocket fuel in the 1960's and now used in kinetic sculptures and toys. I've discussed the problems of attempting to predict upcoming technology and its future implementation and as such suggest that even if an area of technological progress follows some sort of predictable development, the wider society that encapsulates it may not be ready for its implementation.

It may not be future shock per se, but there are vested interests who like things just the way they are - certain technology may be just too good for the public. Who said anything about how much fossil fuel industries have spent denying man-made climate change? Or could it be time to consider Occam's razor again?

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Teslas in space: trivialising the final frontier

Earlier this month Elon Musk's SpaceX achieved great kudos thanks to the maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket and recovery of two of the three first stage boosters. Although it has the fourth highest payload capacity in the history of spaceflight, the test did not include satellites or ballast but the unlikely shape of Musk's own $100,000 Tesla Roadster, complete with dummy astronaut. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the unique payload of this largely successful mission has led to it being labelled everything from a pioneering achievement to a foolish publicity stunt. So what's the truth behind it?

I discussed the near-future development of private spaceflight back in 2012 and if there's one thing that the programmes mentioned therein have in common is that they have all since been delayed. Rocket technology has proved to be more tricky than the current crop of entrepreneurs envisaged, Elon Musk himself giving the Falcon Heavy a fifty-fifty chance of success. As it was, two of the core booster's engines failed to fire before touchdown, leading it to crash into the sea. Musk admitted that due to safety concerns this design will never - as originally intended - be used to launch crews into space. But a successful first flight for such a large vehicle had the potential to bring enormous kudos - translate that to customers - at the expense of his lagging rivals.

It could be argued that with such a high probability of getting egg on his face, Musk was right to choose a joke payload, albeit an expensive one, as opposed to boring ballast or a (presumably heavily-insured) set of commercial satellites. Even so, some critics have argued that there is enough manmade junk floating around the solar system without adding the Tesla, never mind the slight risk of a crash-landing on Mars. The latter might seem of little import, but there's presumably the risk of microbial contamination - it's thought some bacteria could survive atmospheric entry - and as yet we're far from certain whether Martian microbes might exist in places sheltered from the ultraviolet flux.

However, researchers have run computer simulations and if anything, Earth stands a far greater chance of being the Tesla's target, albeit millions of years in the future. Indeed, Venus is the next most likely, with Mars a poor third. That's if the car doesn't fall apart long before then due to the radiation, temperature variations and micrometeoroid impacts: the 70,000km/h or so velocity means that even dust grains can behave like bullets and there's plenty of natural rock fragments whipping around the solar system.

Musk has said that his low-cost, private alternative to state-led missions is intended to spur competitors into developing similarly reusable launch vehicles, bearing in mind that fossil fuel-powered rockets are likely to be the only way into space for some time to come. Talking of Government-controlled space programmes, NASA has long since decided to concentrate on research and development and leave much of the day-to-day operations, such as cargo runs to the International Space Station, to commercial outfits. In other words, Elon Musk is only touting for business much like any other corporation. His customers already include the communications company Arabsat and the United States Air Force, so interest in the new rocket is clearly building.

As to whether Musk should have fired a $100,000 car on a one-way trip (thanks to orbital mechanics, it's not strictly speaking one-way of course but let's face it, he's never going to get it back) it also comes down to a matter of taste, when you consider the environmental and economic crises facing humanity and the planet in general. The reusability factor to the Falcon Heavy rocket design does assuage the ecological aspect, but only slightly; rockets are a pretty primitive form of transport with some hefty pollutant statistics. Unfortunately, they currently have the monopoly on any space travel for the foreseeable future - I wonder if Virgin Galactic passengers could be encouraged to buy carbon credits?

A rather smaller rocket also launched into the headlines last month in the form of the US-New Zealand Rocket Lab's Electron vehicle. Cheekily called 'Still Testing', this second - and first successful - flight of the two-stage Electron paves the way for New Zealand-based launches of small satellites at comparatively low cost. This particular mission launched several commercial satellites plus the controversial 'Humanity Star', a reflective one-metre geodesic sphere that has been likened to both a disco ball and 'glittery space garbage'. Set to decay and burn up after nine months, Rocket Lab's founder Peter Beck intended it to generate a sense of perspective among the wider public but it has instead instigated a lot of negative commentary from astronomers, environmentalists and people who enjoy getting annoyed about almost anything.

Again, all publicity might seem like good publicity, but it goes to show that many people like their space technology serious and on the level, not frivolous or containing airy gestures (or should that be vacuous ones, space being space and all?) Even this individual rocket's name goes against tradition, which usually comes down to either Greco-Roman machismo or dull acronyms such as NASA's new SLS. In addition, to the unaided eye the cosmos appears to be largely pristine and pure, lacking the visual noise that commercialism bombards us with down here on Earth. Therefore the Humanity Star appears a bit tacky and is unlikely to supply the inspiration that Beck intended, a symbol that is somewhat too puny for its lofty purpose.

An older example of an out-and-out publicity stunt at the edge of space is Felix Baumgartner's record-breaking freefall jump back in October 2012. The Red Bull Stratos mission claimed to be a serious technology test (of for example, the reefed parachute design) as well as a medical experiment on the effects of supersonic travel on a human body outside a vehicle but ultimately it appeared to be an opportunity to fulfil, at least approximately, the company slogan 'Red Bull gives you wings'.

It could be argued that the jump aided research into escaping from damaged spacecraft, but even my limited understanding of the physics involved suggests an enormous difference between Baumgartner's slow, helium-led ascent and the velocity of both newly-launched rockets and deorbiting spacecraft. The mission also claimed to be at the 'edge of space' but at thirty-nine kilometres above the Earth, the altitude was far below the nominal one hundred kilometre boundary known as the Kármán line. As so often the case in advertising, why adhere to the facts when hyperbole will help to sell your product instead? Although the jump broke a fifty-two year old free-fall altitude record, it has since been beaten in much quieter fashion by Google's Senior Vice President of Knowledge, no less. In October 2014 Dr. Alan Eustace undertook a slightly higher self-funded jump that was devoid of publicity, suggesting that far from being a technological milestone, these jumps are more akin to climbing Mount Everest: once the pioneer has been successful, the mission becomes relatively routine.

With a cynical eye it would be very easy to claim that these three missions are the result of over-inflated egos and crass commercialism. The practical issue of unnecessary space junk, combined with the uneasy impression that the universe is now available as a billboard for selling stuff, have soured these projects for many. Several space stations have already utilised food tie-ins while in 1999 Coca Cola investigated projecting advertising onto the moon, only to find the lasers required would be too powerful to be allowed (perhaps they should have contacted Dr Evil?)

In 1993 the US Government banned 'obtrusive' advertising in space, but this hasn't stopped companies in other nations from planning such stunts. A Japanese soft drink manufacturer announced in 2014 that it wanted to land a capsule of its powered Pocari Sweat beverage (sounds delightful) on the moon, the launch vehicle being none other than a SpaceX Falcon rocket. With NASA's increasing reliance on private companies, is it only a matter of time before the final frontier becomes a mere extension of the noisy, polluted, consumer goods-obsessed environment we call civilisation? Frankly, we've made a pig's ear of our planet, so how about we don't make profit margins our number one concern in outer space too?

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Back to nature: why saving other species could save mankind

Humanity has come a long way from reliance on biologically-derived materials such as wood, bone, antler and fur. Yet this doesn't mean that organic materials have been replaced or many respects surpassed by wholly artificial ones. There are of course new carbon-based materials such as 3D graphene and carbyne that may prove to be the 'ultimate' materials when it comes to properties such as strength, but the history of the past century has shown how natural substances can inspire research too.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the hook and loop fastener best known by the trademark Velcro, which is essentially a copy of the burr design on Arctium (burdock) plants. Considering that taxonomists disagree wildly on the global totals of current plant, animal and fungi species - many claiming that less than 20% have been scientifically classified - it seems apparent that nature has plenty more surprises up her sleeve.

Spider silk has long been recognised as an incredibly strong material for its weight, with that generated by many species being up to five times the strength of the equivalent amount of steel. The silk produced by the Madagascan Darwin's bark spider (Caerostris darwini) is ten times stronger than Kevlar, suggesting that bullet-proof clothing manufacturers could do well by investigating it. However, a discovery by an engineering team at Portsmouth University in the UK makes even this seem humdrum: the teeth of limpets are potentially so strong - thanks to a mineral called goethite - that artificial versions of them could be used in high-performance situations, even aircraft components.

In addition to their use in construction, natural substances may prove useful in the development of new pharmaceuticals. I've previously discussed animal defence mechanisms such as that of the bombardier beetle and how small, barely noticed critters such as the peripatus deserve far more investigation. Of course the problem has been that size and aesthetics directly correlate with public attention and newsworthiness, meaning that the likes of the giant panda are used as poster species despite offering little in the way of practical advance for science and technology.

I'm not of course suggesting that species should be judged on the merits of their usefulness to humanity, but that we could probably gain a lot of practical usage from much greater study of the less well known flora and fauna still 'out there'. The resilience of tardigrades is becoming fairly well known, but there are no doubt other seemingly insignificant species with even more astonishing properties. Hydra for example are small, tentacled animals that live in fresh water; thanks to being composed mostly of stem cells they appear to have life cycles that just keep going. There also been limited research on the 'immortal' jellyfish Turritopsis dohrnii; this is surprising, given that the advances in gene splicing technology such as CRISPR-Cas9 and TALEN might lead to important medical breakthroughs, not just glow-in-the-dark pets.

In addition, the race to generate new antibiotics to replace those ineffective against 'superbugs' would suggest any short-cuts that can be taken should be taken. I remember watching a 2006 British murder mystery programme in which people were killed during a hunt for rare South American seeds containing anti-malarial properties. This may be pure fiction, but considering that artemisinin-resistant 'supermalaria' is now on the horizon, the script was somewhat prescient.

The idea behind all this is simple: delving into an existing complex chemical compound is far easier than trying to generate a purely synthetic one from scratch. This is why it is important to conserve small and insignificant species, not just the pandas, elephants and rhinos. Who's to say that a breakthrough medicine or construction material isn't already in existence, just hiding around the corner (or rather, in the genome) of some overlooked species of animal, plant or fungi?

With superbug-beating pharmaceuticals and climate mitigation technology a priority, we're shooting ourselves in the foot if we let an increasing number of unconsidered species became extinct. As I discussed last month all sorts of organisms are now in serious trouble from global amphibian populations via North American snakes and bats to the mighty kauri trees of New Zealand. Just saving a few specimens of doomed species in freezers or formalin is unlikely to be enough: shouldn't we endeavour to minimise species loss for many reasons; and if we must have an economic motive, what about their potential benefit to mankind? Not for nothing has nature been deemed 'the master crafts(person) of molecules' and we lose volumes in that library at own expense.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Low-key wonders: how small-scale innovation can aid the developing world

The success of mega-budget science experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has quite rightly generated widespread praise for these technological marvels. This has led to plenty of discussion regarding similar international endeavours now in the pipeline, such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). However, numerous far smaller, cheaper projects have been largely overlooked, despite their potential to offer practical improvements to millions of humans and in some cases, to the environment as well. Although not nearly as glamorous as their far larger counterparts, these innovative schemes - at least in application if not necessarily in technology - are surely as important and deserve more attention than that so far given to them.

The projects in question are aimed towards improving the quality of life in developing nations and as such tend to fall into one of a few key categories:
  1. Fuel efficiency and non-fossil fuel energy sources
  2. Water, nutrition and food preparation
  3. Medicine and hygiene
  4. Low-cost consumer electronics
The companies and inventors conceiving these schemes are based around the world in both developing and developed countries, with most having little if any association with multi-national manufacturers. Indeed, such has been the lack of interest from traditional industry that some of the projects have relied on a few far-sighted entrepreneurs or crowdfunding schemes. In some cases it appears that the less sophisticated the technology being developed, the more successful the product; clearly, lack of funding for research and development can limit the efficiency and reliability of new devices. Although the World Bank estimates that the crowdfunding market could generate ninety to ninety-five billion US dollars by 2030, the lack of secure financial infrastructure and limited ecommerce experience in developing nations mean that its infoDev global partnership programme is finding it tricky to help small-scale innovation take off in these countries.

1. Fuel efficiency and non-fossil fuel energy sources

An irregular electricity supply if available at all is still a prominent problem in developing countries, so millions of poor households rely on dangerous and inefficient forms of lighting and cooking. Kerosene lamps for example, in addition to causing health issues from smoke inhalation are responsible for three percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. One simple yet effective solution comes in the form of the GravityLight, whereby a bag of slowly descending ballast drives a generator to power an LED light for about twenty minutes before it needs resetting.

Other devices are less innovative but still very useful, such as Princeton University-developed SunSaluter, one of several compact solar panel products being designed to optimise energy collection, in this particular instance with the ability to rotate and so follow the sun across the sky. Another alternative energy scheme currently being prototyped is called ROTOR and uses a small floating device to generate hydro-electric power. These local-level systems are not only environmentally friendly but would relieve poor families of having to buy fossil fuels such as kerosene. Unfortunately, many are still at the development stage and lack of funding usually means slow progress in implementation.

Another invention that utilises existing components without any moving parts is the Eco-Cooler, which uses halved plastic bottles to drastically reduce temperatures in houses without needing a power source. This may not be cutting edge technology per se, but as per a previous post from 2010, this simple ingenious solution may prove to a wider public how they can help themselves and the environment simultaneously.

2. Water, nutrition and food preparation

If water is the new oil then devices that can heat and/or purify it at the same time as saving money and lessening environmental impact cannot be far behind in importance. Inventions in this category range from incremental improvements (i.e. more efficient versions of conventional products such as the Berkeley-Darfur Stove) to the innovative Jompy Water Boiler prototype, which heats water to purify it at the same time as cooking food and saving fuel.

Water purification systems are being tested, as are waste recyclers that can convert household organic waste at low-cost into drinking water or even cooking gas. These devices are being developed to use little or no power to operate, and in the case of Indian conglomerate Tata's Swach water filter, a combination of traditional rice husk ash and nanosilver forms the active ingredients. As I've discussed elsewhere nanosilver is not the most environmentally friendly of substances but at twenty-five US dollars this device has become widespread over the past eight years, presumably saving the lives of innumerable children in regions without a safe water supply.

At the other end, so to speak, the UK's Cranfield University has received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to complete development of the self-powered Nano Membrane Toilet. This is one of several such designs that don't require connection to plumbing as they work without an external water supply or outflow. Indeed, the Cranfield design is a net producer of water and possibly even energy too.

Developing countries are also seeking ways to improve nutrition themselves, such as the seventeen African nations involved in the Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative. This ten-year programme aims to reduce vitamin A deficiency by breeding a new strain of sweet potato, especially aimed at households with very young children. It may not involve cutting-edge genetic modification, but just the work required to overcome the social and economic conservatism of the region is probably as key to success as the agricultural science.

3. Medicine and hygiene

In a crossover between nutrition and medicine, the advertising and marketing agency Grey Singapore has been involved with the distribution of the Life Saving Dot, an iodine-rich bindi designed to cure iodine deficiency in many rural Indian women. In this instance, the use of the traditional design means that the product shouldn't face suspicion from its target market.

In 2010 a German former teacher Martin Aufmuth began developing a simple method to quickly produce pairs of spectacles without the need for a power supply. His OneDollarGlasses are now selling worldwide, further proof that low-tech ingenuity can generate enormous benefits.

More high-tech schemes are also in development that could prove to be extremely efficient yet relatively low-cost life savers. Médecins Sans Frontières has been studying the use of both 3-D printing and virtual reality for setting up field hospitals while the e-NABLING the Future project coordinates volunteers who can supply 3-D printed items such as prosthetics. The disaster-relief NGO Field Ready aims to provide 'faster, cheaper and better' aid via the manufacture of 3-D printed elements, including medical items, a sure sign that this technology is probably the best method of rapidly producing custom components in regions lacking sophisticated infrastructure.

Solar power is also being co-opted to replace conventional batteries in devices such as hearing aids, with the Botswana-based Deaftronics and its Solar Ear unit a pioneer in this field. Presumably, as smart clothing technology becomes more common, such devices will be able to use the wearer's own motion to supply the necessary power.

Pharmaceutical distribution and illness diagnosis techniques are also on the verge of radical improvements, particularly in Africa. An example of the former is the Ghanaian-based mPedigree's use of a free SMS code to confirm that the pharmaceutical is genuine. MIT research is aiding the latter, thanks to a series of paper strip tests for conditions ranging from Ebola to dengue fever.

4. Low-cost consumer electronics

The first example I came across of such devices was British inventor Trevor Baylis' wind-up radio, developed in 1995. Having been rejected by mainstream radio manufacturers, Baylis was lucky to gain the support of entrepreneurs so that he could achieve mass-production.

One of the few major companies to take an interest in the bottom end of the market has been Vodafone, whose 150 and 250 model mobile phones appeared in 2010 and were aimed solely at developing nations; the importance of rapid yet cheap communication in rural areas should not be underestimated. Other devices have not been so lucky with their manufacturers, with the world's cheapest tablets, the Indian Government-promoted Ubislate/Aakash range, suffering from so many design and build issues that the device is unlikely to satisfy its intended market any time soon.

Although the Aakash fiasco may inhibit other Western corporations from wanting to engage in similar projects, the mini paradigm shifts that some of these projects have engendered could well generate a two-way interaction between developed and developing nations. Rather than playing safe by fiddling with small iterations based on existing designs, the potential for wholly new products manufactured by smarter, more efficient methods has been given a solid proving ground by some of the examples described above. This 'trickle up' method may prove to be the way in which multinationals get involved in this level of project; needless to say, the timing couldn't be more apt.

From long-lasting, low voltage light bulbs to non-fossil fuel road vehicles, there is a multitude of examples of how big business has traditionally stifled innovation if it meant potential loss of profit. In some cases, shortened product lifespan and incremental upgrade release cycles have forced consumers to participate in a planned obsolescence programme, at the cost of the wider environment as well as customer bank balance. With talk of a several trillion US dollar funding gap in the United Nations' sustainable development goals - which the USA is now more than ever unwilling to subsidise - any means to replace aid relief with self-sustaining processes and local manufacturing are to be welcomed. There's enormous potential out there for developing nations to improve dramatically without relying on charitable hand-outs or the dubious support of big business. Hopefully the flow of  inventors, entrepreneurs and volunteers will continue building that future.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Amphibian Armageddon and killed-off kauri: the worldwide battle against fighting fungi

I recently wanted to visit the Ark in the Park, an open sanctuary in the Waitakere Ranges west of Auckland that uses constant predator control to protect native plants and animals. However, I was stopped by a sign stating that Te Kawerau a Maki, the Maori of the district, have placed a rāhiu or prohibition on entering the forest. Although not legally binding, the rāhui is intended to stop people walking through the area and spreading infection, serving in place of any notice by the New Zealand Government or Auckland City Council, since the latter two bodies have failed to take action. Perhaps this inactivity is because the infection does not directly affect humans or farming. Instead a fungus-like pathogen is killing the native kauri Agathis australis, one the largest tree species on Earth.

Known to live for over a thousand years and grow to over fifty metres tall, the largest kauri are seen by Maori as the lords of New Zealand's northern forests. Yet since 2009 the microscopic water mould Phytophthora agathidicida has been causing kauri dieback at an ever-increasing rate. Surveys in the Waitakeres show that most of the infected areas are within ten metres of walking paths and therefore the mould is being spread by visitors to the lowland forests who fail to thoroughly clean their shoes with the supplied disinfectant spray. In a truly David versus Goliath battle between the miniscule mould and giant trees, introduced species such as possums and pigs are aiding the former by accidentally spreading the minute spores.

Auckland Council reported last winter that the amount of affected kauri has reached 19 percent, meaning a doubling in scale in only five years. Since there is no cure for infected kauri, some scientists are now predicting the extinction of this magnificent tree in the near future. The combination of the pathogen's microscopic size with its rain-based activation after dormancy means there are currently no methods that can prevent the infection from spreading. In a way, the rāhui may just slow down the inevitable. Considering the immense kauri are home to a unique ecosystem of epiphytes, orchids and associated symbiotic organisms, the future flora and fauna of kauri-free forests may well be markedly different from the Waitakeres as they are today.

I've previously discussed the ubiquity of the unsung fungi and how prominent they are even within totally man-made environments. It seems surprising that New Zealand's authorities, so keen to preserve native birds and reptiles, are failing to take any action to at least buy time for the kauri; perhaps they have already deemed extinction as unavoidable and not worth spending public funds on.

The kauri are far from being the only organisms currently threatened by fungi or their kin. Over the past decade more than thirty snake species in the eastern and mid-western United States have started succumbing to what has been termed Snake Fungal Disease. The culprit is thought to be a soil-based fungus called Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, with a similar organism now also thought to be affecting snakes in the United Kingdom and mainland Europe. Research suggests that up to ninety percent of infected snakes die from the condition, so clearly if humans and their vehicles play unwitting hosts to the microscopic fungal spores, the future for the world's snake population looks depressing. Although many people might not like snakes, ecosystems without them may see an explosion in the numbers of their prey animals, including rodents; to say the least, this would not bode well for crop farmers!

Perhaps the best-known of the global fungal-caused epidemics is the amphibian-decimating Chytridiomycosis, whose affects were initially recognised twenty years ago but may have started much earlier. As its spores can live in water, the responsible Batrachochytrium fungi are ideally situated to infect about one-third of all frog, toad, newt and salamander species. Again, it is thought that man has inadvertently caused the problem, as the African clawed frog Xenopus laevis is an immune carrier of the fungus and has been exported worldwide since the 1930's.

Another contributor may be climate change, as amphibian-rich forests experience temperature variations that are ideal for the chytrid fungi to proliferate in. As a final nail in the coffin - and as with bees and Colony Collapse Disorder - pesticides may play a key role in the epidemic. Agrochemicals are shown to lower the amphibian immune response and so increase their susceptibility to infection. However, the situation isn't completely hopeless: here in New Zealand, researchers at the University of Otago have used chloramphenicol, an antibiotic eye ointment, to cure infected Archey's frogs (Leiopelma archeyi). This species is already critically endangered even without the chytrid epidemic; hopefully, the cure will prove to be the saviour of other amphibian species too. This would be just as well, considering the dangerous side effects found in other treatments such as antifungal drugs and heat therapy (the latter involving temperature-controlled environments that are lethal to the pathogen).

During the past decade, over five million North American bats have been killed by white-nose syndrome, which is caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans. Again, humans have inadvertently spread the pathogen, in this case from Eurasia, where the bat species are immune to it, to North America, where they are most definitely susceptible. The bats are only affected during hibernation, which makes treating them difficult, although brief exposure to ultraviolet light has been shown to kill the fungus. This may prove to be a cure to infected colonies, although how the UV could be administered without disturbing the cave-roosting populations will take some figuring out.

It appears then that a combination of manmade causes (international travel, climate change and chemical pollution) is creating a field day for various tiny fungi or fungus-like organisms, at the expense of numerous species of fauna and flora. The culprits are so small and pervasive that there is a little hope of preventing their spread. Therefore if conventional cures cannot be found, the only hope for the likes of the kauri might be the use of genetic engineering to either give the victim resistance or to kill off the pathogen. This science fiction-sounding technology wouldn't be cheap and its knock-on effects unknown – and potentially disastrous. The former technique would presumably not be any use to the existing populations, only to the germ line cells of the next generation. Whatever happens, our short-sighted approach to the environment is certainly starting to have major repercussions. A world without the magnificent kauri, not to mention many amphibian, reptile and mammal species, would be a much poorer one.