The world is changing fast, and it can be hard to keep up with all the various technologies being developed at any one time. From agriculture to medicine to energy, advancements are being made every day — and some of them will change the world as we know it.
In this post, we’ll focus on technologies with the potential to change the world for the better.
While they’re still small seeds just beginning to sprout green shoots, there’s more evidence that the subject of making A.I. into a true force for good is starting to gain momentum. For example, starting this semester, the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) will be teaching a new class, titled “Artificial Intelligence for Social Good.” It touches on many of the topics you’d expect from a graduate and undergraduate class — optimization, game theory, machine learning, and sequential decision making — and will look at these through the lens of how each will impact society. The course will also challenge students to build their own ethical A.I. projects, giving them real world experience with creating potentially life-changing A.I.
“A.I. is the blooming field with tremendous commercial success, and most people benefit from the advances of A.I. in their daily lives,” says Professor Fei Fang. “At the same time, people also have various concerns, ranging from potential job loss to privacy and safety issues to ethical issues and biases. However, not enough awareness has been raised regarding how A.I. can help address societal challenges.”
“The most important takeaway is that A.I. can be used to address pressing societal challenges, and can benefit society now and in the near future,” Fang said. “And it relies on the students to identify these challenges, to formulate them into clearly defined problems, and to develop A.I. methods to help address them.”
Whatever your stance on vegetarianism or eating meat, it cannot be disputed that our current system of acquiring meat is unsustainable. Large amounts of resources are poured into feeding, slaughtering, and transporting animals — and it wastes massive amounts of water and energy. The animals we raise also produce large amounts of methane gas, which is a significant contributor to climate change.
However, it’s not realistic to imagine a future where humans are not eating meat. Humans are diverse eaters, and we could sure survive without meat, but there is a culture of meat in most parts of the world that cannot be erased. To answer this, there is in vitro meat.
Professor of Molecular Biology at Stanford University Pat Brown, had this to say in an interview with The Guardian, “I have zero interest in making a new food just for vegans. I am making a food for people who are comfortable eating meat and who want to continue eating meat. I want to reduce the human footprint on this planet by 50 percent.”
This technology may be years away from mass production, but when it arrives, it could change everything.
As we run out of gasoline, alternative energy sources are a place that many companies are beginning to invest. It’s an area of growth, and it’s where our future is. Solar energy is perhaps the most prolific of the alternative energy sources.
Solar panels have been around for a while, but they’re not very efficient.
The most efficient solar panels of 2014 reach 44.7% efficiency, but most mainstream solar panels are even lower than that. There’s enormous room for improvement, and it’s really starting to boom. Many experts, such as Professor David Mills who co-founded Ausra Inc., believe that solar energy has the potential to compete with fossil fuels in the near future. In an interview with Scientific American, Professor Mills said:
With the right tax policies, such as a mechanism for pricing the cost of carbon, there is no reason solar thermal power cannot be cost-competitive with fossil fuels in the near future.
As with many of these technologies, prices have been dropping quickly, and it could soon be plausible for the average homeowner to install solar panels on their home and become completely energy independent.
Storing large amounts of energy is hard. This has been one of the major challenges for alternative energy sources, which generate energy at varying times. For example, solar panels generate a lot of energy during the day, but none at night, and wind turbines generate energy at extremely random rates. Sometimes there is too much energy from these sources, and at other times too little. But for these sources to replace coal and oil, they need effective storage.
Many ideas are in play here, including regular flow and solid batteries, but the most exciting emerging technology is even newer graphene supercapacitors. These supercapacitors can store large amounts of energy and disperse it quickly, far outpacing our regular electric batteries, and graphene makes an environmentally friendly and relatively cost efficient material for that. Development is ongoing, but the research is promising.
We’re running out of fresh water. I know this sounds weird in a world that is mostly water, but unfortunately all of our oceans are salt water. Desalination has existed for a while, but it’s been expensive and not viable as a reliable source of water – yet.
When salt water is converted into fresh water, brine is leftover. That brine is full of salt but also many different kinds of metals, and while it’s generally treated as waste, new methods of extracting the metals from desalination brine could make use of all of that “waste”. If it becomes economically feasible to extract metals from desalination brine rather than mining them elsewhere, the positive gain from that could offset the costs of desalination.