Category Archives: social implications

Ageing population could drive progress in nanotechnology and robotics

A couple of theoreticians are proposing a generational gap as being a key source of conflict and technological process in the near future. From a July 27, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

The UN estimates that the number of people aged 65 and older will have reached almost a billion by 2030. The proportion of those aged over 80 will grow at particularly high rates, and their numbers are expected to reach 200 million by 2030 and triple that forty years later.

Due to a combination of an ageing population and declining birthrates, the demographic structure of most countries will change towards lower proportions of children and young people. As a result, the global division will no longer be between first- and third-world nations [also called developed and developing nations], but between old and young ones.

A July 25, 2016 National Research University Higher School of Economics [Russia] press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

According to the report of Senior Research Fellow of the HSE [Higher School of Economics] Laboratory for Monitoring the Risks of Socio-Political Destabilization Leonid Grinin and Senior Research Fellow of the International Centre for Education, Social and Humanitarian Studies Anton Grinin “Global Population Ageing and the Threat of Political Risks in the Light of Radical Technological Innovation in the Coming Decades.”, an increase in the number of older people will:

  • encourage societies facing workforce shortages to seek solutions to improve older people’s employability by helping them stay healthy, fit and full of energy for much longer than today;
  • encourage societies to focus more on rehabilitation of people with disabilities and provide them with new technology to support their employment;
  • encourage the development of labour-saving technologies, such as robotics, to assist caregivers;
  • lead to breakthroughs in medicine. Indeed, medical services will be the first to enter a new phase of technological revolution, radically changing the structure of production and people’s lives. Such a breakthrough will be associated what the authors call MANBRIC, i.e. a technological paradigm based on medicine, additive, nano- and bio- technologies, robotic, IT, and cognitive technologies;
  • boost government spending on healthcare, which today accounts for at least 10% of global GDP and can vary vastly across countries, e.g. reaching 17% in the U.S.;
  • promote the development of peripheral countries through higher spending on health care, leading to the emergence of a middle class, poverty reduction, literacy, and a better quality of life;
  • increase the demand for innovation and its financing from accumulated funds such as pensions and public allocations to medical and social needs;
  • lead to higher investment in supporting the health of ageing populations and the growing middle class.

Longevity Comes at a Cost

A confrontation between generations in the labor market and the weakening of democracy are the key risks associated with longer life expectancy.

Longer life spans and a lower proportion of young people in society may lead to the predominance of ‘third age’ voters. Politicians will need to tailor their messages to older and perhaps more conservative electorates. According to the researchers, “democracy can transform into a form of gerontocracy which may be hard to overcome; under such circumstances, competition for voters may lead to a crisis of democratic governance.”

A conflict between generations is another potential risk. As the retirement age increases, older employees will stay in the workforce longer – a situation which may hinder younger people’s careers and slow down technological progress.

A tendency towards gerontocracy has been particularly noticeable in Western Europe and the U.S., where democratic traditions are the strongest, but ethnic and cultural imbalances are increasingly visible. As a result, the U.S. may face confrontation between its younger Latinos and older white populations, and Europe may experience tensions between older white Christians and younger Muslims. Hence, globalization will inevitably cause such conflicts to transcend national borders and become global challenges.

I was not able to find the report mentioned in this release but I certainly would have liked to have looked at it. This redraws the conflict map in some interesting ways.

Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) at summer 2016 World Economic Forum in China

From the Ideas Lab at the 2016 World Economic Forum at Davos to offering expertise at the 2016 World Economic Forum in Tanjin, China that is taking place from June 26 – 28, 2016.

Here’s more from a June 24, 2016 KAIST news release on EurekAlert,

Scientific and technological breakthroughs are more important than ever as a key agent to drive social, economic, and political changes and advancements in today’s world. The World Economic Forum (WEF), an international organization that provides one of the broadest engagement platforms to address issues of major concern to the global community, will discuss the effects of these breakthroughs at its 10th Annual Meeting of the New Champions, a.k.a., the Summer Davos Forum, in Tianjin, China, June 26-28, 2016.

Three professors from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) will join the Annual Meeting and offer their expertise in the fields of biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and robotics to explore the conference theme, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution and Its Transformational Impact.” The Fourth Industrial Revolution, a term coined by WEF founder, Klaus Schwab, is characterized by a range of new technologies that fuse the physical, digital, and biological worlds, such as the Internet of Things, cloud computing, and automation.

Distinguished Professor Sang Yup Lee of the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department will speak at the Experts Reception to be held on June 25, 2016 on the topic of “The Summer Davos Forum and Science and Technology in Asia.” On June 27, 2016, he will participate in two separate discussion sessions.

In the first session entitled “What If Drugs Are Printed from the Internet?” Professor Lee will discuss the future of medicine being impacted by advancements in biotechnology and 3D printing technology with Nita A. Farahany, a Duke University professor, under the moderation of Clare Matterson, the Director of Strategy at Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom. The discussants will note recent developments made in the way patients receive their medicine, for example, downloading drugs directly from the internet and the production of yeast strains to make opioids for pain treatment through systems metabolic engineering, and predicting how these emerging technologies will transform the landscape of the pharmaceutical industry in the years to come.

In the second session, “Lessons for Life,” Professor Lee will talk about how to nurture life-long learning and creativity to support personal and professional growth necessary in an era of the new industrial revolution.

During the Annual Meeting, Professors Jong-Hwan Kim of the Electrical Engineering School and David Hyunchul Shim of the Aerospace Department will host, together with researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and AnthroTronix, an engineering research and development company, a technological exhibition on robotics. Professor Kim, the founder of the internally renowned Robot World Cup, will showcase his humanoid micro-robots that play soccer, displaying their various cutting-edge technologies such as imaging processing, artificial intelligence, walking, and balancing. Professor Shim will present a human-like robotic piloting system, PIBOT, which autonomously operates a simulated flight program, grabbing control sticks and guiding an airplane from take offs to landings.

In addition, the two professors will join Professor Lee, who is also a moderator, to host a KAIST-led session on June 26, 2016, entitled “Science in Depth: From Deep Learning to Autonomous Machines.” Professors Kim and Shim will explore new opportunities and challenges in their fields from machine learning to autonomous robotics including unmanned vehicles and drones.

Since 2011, KAIST has been participating in the World Economic Forum’s two flagship conferences, the January and June Davos Forums, to introduce outstanding talents, share their latest research achievements, and interact with global leaders.

KAIST President Steve Kang said, “It is important for KAIST to be involved in global talks that identify issues critical to humanity and seek answers to solve them, where our skills and knowledge in science and technology could play a meaningful role. The Annual Meeting in China will become another venue to accomplish this.”

I mentioned KAIST and the Ideas Lab at the 2016 Davos meeting in this Nov. 20, 2015 posting and was able to clear up my (and possible other people’s) confusion as to what the Fourth Industrial revolution might be in my Dec. 3, 2015 posting.

Societal implications of emerging technologies (a Washington, D.C. event)

Here are the details about this book launch event,

Assessing the Societal Implications of Emerging Technologies: Book Launch

Please join us for the launch of Evan Michelson’s new book, Assessing the Societal Implications of Emerging Technologies: Anticipatory Governance in Action, which offers tangible insights into strategies deployed by well-known, high-profile organizations involved in anticipating the societal and policy implications of nanotechnology and synthetic biology.

The book lays out one of the first actionable roadmaps that interested stakeholders can follow when working toward institutionalizing anticipatory governance practices throughout the policymaking process.

David Rejeski, director of the Science & Technology Innovation Program at the Wilson Center, will lead the discussion. A light lunch will be served at noon.

For more information, please visit:
https://www.routledge.com/products/9781138123434

Speakers:

Evan Michelson, author, Assessing the Societal Implications of Emerging Technologies

David Rejeski, Director, Science and Technology Innovation Program

Thursday, June 9th, 2016
12:00pm – 1:30pm

5th Floor Conference Room

Wilson Center
Ronald Reagan Building and
International Trade Center
One Woodrow Wilson Plaza
1300 Pennsylvania, Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20004

If planning to attend in person, you can RSVP here.

Unfortunately, there is no indication as to whether or not the event will be livestreamed or webcast at a later date.

I have found a little more information about the author, Evan Michelson on the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation website,

Evan S. Michelson, Ph.D. is a Program Director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Dr. Michelson is responsible for overseeing the Foundation’s Energy and Environment Program, which seeks to advance understanding about the economic, environmental, security, and policy tradeoffs associated with the increased deployment of low- and no-carbon resources and technologies across the energy system. He also manages the Foundation’s grantmaking to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (IV), an international astrophysics research collaboration focused on exploring the evolution and structure of the universe, the formation of stars and galaxies, the history of the Milky Way, and the science behind dark matter.

Enjoy!

Public relations (PR) and nanotechnology

Shannon Bowen of the University of South Carolina has written an March 18, 2016 essay about public relations (PR) and nanotechnology for PR Week,

As a responsible public relations professional, you try to be proactive, keeping up with changes in technology and the resulting demands from your organization or clients. More companies are becoming involved in nanotechnology, and PR pros should not treat the subject as some black hole from which to run. Issues surrounding nanotechnology will have to be dealt with, from media relations to issues management to ethics. Like neurotechnology, the field of nanotechnology is growing at an exponential rate. It is so new that no one is really sure what development will come next — nanotech researchers are currently developing specialty areas such as nanobiology, nanopharmacology, and nanorobots.

Maybe your organization or client has no interest in nanotechnology yet, but as an up-to-date PR pro, you should be able to help separate myth or fear from fact if needed. The implications of nanotechnology in the medical field alone are numerous. In the book The Future of the Mind, physicist Michio Kaku writes of nanobots:

“On the surface, the nanobot is simple: an atomic machine with arms and clippers that grabs molecules, cuts them at specific points, and then splices them back together. By cutting and pasting various atoms, the nanobot can create almost any know molecule, like a magician pulling something out of a hat. It can also self-reproduce, so it is necessary to build only one nanobot. This nanobot will then take raw materials, digest them, and create millions of other nanobots.”

Bowen seems to have discovered nanotechnology relatively recently and seems not to realize how prevalent nanotechnology-enabled products are already,

Soon, nanotech will be unavoidable. It will cut across vast sectors of industry, from computing to defense to mechanical engineering of consumer products. All these business sectors will need communication about safety protocols, privacy concerns, public policy, regulation and lobbying, and the pros and cons of using nanotech. Public relations for the nano world will become huge — figuratively speaking.

It’s an interesting essay with some good points but Bowen is not very well informed about nanotechnology. For example, there’s this from her list of ethical and social issues,

Research ethics
Are some research projects, such as military projects, too dangerous to pursue?

Nano medications
In addition to safety, this also raises privacy concerns about tracking. Human trials of such drugs begin in about two years.

The ship has sailed with regard to military research. So, the question turns from “Should we be doing this?” to “Should we continue doing this? and, possibly, Can we get everyone (all countries) to agree to stop?”

And, there are already human trials of nanotechnology-enabled drug delivery and other biomedical applications. For example there’s this from a March 21, 2016 California Institute of Technology (CalTech) news release about nanoparticles for cancer therapy,

These nanoparticles are currently being tested in a number of phase-II clinical trials. (Information about trials of the nanoparticles, denoted CRLX101, is available at http://www.clinicaltrials.gov.

For anyone unfamiliar with the phases for clinical trials, there’s this from Patients at Heart website on the Clinical Trials Essentials webpage in the section on Research Phases,

Target Patient Population Average Number of Patients
Phase I Healthy patients 20 to 80 participants
Phase II First evaluation in patients with the target disease 100 to 300 participants
Phase III Patients with the target disease 300 to 3,000 participants
Health Canada approval for use in the general population
Phase IV Patients with the target disease Variable – large numbers

Getting back to the essay, as Bowen notes there is a field designated as nanoethics. I found this Nanoethics Group based at California Polytechnic State University and this NanoEthics journal. I’m sure there’s much more out there should you care to search.

Sand and nanotechnology

There’s some good news coming out of the University of California, Riverside regarding sand and lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries, which I will temper with some additional information later in this posting.

First, the good news is that researchers have a new non-toxic, low cost way to produce a component in lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries according to a July 8, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering have created a lithium ion battery that outperforms the current industry standard by three times. The key material: sand. Yes, sand.

“This is the holy grail — a low cost, non-toxic, environmentally friendly way to produce high performance lithium ion battery anodes,” said Zachary Favors, a graduate student working with Cengiz and Mihri Ozkan, both engineering professors at UC Riverside.

The idea came to Favors six months ago. He was relaxing on the beach after surfing in San Clemente, Calif. when he picked up some sand, took a close look at it and saw it was made up primarily of quartz, or silicon dioxide.

His research is centered on building better lithium ion batteries, primarily for personal electronics and electric vehicles. He is focused on the anode, or negative side of the battery. Graphite is the current standard material for the anode, but as electronics have become more powerful graphite’s ability to be improved has been virtually tapped out.

A July 8, 2014 University of California at Riverside news release by Sean Nealon, which originated the news item, describes some of the problems with silicon as a replacement for graphite and how the researchers approached those problems,

Researchers are now focused on using silicon at the nanoscale, or billionths of a meter, level as a replacement for graphite. The problem with nanoscale silicon is that it degrades quickly and is hard to produce in large quantities.

Favors set out to solve both these problems. He researched sand to find a spot in the United States where it is found with a high percentage of quartz. That took him to the Cedar Creek Reservoir, east of Dallas, where he grew up.

Sand in hand, he came back to the lab at UC Riverside and milled it down to the nanometer scale, followed by a series of purification steps changing its color from brown to bright white, similar in color and texture to powdered sugar.

After that, he ground salt and magnesium, both very common elements found dissolved in sea water into the purified quartz. The resulting powder was then heated. With the salt acting as a heat absorber, the magnesium worked to remove the oxygen from the quartz, resulting in pure silicon.

The Ozkan team was pleased with how the process went. And they also encountered an added positive surprise. The pure nano-silicon formed in a very porous 3-D silicon sponge like consistency. That porosity has proved to be the key to improving the performance of the batteries built with the nano-silicon.

Now, the Ozkan team is trying to produce larger quantities of the nano-silicon beach sand and is planning to move from coin-size batteries to pouch-size batteries that are used in cell phones.

The research is supported by Temiz Energy Technologies. The UCR Office of Technology Commercialization has filed patents for inventions reported in the research paper.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the research paper,

Scalable Synthesis of Nano-Silicon from Beach Sand for Long Cycle Life Li-ion Batteries by Zachary Favors, Wei Wang, Hamed Hosseini Bay, Zafer Mutlu, Kazi Ahmed, Chueh Liu, Mihrimah Ozkan, & Cengiz S. Ozkan. Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 5623 doi:10.1038/srep05623 Published 08 July 2014

While this is good news, it does pose a conundrum of sorts. It seems that supplies of sand are currently under siege. A documentary, Sand Wars (2013) lays out the issues (from the Sand Wars website’s Synopsis page),

Most of us think of it as a complimentary ingredient of any beach vacation. Yet those seemingly insignificant grains of silica surround our daily lives. Every house, skyscraper and glass building, every bridge, airport and sidewalk in our modern society depends on sand. We use it to manufacture optical fiber, cell phone components and computer chips. We find it in our toothpaste, powdered foods and even in our glass of wine (both the glass and the wine, as a fining agent)!

Is sand an infinite resource? Can the existing supply satisfy a gigantic demand fueled by construction booms?  What are the consequences of intensive beach sand mining for the environment and the neighboring populations?

Based on encounters with sand smugglers, barefoot millionaires, corrupt politicians, unscrupulous real estate developers and environmentalists, this investigation takes us around the globe to unveil a new gold rush and a disturbing fact: the “SAND WARS” have begun.

Dr. Muditha D Senarath Yapa of John Keells Research at John Keells Holdings comments on the situation in Sri Lanka in his June 22, 2014 article (Nanotechnology – Depleting the most precious minerals for a few dollars) for The Nation,

Many have written for many years about the mineral sands of Pulmoddai. It is a national tragedy that for more than 50 years, we have been depleting the most precious minerals of our land for a few dollars. There are articles that appeared in various newspapers on how the mineral sands industry has boomed over the years. I hope the readers understand that it only means that we are depleting our resources faster than ever. According to the Lanka Mineral Sands Limited website, 90,000 tonnes of ilmenite, 9,000 tonnes of rutile, 5,500 tonnes of zircon, 100 tonnes of monazite and 4,000 tonnes of high titanium ilmenite are produced annually and shipped away to other countries.

… It is time for Sri Lanka to look at our own resources with this new light and capture the future nano materials market to create value added materials.

It’s interesting that he starts with the depletion of the sands as a national tragedy and ends with a plea to shift from a resource-based economy to a manufacturing-based economy. (This plea resonates strongly here in Canada where we too are a resource-based economy.)

Sidebar: John Keells Holdings is a most unusual company, from the About Us page,

In terms of market capitalisation, John Keells Holdings PLC is one of the largest listed conglomerate on the Colombo Stock Exchange. Other measures tell a similar tale; our group companies manage the largest number of hotel rooms in Sri Lanka, own the country’s largest privately-owned transportation business and hold leading positions in Sri Lanka’s key industries: tea, food and beverage manufacture and distribution, logistics, real estate, banking and information technology. Our investment in Sri Lanka is so deep and widely diversified that our stock price is sometimes used by international financial analysts as a benchmark of the country’s economy.

Yapa heads the companies research effort, which recently celebrated a synthetic biology agreement (from a May 2014 John Keells news release by Nuwan),

John Keells Research Signs an Historic Agreement with the Human Genetics Unit, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo to establish Sri Lanka’s first Synthetic Biology Research Programme.

Getting back to sand, these three pieces, ‘sand is good for li-ion batteries’, ‘sand is a diminishing resource’, and ‘let’s stop being a source of sand for other countries’ lay bare some difficult questions about our collective future on this planet.

If vat-grown burgers are here, what are the social implications?

The Jan. 17, 2013 news item on Nanowerk about Dr. Neil Stephens and his research into the social implications of vat-grown (aka, in vitro meat) poses some interesting questions,

he [sic] world’s first laboratory-grown hamburger has been produced by Professor Mark Post and his team in Maastricht, representing something radically new in our world. Dr Neil Stephens, Research Associate at Cesagen (Cardiff School of Social Sciences), has been researching the social and ethical issues of this technology and what this innovation in stem cell science might mean for us in 2013.

Will we be eating burgers made in test-tubes in the near future? That is probably unlikely considering Professor Post’s burger costs around £200,000 to produce.

The University of Cardiff Jan. 16, 2013 news release,which originated the news item, goes on to explain why Stephens is conducting this investigation,

However, the benefits this new technology can deliver – according to the scientists – include slaughter-free meat that is healthier and free from animal to human disease. The meat could also be grown during space travel and could have a much smaller environmental impact than today’s whole-animal reared meat. But it is not yet clear if any of these can be delivered in a marketable form.

Since 2008, Dr Stephens has been investigating these ‘social promises’ by interviewing most of the scientists across the world who are involved in this project. He looks to understand how this community of scientists came together and what strategies they use to justify the promises they make.

Professor Mark Post’s work at the University of Maastricht (Holland) was covered extensively last year when it was presented at the 2012 AAAS (American Ass0ciation for the Advancement of Science) meeting in Vancouver. This Feb. 19, 2012 article by Pallab Ghosh for BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) online highlights some of the discussion which took place then,

Dutch scientists have used stem cells to create strips of muscle tissue with the aim of producing the first lab-grown hamburger later this year.

The aim of the research is to develop a more efficient way of producing meat than rearing animals.

Professor Post’s group at Maastricht University in the Netherlands has grown small pieces of muscle about 2cm long, 1cm wide and about a mm thick.

They are off-white and resemble strips of calamari in appearance. These strips will be mixed with blood and artificially grown fat to produce a hamburger by the autumn [2012].

…Some estimate that food production will have to double within the next 50 years to meet the requirements of a growing population. During this period, climate change, water shortages and greater urbanisation will make it more difficult to produce food.

Prof Sean Smukler from the University of British Columbia said keeping pace with demand for meat from Asia and Africa will be particularly hard as demand from these regions will shoot up as living standards rise. He thinks that lab grown meat could be a good solution.

But David Steele, who is president of Earthsave Canada, said that the same benefits could be achieved if people ate less meat.

“While I do think that there are definite environmental and animal welfare advantages of this high-tech approach over factory farming, especially, it is pretty clear to me that plant-based alternatives… have substantial environmental and probably animal welfare advantages over synthetic meat,” he said.

Dr Steele, who is also a molecular biologist, said he was also concerned that unhealthily high levels of antibiotics and antifungal chemicals would be needed to stop the synthetic meat from rotting.

There doesn’t seem to be any more recent news about vat-grown meat from Post’s team at the University of Maastricht; the interest in Stephens’ sociological work on the topic seems to have been stimulated by his inclusion in the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) annual publication, (Britain in magazine) Britain in 2013.

Here’s more about Stephens’ and his sociological inquiry,

Is your utopia the same as my utopia? Michio Kaku talks about nanotechnology and his utopia

Dr. Michio Kaku, a prominent US theoretical physicist, claims the reason for the Shaker (religious) community’s (and other utopian communities too) disappearance was due largely to a lack of abundance in his Big Think video talk on the Social Europe Journal website, from the transcript,

Throughout human history people have tried to create utopia, the perfect society. In fact, America, the American dream, in some sense was based on utopianism. Why do we have the Shaker movement? Why did we have the Quakers? Why did we have so many different kinds of religious movements that fled Europe looking to create autopia here in the Americas? Well, we know the Shakers have disappeared and many of these colonies have also disappeared only to be found in footnotes in American textbooks, and the question is why?

One reason why is scarcity because back then the industrial revolution was still young and societies had scarcity. Scarcity creates conflict and unless you have a way to resolve conflict, your colony falls apart.

I have two questions here: (1) if scarcity cause conflict and problems, why aren’t all rich people happy and conflict-free?  (2) regarding the Shakers, wasn’t their policy of prohibiting sexual activity of any kind, i.e. lifelong celibacy, a larger problem? Kaku’s thesis is somewhat reductionist as per the Shaker essay on Wikipedia which suggests a number of interlocking issues,

Membership in the Shakers dwindled in the late 19th century for several reasons: people were attracted to cities and away from the farms; Shaker products could not compete with mass-produced products that became available at a much lower cost; and Shakers could not have children, so adoption was a major source of new members. This continued until orphanages were established and the states began to limit adoption by religious groups.

Kaku has a technology solution for the reductionist problem he has posed,

However, now we have nanotechnology, and with nanotechnology, perhaps, who knows, maybe in 100 years, we’ll have something called the replicator. Now the replicator is something you see in Star Trek. It’s called the molecular assembler and it takes ordinary raw materials, breaks them up at the atomic level and joins the joints in different ways to create new substances. If you have a molecular assembler, you can turn, for example, a glass into wood or vice versa. You would have the power of a magician, in fact, the power of a god, the ability to literally transform the atoms of one substance into another and we see it on Star Trek.

It’s also the most subversive device of all because if utopias fail because of scarcity then what happens when you have infinite abundance? [emphasis mine] What happens when you simply ask and it comes to you?

It’s as if Kaku was creating a question for the US television quiz programme, Jeopardy, where contestants have to construct the question for the answer that’s presented to them. e.g., Answer: nanotechnology will make infinite abundance possible Question: Will we then have utopia?

It’s an interesting question, I just wish it had been contextualized more thoughtfully.