Innovations that Will Change the World

15 Dec 2011, Posted by Steven Kotler in

Inventing New Species

How to Construct Your Own Living, Breathing, Synthetic Creatures

It has taken scientists centuries to understand the mysteries of DNA, the basic building block of life, which contains the genetic instructions that define each organism. Until recently, the furthest we had come in creating new DNA was gene splicing, essentially a cut-and-paste method of combining one organism’s DNA with another’s. The process is extremely difficult and prone to error. But what if there were a machine that could print out synthetic codes of DNA and create a new species in the process? There is. A DNA synthesizer allows would-be life hackers to modify existing organisms or build new ones.

Andrew Hessel, co-chair of Singularity University’s biotechnology and bioinformatics department, explains: “These devices can essentially combine A, C, G, T—the four bases that make up DNA—in any order you want, with the ease of a word processor. This means there’s less of a need for expensive labs, and virtually anyone can entertain the idea of creating life from scratch.” The result? Revolutionary biological innovations in months rather than years, many by novices, at a fraction of the historical cost.

What are some innovations in the offing? Vaccines that can be quickly produced to fight rapidly mutating diseases such as AIDS, or one-of-a-kind medical treatments tailored to an individual’s DNA and disease.

But health care is only the beginning. Inventor Craig Venter, who has been accused of “playing God” for being the first to create a synthetic life-form with a DNA synthesizer, has partnered with Exxon Mobil in a $600 million project to create algae that turn carbon dioxide into gasoline using the machine. Also, as the human race begins to contemplate the settling of distant worlds, a DNA synthesizer is crucial to the process. Says Simon “Pete” Worden, director of the NASA Ames Research Center, “If you’re going to be someplace like Mars for a long time, then you have two choices for resources: Either you set up a very long supply chain with Earth— which probably isn’t feasible—or you bring along a DNA synthesizer, which allows you to make everything you need using raw materials found where you are.”

There is a potential downside to all this progress. A DNA synthesizer could make it easier for anyone, from curious teenagers to dangerous psychopaths, to create sinister biological organisms that have never before appeared on Earth— meaning that if you thought the anthrax scare was bad, just wait till you see what tomorrow might bring.

Printing Out Buildings

Robotically Erecting the Supercities of Tomorrow

Robots build the cars we drive and the clothes we wear, but despite the magnificent proliferation of automation in the past millennium, robots don’t build our houses. In fact, outside of a few nifty power tools and new crane design, the construction industry has developed little innovation over the past few decades.

Behrokh Khoshnevis is about to change all that. An inventor, engineering professor and director of the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies at the University of Southern California, Khoshnevis has spent the past 10 years perfecting Contour Crafting—his name for the world’s first completely automated home – building technology. Contour Crafting uses a computer-controlled robotic arm to deposit layers of concrete atop one another. Essentially, it’s the process of printing out houses, the way an ink-jet printer layers ink.

Khoshnevis’s eventual goal—which he says is about three years and $30 million in development money away—is the ability to print a single-family home, complete with plumbing and electrical systems, in about 24 hours. Even better, these homes will cost a quarter of what conventional houses cost. When coupled with microfinance systems already in place, it makes home ownership a possibility for virtually everyone.

The houses would not be just ugly boxes. As Scott Summit, an industrial designer and co-founder of Bespoke Innovations, explains, “What Dr. Khoshnevis has figured out is a way to 3-D print with concrete. But the beauty of that is complexity—meaning elegant geometries and individual artistry don’t cost more.” Three-dimensional printing is construction through accretion, so there’s little waste (itself a huge saving, since the U.S. generates an estimated 164 million tons of construction waste annually). You pay only for materials used.

“Contour Crafting is going to introduce a level of intelligence to architecture that is significantly more scalable and accessible than anything we’ve ever seen,” says Summit.

And it’s not just single-family homes. Khoshnevis has already come up with d esigns for skyscraper-building robots. This means that those once impossible futuristic cities, with curved buildings and ridiculous skylines, are suddenly a very real possibility.

Skyscraper Farms

The Next-Gen Farm Could Look More Like the Sears Tower

Good news for the marijuana growers of the world: Those who are highly skilled in hydroponics and aeroponics are soon to be in high demand. Welcome to the brave new world of vertical farming, a redesign of our agricultural system in which crops are grown hydroponically (i.e., without soil) and aeroponically (without soil, by suspending them in air and using sprays to moisten roots) in futuristic green skyscrapers that will be situated throughout the country, mainly in urban areas.

“You know what a greenhouse looks like?” says Dickson Despommier, professor emeritus of microbiology and public health at Columbia University and author of The Vertical Farm. “Now just stack them atop one another so they rise vertically instead of stretch horizontally. They can be five stories high and three blocks long or 30 stories high and half a block long.”

By 2050, the Earth’s population will increase by 3 billion people. Feeding them, experts say, will require adding 10 billion hectares of farmland—essentially an area larger than Brazil. Arable land is now in short supply and shrinking. Proponents of vertical farms say they will solve this issue and others, too.

How does it work? First, it takes sunlight to grow crops, so these buildings are designed to receive maximum shine. Parabolic mirrors will bounce light, and the structure’s exterior will be skinned in ethylene tetrafluoroethylene, a revolutionary polymer that is extremely light, nearly bulletproof, self-cleaning and as transparent as water. Grow lights will be used, but the electricity needed will be generated by capturing the energy we now flush down our toilets. That’s right: We will recycle our own dung. “New York City alone,” says Despommier, “is shitting away 900 million kilowatts of electricity each year.”

“Vertical farms are immune to weather and other natural elements, like pests, that can abort food production,” adds Despommier. “Crops can be grown year-round under optimal conditions. And efficiency rates are astounding; each skyscraper floor equivalent to one acre in carbon footprint could produce the equivalent of 10 to 20 traditional soil-based acres while eliminating the need for fossil fuels now used for plowing, fertilizing, seeding, weeding and harvesting—a big deal since farming consumes 20 percent of all the fossil fuels used in the U.S. On top of that, we can reforest the old farmland.”

Lastly, vertical farms could radically alter our notion of fresh food. Right now the average American foodstuff travels 1,300 to 1,500 miles before being consumed. With vertical farms in and around cities, gone are the fuel costs and greenhousegas emissions generated when shipping produce. The number of days it now takes for sustenance to reach our plates will turn into the minutes it will take to walk a head of lettuce down a city block.


To Reinvent the Wheel, Lose the Driver

It’s a sunny Saturday, and Junior is driving me around Stanford University. He’s a smooth operator—making elegant turns, avoiding pedestrians. This may not sound like much, but Junior’s not your typical driver. Specifically, he’s not human. Junior is a car: a 2006 Volkswagen Passat Wagon, to be exact. More particularly, he is an autonomous vehicle, known in hacker slang as a “robocar.”

Built by a team of Stanford brains, Junior has all the standard stylings, but he also has a Velodyne HDL-64E High Definition Lidar sensor strapped to the roof—which costs $80,000 and generates 1.3 million 3-D data points of information every second. There’s an omni-directional video-camera system, five radar detectors and one of the planet’s most technologically advanced GPS systems (worth $150,000). From the passenger seat, the car looks almost normal, give or take a few foreign gizmos. Load in a destination, and off you go. The steering wheel turns, the brake pedal moves up and down, and there’s no human intervention.

Junior may sound pie in the sky for mass market, but advocates say robocars will be ferrying many of us hither and yon by 2020. Most major car companies have an autonomous car division, crafting future driverless cars right now.

The possibilities for military use are endless, but what of civilian life? You’ll never have to fill your tank (whether with hydrogen, gas or seaweed juice) because your car will take care of that for you while you sleep. During your commute you can nap or have sex with your girlfriend. And seriously, have that extra after-work martini, because you will never again have to worry about a DUI.

Brad Templeton, founder of robocars .com, points to a critical factor: “In America alone, 37,261 fatalities occurred in 2008 because of cars. Each year we spend more than $230 billion in accident costs because of human driver error.” And what of computer glitches or the possibility Junior could go over to the dark side, à la Hal 9000? Junior has a big red panic button on the dashboard that immediately disconnects the robomechanism should the car get a case of road rage.

In Vitro Meat

On the Menu: Steak Grown from Stem Cells

The meat industry is a disaster. Cattle are energy hogs, with the standard ratio of energy input to beef output being 40 to one. Ranching produces 18 percent of our planet’s greenhouse gases—more than all the cars in the world—and is one of the leading causes of soil erosion and deforestation. An even bigger issue is disease. Tightly packed herds are breeding grounds for pandemics. But with global demand for meat expected to double by 2050, the problems can get only worse. Unless something changes radically. Which it just might. There is already a solution. The bad news? No one knows what to call it. It has dozens of names: “In vitro meat” is the moniker du jour, but everything from “future flesh” to “sci-fi sausage” has been tossed around. Whatever you call it, the goal is the same: to grow steak from stem cells harvested from cows. Steak may be a while away. In 2009 scientists in the Netherlands turned pig cells into pork—though Mark Post, a professor of physiology at Eindhoven University of Technology and the lead researcher on the project, says the meat is not quite ready for market. “Actual muscle has a protein content of about 98 percent,” he says. “We’re at 85 percent right now. What we created looks like a scallop.” Post also says no one has yet tasted this particular scallop. Besides getting the texture right, there are other issues: how to scale up the bioreactors (the containers in which the meat is grown), how to mimic the nutrient-delivery service that is the body’s blood system. But scientists believe these problems are solvable. “Conventional ground beef will always be bad for you,” says Jason Matheny, founder of New Harvest, a nonprofit research organization working to develop in vitro meat. “You can’t turn a cow into a salmon, but cultured meat allows us to do just that. With in vitro meat we can create a hamburger that prevents heart attacks rather than one that causes them.”

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