Reflections on “Crossing the Imaginary Line”

Early September, Environmental Science & Technology, a prestigious journal of the environmental engineering field, published an editorial titled “Crossing the Imaginary Line.” The editorial, written by Editor-in-Chief, Prof. David Sedlak, argues that environmental engineering academics should not cross the “imaginary line” that separates the “dispassionate researcher from the environmental activist” as it threatens the objectivity of research and discourages funding for basic research. Or in other words, by advocating for a certain environmental position, the researcher risks academic integrity, and retaliation from funding sources and political entities. The question of not only the researcher’s, but the engineering practitioner’s ethical responsibility to the public has long been debated within the engineering community. The appearance of this editorial in such a major publication has sparked much debate between environmental engineering researchers across the country.

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Despite my lack of experience and not being a researcher, I wish to express my thoughts regarding this topic from the perspective of a student still very much in the nascent stages of his career as a practicing engineer, as the ethical responsibility of engineering is often skimmed over in engineering coursework, and always deserves more attention. In addition to my own thoughts, I will include in my discussion the written responses from Prof. Marc Edwards and the Flint Water Study, Prof. Charles Haas, and Ph.D. student Maya Carrasquillo. These responses, along with the original editorial, offer an array of perspectives and help inform my own as I attempt to shape an opinion.

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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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Our Magical World

The most common criticism of the fantasy genre is that it can lead to unhealthy escapism. Why settle for the boring, drab world in which you live, when you could immerse yourself in a world full of flying beasts, floating cities, and big baddies that need to be taken down? For me, fantasy stories are sources of inspiration – why can’t we built floating cities? Fantasy, by definition, revolves on places and things that have never been, and most reasonably, never will be. But that doesn’t mean that Fantasy isn’t based on real world people, locations, or history. However, it can be easy to forget that the world we live in isn’t really drab or boring, it’s teeming with all sorts of life and features bizarre locales. At times, it seems magical.

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park (Source: Matthias Kabe, wikimedia commons)

Taking inspiration from life to influence design is called Biomimicry. For example, scientists study the tardigrade to learn how the creature survives in such extreme environments (such as the vacuum of space)  to design materials to protect humans in similar environments. Extreme environments, such as Deserts or the Arctic, are great areas to find inspiration. For instance, the Atacama Desert, which receives just a few millimeters of rain per year, hosts plants that have adapted by harvesting marine fog. Microorganisms in the high-pressure deep sea have developed thick waxy cell membranes. Other organisms have evolved resistances to high alkalinity, cold, heat, and even radiation. There are numerous examples of biomimetic designs and unique creatures. You can find some of them at the Ask Nature, a site developed by the Biomimicry Institute.

Similarly, we can also take inspiration from the environments themselves. The Earth features many types of ecosystems, some of which are quite bizarre and look like they belong in a fantasy world rather than our world. Through a combination of biology, geology, and chemistry, magical ecosystems can result.

The previously mentioned Atacama Desert has incredibly salty soil. The salt crystals in the soil attract water from the air, allowing microbes to gain access to water. Mono Lake in California has soil and water full of toxic metals due to mine runoff. The water is highly saline, has a high pH, and has dangerous levels of arsenic.  Even so, brine shrimp live in these waters, and eat bacteria and plants adapted to these levels. It is one example of arsenic-based life.

Oklo Natural Nuclear Reactor (Source: Andreas Mittler, http://www.ans.org/pi/np/oklo/)

In a uranium mine in Oklo, Gabon, Africa, a French nuclear community noticed small but significant amount of Uranium-235, an isotope used in nuclear power reactors. Uranium is a key ingredient for nuclear reactors, which work on the principle of nuclear fission (splitting an atom to release the energy inside). Commercial reactors need at least 3% of U-235 to function. The land in Oklo reached 3% U-235 and with the assistance of the surrounding groundwater, started a naturally occurring nuclear fission reactor. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the reactor stopped about a million years ago, but scientists are studying the site to see how natural environments are dealing with the radioactive materials to inform how to deal with man-made nuclear waste.

Blood Falls (Source: United States Antarctic Program, http://photolibrary.usap.gov/)

The Blood Falls is a popular unique system. Located in Antarctical, the Blood Falls flows from a trapped lake high in salinity and iron (which gives the red color). Within the red water, microbes have evolved independently from the rest of the world, and have adapted to exist in an environment with no light, little heat, and no oxygen. You can find additional examples of natural wonders at Atlas Obscura.

There are also naturally occurring phenomena, such as bioluminescent bays, waterspouts or fire whirls, which, while not as inspiring in an engineering context, exemplify the marvelous danger of nature.

These locations offer insight into solving many engineering challenges. Often times, while engineers struggle with challenges, the Earth has already found a solution (after all, the Earth has been around much longer than we, as humans, have). In an earlier blog post, I mentioned the design of wastewater treatment plant based on the biogeochemical cycle of a lake with high pH to produce a purer Syngas and byproduct for cement production. By studying how these ecosystems function, we have opportunities for engineering designs that emulate these environments and incorporate natural processes and resources. We can also develop methods of utilizing unique ecosystems for the benefit of society by having them serve as “naturally occurring factories.” Our world is full of natural wonders that we can learn from to engineer systems that work with our environment, rather than against it. By doing this, we could actually create places we never thought would have existed. Our world is a magical place, we can contribute to the magic. 

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.

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.

Interview with the Biobulb Team

Still can’t decide whether or not to support the Biobulb Team? Well, I had the chance to ask two of the members of the team some questions about their project and their thoughts on Synthetic  Biology. Alexandra Cohn (Referred in the interview as AC) is a Junior at the University of Wisconsin – Madison studying Genetics and Philosophy. Michael Zaiken (MZ) is a Junior also at the UW, studying Biochemistry (the third member is AnaElise Beckman, a Junior studying Anthropology and Neurobiology). After reading through this interview, I’m sure you will be motivated to do something to help the team out!

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