The world is a mess, and I just need to rule it

I find antagonists far more interesting than protagonists. Often the motivations of the hero are only briefly considered or developed, as these motivations are pretty two-dimensional and obvious. After all, who needs a reason to do something good? I’m more interested in the antagonists, the ones who dedicate their life to something the rest of the population opposes, the ones we love to hate, or hate to love, and are motivated by a complex interactions of thoughts, feelings and history.

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Should I stay or should I go?

When I first saw the teaser trailer for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, I knew it was a movie that I wanted to see. It was a simple trailer in terms of special effects and action, but it spoke deeply and directly to the audience. When the first trailer came out, there was very little information on the plot, but I knew it had to do with space travel, and took place in a bleak future. I was especially struck with the line “The world doesn’t need any more engineers. We didn’t run out of planes and television sets. We ran out of food.” This line cemented my desire to watch the film – I was excited to see a science fiction film rooted in science fact, and I was also worried that this movie would give off the wrong impression of what engineers do to the public.

I won’t give away the plot of Interstellar for those who have not yet seen it (and if you haven’t yet, I highly encourage you to go). I just want to talk about my thoughts on the themes presented in the movie, mainly space exploration and engineering and science.

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Random thoughts on the Near-Future

I finally decided to sit down and watch Spoke Jonze’s newest movie, Her. In case you haven’t seen the trailer or heard about the movie, Her is basically a science-fiction romance, where a man falls in love with his Artificial Intelligent Operating System. What you would expect to be some sort of comedy is, at its heart, quite the emotionally intense drama. I really enjoyed Her for a variety of reasons (although I can’t help but wonder if the story would have the same effect if it was a woman who fell in love with a male A.I.).

While I described the movie as a science-fiction movie, the story certainly doesn’t have the typical sci-fi clichés that one sees all over Hollywood these days. The movie itself, while featuring an A.I. character, does revolve around future technology. What I mean is that in these blockbuster movies we see these days, the entire story actually revolves around the setting – post-apocalyptic earth, giant robot death machines, space ships, etc. Oftentimes, sci-fi movies attract attention because of the setting itself, not the characters (and for various reasons, but I won’t go into that now). The setting defines the movie. In Her, the setting: the near-future, is only a setting, and it’s the characters that we are interested in.

Furthermore, this setting isn’t in the far-flung future, but in the near future, a future where people still go to the beach, take walks in the park, carry a mobile device. It’s a future that we can connect too, because it seems extremely probably. This near-future setting enhances our connection to the story, because even though we know it’s sci-fi, we know it’s completely possible (and indeed, could be happening now). We easily connect to the setting, because it’s familiar, and it helps connect us to the characters themselves. Even though some things have changed, we’re all the same humans as before.

Now, I could write a whole post on how the movie considers the topic of what it means to be human, human-technology interactions and the Singularity. But I assume that there are dozens of articles out on the webs about these topics. All I want to say on the topic is that this movie provides a refreshing view of a “positive/optimistic” future and reminds us that even in the future, humans will still be relevant. I highly recommend it, and I think I am a growing fan of near-future stories (see: Robot and Frank).

What I wanted to talk about is our concepts of the near-future. After all, what we imagine today will most likely be reality tomorrow (which is why have such an interest in the sci-fi genre). I think it’s interesting (and perfectly valid) that most near-future conceptions feature a very electronically advanced society. Many things are automated, humans have perfected alternate reality and we have devices that can interact with each other. But as an Environmental Engineering student, I often see the term “technology” in a non-traditional light. For Environmental Engineers (and other professions that deal with the natural/built environment), technology not only includes electronics and computers, it also includes natural processes. We use soil, microbes, air, and water in much the same way as electrical engineers use wires, resistors and capacitors – as tools and parts to achieve a goal. So I got to thinking, what about a biologically advanced near-future, what would that look like? Yes, there are plenty of futures that feature genetically modified organisms or electrical implants, etc. But what about the near future, what about the artificial limbs and such? What about the renewable energy? How would we envision such a world?

You may be thinking that we already do envision such worlds, and that’s true. But I think when we think of the future, we immediately think about an electronic future, not necessarily a biological one. For instance, the concept of the Smart City is popular these days. A Smart City has a Smart Grid – a grid that has many sensors and is able to best allocate energy/resources to where they are needed the most at any time of day. A Smart City understand the needs of the population and can respond accordingly. But what about a Biological City? What about a city that is so in tune with its surrounding environment, that, it has learned to tap into natural processes for support? A city where our heating comes from renewable energy, or microbes, a city that produces light not from light bulbs, but from phosphorescence? It is certainly a harder future to imagine (and arguably a much scarier one), but a future worth thinking about.

But the two aren’t mutually exclusive. We certainly use biotech and electrical tech together all the time, and I think it is in this intersection, that we can unlock the most possibilities. I certainly encourage people to think about the world they want to see, and strive for it. But in this rapid advancement of technology, I think we should give a little more credibility to the impact that nature and biological technology (as it deals with humans, society and the environment) can have on our near-future. And in the midst of it all, we should remember that at the heart of the story are the characters, not the setting.

The Division of Districts and People

After watching the latest Hunger Games movie, Catching Fire, one of the many things I began wondering was  “How did 12 Districts come to be?” For those who aren’t familiar with the Hunger Games Trilogy (don’t worry, I haven’t read any of the books), the nation of Panem is a dystopian North America divided into 12 Districts, corresponding to area and commodity produced. District 12, located most likely in the Appalachian region (my guess), focuses on coal mining, other districts harvest lumber, raise livestock, grow crops, engineer electronics, or design jewelry/textiles. My guess is that aside from political turmoil, the Districts were mainly divided based on natural resource. In a dystopian world where efficiency is highly stressed, it would make sense simply to focus all industry on the one resource most abundant in the region. This got me thinking, what other ways could one divide North American, or any other land mass for that matter?

I should first state that I am no history expert and have never taken a political science course, so my knowledge of how the actual state divisions of the United States came to be is minimal. I can only guess that since we have both squiggly lines and unnatural straight lines dividing our fifty states, that the states were divided by a combination of natural landmarks (mountain ranges and rivers) and political disputes (that straight line between the U.S. and Canada sure looks suspicious). The age of imperialism is over (at least, I’m pretty sure it is), so we won’t be seeing any redivisions of political powers, but I wonder if given the chance to do it all over again, would there be a better way to divide the world? I say “better” in the most subjective sense, as the world we have now is a product of hundreds, if not thousands of years of history, and has been studied intently by historians. I am merely a curious citizen of the world wishing to spend a little of his mental energy on a completely hypothetical situation.

The Washington Post posted an article which re-divided North America into 11 nation-states. Colin Woodard, the architect of the reimagined States, based his borders on cultural and political beliefs as well as historical events and dialects. His nations bear names such as The Midlands, Greater Appalachia, and the incredibly original, “The Left Coast.” Because the divisions were based partly on the founding cultures, you find “New France” including present day Quebec, Eastern Canada…and southern Louisiana (home to Baton Rouge and New Orleans). To include a personal anecdote, I was somewhat surprised to find that even though I had moved from my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin to study in Ithaca, New York, under Woodard’s North America, I was still solidly in Yankeedom.

Source: FastCo

John Lavey based his version of the United States on watersheds. Our current state boundaries are quite inefficient in the division of natural resources, and water is certainly no exception. Some southern states have been in conflict over watersheds as water scarcity grows. Lavey’s U.S. seeks to avoid resource-centered conflict by dividing the fifty states based on where the state’s water comes from. This way, states can focus on their own watersheds without worrying that their water supply is being polluted from nearby states, or if their hard-earned treated water is serving other states instead of its own citizens. Interestingly, such a map was proposed during the early years of the nation, but was quickly shot down by the rail road lobby, probably because building winding railroads was far more expensive than straight ones. Still, it seems that dividing political boundaries based on natural resources would seem like a reasonable thing to do.

Similarily, Biohabitats, an ecological restoration and regenerative design firm, structures their administrative network based on “bioregions” – areas of similar ecological attributes. In this way, they can better distribute their employees to fully recognize the importance of interweaving processes and communities.

While we aren’t going to see any redistributed political boundaries anytime soon in the well-established nations, regions of conflict such as the middle east or parts of Africa constantly struggle with these issues. There are always cultures who seek land to call their own in order to seek legitimacy by other nations. Unfortunately, such conflicts are solidly based on historical events, and are not fought with the future in mind. Perhaps dividing states based on things such as environmental resources would be wiser. To a certain effect, boundaries based on cultures also considers the importance of sustainability (as cultures who have existed in these regions have no doubt discovered resources nearby). Then again, if every distinct culture had their own nation-state, the United Nations would be looking at a lot of membership applications.

One thing to keep in mind is that although the area you grew up influences who you are, it does not define you wholly, and it does not determine where you will be for the rest of your life. The moment your life is determined solely by where you were born and who your parents were is the moment our society regressed back into medieval times. Then again, such a structure exists now in many parts of the world. The division of states should not mean the division of people.

(Note: if you are looking for something to watch, you should definitely check out the Battlestar Galactica Episode, “Dirty Hands,” which deals a lot with inherent class divisions in a society wracked with conflict. Also, if you have any other examples of re-imagined boundaries, I would love to see them.)

Changing Nature to Protect Nature

Source: dublin.sciencegallery.com

What we used to call Nature is no more. Almost every part of the world has been changed due to human activity, whether by direct action, or by the indirect change of the global climate. The mark of humanity is distinctly imprinted upon the Earth, for better and for worse. As stewards of the planet wracked with a guilty conscious, many humans have tried to preserve the nature that was once untouched by humanity. Designer Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg suggests a non-typical approach – what if we drastically change the natural world in order to ‘protect’ it?

By bringing together the knowledge of Ecologists and Synthetic Biologists, Ginsberg designed an exhibit, Designing for the Sixth Extinction, featuring synthetic organisms created to protect other organisms and foster biodiversity. It may seem quite paradoxical to introduce artificial organisms in order to take care of naturally occurring organisms, but it’s something that is worth examining.

Ginsberg’s creatures include a slug that neutralizes acidic soil by secreting alkali, a porcupine-like creature with sticky spines to catch seeds of endangered plants and disperse them as it moves, a self-inflating membrane that bursts when detecting tree-damaging pathogens in order to inject serum into the tree, and a biofilm that absorbs pollutants and viruses on leaves. Ginsberg’s solutions, while very non-traditional, seem to me quite elegant, in an eerie kind of way. Of course, one has to get over the fact that these are genetically engineering organisms, bred for a certain purpose. The fact that these organisms will also have a genetic kill switch is also unsettling, and raises many ethical questions (well, the whole area of Synthetic Biology raises many ethical questions). But the kill switch is necessary in order to limit any unforeseen effects on the ecosystem in question. Ginsberg insists that these organisms would work only in closed ecosystems, but is that enough to protect other natural areas from unwanted effects of these synthetic organisms? How could one safely test such “products?”

Like much of art, Ginsberg’s designs are meant more to spur conversation and thought than to be actual plans for implementation. But nevertheless, the technology for creating synthetic organisms is arriving at a rapid pace. In an interview, Ginsberg mentioned that a scientist she conversed with explained that scientists already can engineer bacteria to perform certain tasks, and they are releasing them into the environment, it’s only natural (see what I did there?) to assume that the next step will be larger life-forms.

Source: dublin.sciencegallery.com

Ginsberg’s designs were envisioned to be used by corporations in order to effectively clean up any of the environmental damage they may have caused. This would mean that the organisms would be patented by corporations. In a sense, nature would be commoditized and these clean-up creatures would be sold as products. This is a radically different nature than one that many of us are comfortable with. A commodified nature, where we can create certain elements and introduce them into the wild. The planet would have an entirely new ecosystem, shaped by humanity (a prime example of Nextnature). While such strategies could be efficient in reaching multiple targets without human oversight, the unforeseen consequences (both environmental and social) could be numerous.

Perhaps it isn’t necessarily the synthetic organisms that are the key topic of conversation, but the design of the solution. The reason why Ginsberg’s designs could be appealing is because these organisms could function on their own, make their own decisions, and provide the desired results without much human oversight. Once released into the wild, the organism does it’s thing and humans won’t have to worry about it every again. This is a far different approach than how human currently implement solutions. Today’s solutions require constant oversight and maintenance. Often, humans don’t feel comfortable about a plan unless they have full control over the outcome. But Ginsberg’s creatures present a different method of design. Could we design solutions, not necessarily synthetic organisms, but perhaps machines, that respond to environmental stimuli? Nature works on bio-feedback loops, could we design products and systems that also utilize feedback loops in order to continue function and provide desired results? I am reminded of Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests, mobile wooden frames that act incredibly life-like, moving in response to the wind around them. Jansen even said so himself that his dream was to one day release his Strandbeests into the wild and have them survive on their own. Could we design systems that self-regulate? For instance, for temperature control systems, could we design microbes that would emit heat when the environment was too cold, or consume heat when the environment was too hot? Instead of having the human have to directly control every aspect of function, could we design things that respond on their own? If the flow of the pipe is too low, could the pipe constrict as to maintain a constant velocity? How can we start designing to relinquish control and tap into environmental systems as sources of power and decision making? Should we do such a thing?

As the exhibit’s website posits, “Can we ‘preserve’ by looking forward?”

(More images of Ginsberg’s Designs can be found here)

Loading Program…Earth.System

Arthur C. Clarke’s third law states, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Rachel Armstrong, the Living Architect, expanded on this idea, saying, “Any sufficiently advanced civilization is indistinguishable from nature.” These ideas remind us that technology (and civilization) is advancing at rapid rates, and before we know it, it will become unrecognizable when compared to its present forms. I, for one, find this quite exciting. It’s a concept that has been explored in many science fiction universes, and has been evident throughout history.

Researchers from the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa revealed a machine that mimics the functions of plant roots. The machine can “grow” roots by unwinding materials to penetrate the soil. It can sense environmental conditions and adjust growth accordingly, following a similar systematic behavior found in plant roots (roots don’t grow randomly, and part of the research is determining how roots behave). Another aspect of the PLANTOID project is to harvest energy from the environment in a more efficient way, similar to how natural roots harvest energy for the plant. A root-like system that can reliable pull power from the environment without environmental harm could be very valuable. Other applications for such a system include medical uses (a flexible endoscope that can grow into a patient) or space travel (by utilizing the root’s anchoring and exploratory properties).

The PLANTOID system responding to varying environmental inputs. Source: Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa

If successful, we could have a world where plant-like energy harvesters “grow” side-by-side to trees and other plants. We may simply need to “plug” our appliances into the soil and generate energy. To an outsider, it would look like we were actually tapping into the Earth for power, perhaps by magical means (admit it, it’d make for a great sci-fi setting).

Our current practice of resource extraction is quickly becoming obsolete. The Earth System is a beautiful machine (forgive the lifeless analogy) that includes powerful forces. The coming revolution of renewable energy is a new paradigm, a paradigm of tapping into the Earth System instead of draining it. The wind, the waves, and to a point, the sun, is all run on this Earth System. The soil, the microbes, the chemical environment, it all relies on these forces, and instead of extracting these resources we are now working with these forces to generate the energy we need. Technology isn’t taking over nature, it will become nature, and nature will become technology. I just hope I will be able to contribute to this changing paradigm.

Computing with Water

Water seems like such a mundane material, yet it covers roughly 70% of the Earth’s surface area and is essential to sustain all living organisms on this planet. Water is used in many basic chemical reactions, but in its purest form, doesn’t do anything exciting. That’s why I found this article: Gardens as Crypto-Water-Computers, written by Alexander Trevi, so interesting. Trevi describes a 1949 invention called the Phillips Machine, which used a network of intricately connected tubes, valves, tanks, pumps, ect. to model the flow of money in the economy. But this machine wasn’t powered by electricity, it ran on water – just water. By adjusting certain valves and water levels (which represented values such as the amount of money in certain sectors, or tax rates) the Phillips Machine could predict how the economy would react by using hydraulics. I found this concept intriguing and…fantastical. Using the properties of water to create a dynamic feedback system? It seems like something that would come out of a fairytale, a very technically knowledgeable fairytale.

Only 14 Philips Machines were ever built, although Trevi’s article mentions Vladimir Lukyanov’s water computer which was built in 1936. The concept seems so foreign to us modern day folk, but to fully appreciate these marvels, we have to look at context. During this time, digital technology was still in its nascent stages and it was still unclear as to how successful electronics would be in solving complex equations. While the United States and Europe decided to pursue Digital computing, the Soviet Union invested in analog computing, producing such inventions such as Lukyanov’s water computer. Lukyanov’s invention was solving equations that were impossible to solve for half a century…and it was solving them with water. This was a time where scientists were unsure which was better – digital or analog computing – and our world would develop extremely differently based on which won.

A novel called Ada, written by Vladamir Nobokov, takes place in an alternate world where analog computing is the norm, ever since electricity was banned since the mysterious “L-disaster.” Instead of electricity, everything is powered by water. I’m not sure how technically feasible the technology featured in the novel is, but it certainly makes one being to wonder the possibilities of analog computing, if only it was further researched.

Trevi’s article also speculates as to the possibilities of analog computing at grander scales. The aristocratic gardens of Europe – designed with intricate artificial streams and fountains – could be seen as some sort of giant machine that takes measurements of the world. The designs of the gardens could be viewed as circuitboards. In a following article, Trevi explores this concept further by bringing up research on logic gates powered by water – a field known as fluidics. Just looking at the maps of these marvelous gardens, one can easily make the leap to seeing the maps as diagrams of circuitry.

While analog computing now seems extremely impractical, I can’t help but wonder what technical and aesthetic marvels we could create using these concepts. Entire cities with rivers flowing through them could be a giant computer, taking data and producing valuable calculations. Imagine how we can utilize this concept to create responsive infrastructures without electricity. Despite the infeasibility, I can’t help but have my imagination run wild, the stories I could tell. Imagine a secret society of scientists in early modern Europe, commissioning these mysterious gardens to be built behind their lavish estates. Their goal: to uncover the secret to life using these water computers.

I would post more pictures of these water computers, but I don’t want to steal all of them from Trevi’s article. I encourage you to read both of his articles for yourself. While it’s fun to imagine what life would be like if analog computing had taken over digital computing, we should also consider what possibilities fluidics can bring to future technologies. I’m always a fan of technology that requires no electricity to operate (such as AguaClara’s gravity-powered water filtration plants). We are surrounded by so many interesting physical, chemical and biological phenomena to power future technologies, why limit ourselves to just electricity?