Driver-less and Electric, or Car-Free? The Cities Cutting Out Cars, and Why

It’s common consensus in the tech industry that the days of cars as we know them—powered by gas, driven by humans, and individually owned by all who want and can afford one—are numbered. Imminent is the age of autonomous, electric, and shared transportation, and we’re continuously taking small steps towards making it a reality. Self-driving software is getting better at avoiding accidents. Battery storage capacity is climbing. Solar energy is getting cheaper. This all points to a bright automotive future.

But not everyone is on board—in fact, some cities are taking the opposite approach, phasing out gas-powered cars altogether, limiting use of hybrid and electric cars, and making urban centers car-free. Will they be left in the dust as the rest of us are autonomously driven into the (energy-producing) sunset? Or do the anti-car folks have it right—is the brighter future one that forgoes cars in favor of even more sustainable and healthy modes of transportation?

Too Much of a Good Thing

What might Henry Ford think if he saw what’s become of his invention? Highways clogged with traffic, accidents a leading cause of death, commuters sealed alone and sedentary in their vehicles for hours.

Ford may have never expected cars to become cheap and accessible enough for us to use them to the extent we do today. And as the global middle class grows, cars are likely to proliferate even more; as people make more money, they want cars not just for transportation and convenience, but as status symbols.

The countries where the middle class has the most potential to grow—that is, countries where poverty rates are still relatively high—are also seeing people flock to cities in search of work and security. The UN predicts that 90 percent of the global shift to urban areas will take place in Asia and Africa, with Delhi, Dhaka, Bombay, and Kinshasa among the top 10 most populated future mega-cities.

It would be messy enough to add millions more cars to cities that have an existing infrastructure for them—and far messier to add them to cities like these that don’t. Plus, even if the cars are electric, the electricity has to come from somewhere, and even the world’s wealthiest countries aren’t likely to get to 100 percent renewables until 2050 at the soonest. And you can only have so much congestion before a city’s quality of life and economy are impacted.

Mexico City was the first in the world to take serious action against traffic congestion, implementing daily “no drive restrictions” based on license plate numbers. London, Singapore, and Stockholm all use congestion pricing, where drivers have to pay to enter city centers or crowded streets.

These are minor measures compared to the steps other cities are taking to discourage people from driving.

Auf Wiedersehen, Don’t Drive

Ready? Here are some rapid-fire stats on cities taking steps to limit cars.

Madrid made its city center a designated low-emission zone, restricting access by older diesel and gas cars and planning to ban these vehicles from the zone completely by 2020. Hybrid cars can get an “eco label” and circulate freely.

The whole of Denmark is planning to ban the sale of new gas and diesel cars starting in 2030, and the sale of hybrid cars starting in 2035. Copenhagen already has one of the lowest rates of car ownership and highest rates of bike commuting in Europe.

In Paris, no cars are allowed in the city center between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m on the first Sunday of every month. Cars made before 1997 aren’t allowed in the city on weekdays, and the city is doubling its number of bike lanes.

Athens will ban diesel cars by 2025 and already restricts the days of the week they can drive in the city center, based on license plate numbers.

Oslo has set a target to become carbon neutral by 2030, and doing away with non-electric cars will be key to its success. The city has restricted access for private vehicles, turned road space into pedestrian space, and eliminated almost all of the parking spots in the city center.

While Hamburg will still allow cars in its city center, it’s laying down plans that will make it far easier for people not to have to drive, including a “green network” that will connect parks and cover 40 percent of the city’s space.

Brussels will ban all diesel vehicles by 2030 and is heavily promoting public and shared transportation. It’s even making its trains, buses, and shared bikes free to use on days with excessively high air pollution.

The Netherlands will only allow emissions-free vehicles by 2030, and is pumping €345 million into its already robust bicycle infrastructure.

Helsinki is redesigning its suburbs, which people primarily reach by driving, into walkable communities linked to the city by public transit, in hopes that Finns won’t need to own cars at all within 10 years.

Why All the Goodbyes?

Cutting out cars has the obvious benefit of reducing pollution—again, even if the cars are electric, we’re not yet to the point of 100 percent clean energy. And in fact, higher temperatures and less rain in many parts of the world mean pollution from cars is even more potent, and gets washed away less frequently.

Going auto-free is good for people, too; it encourages more exercise (by walking and biking more), less isolation (by taking public or shared transportation), more time saved (no sitting still in clogged traffic) with less stress (I repeat—no sitting still in clogged traffic), and improved safety (car accidents definitely kill more people than bike or train accidents do). Greening city centers will also make those cities more pleasant to live in and visit.

It’s worth noting that the cities reducing car usage are almost all in Europe, where such measures are far more feasible than, say, the US, where outside of major urban areas, it’s hard to go anywhere without a car. American cities expanded into now-sprawling suburbs largely thanks to the invention of the car, and have a degree of dependence on driving that will be hard to scale back from.

European cities, in contrast, were further developed by the time cars proliferated; they’d already largely been built around public transportation, and continued to expand train systems even as cars became more popular. Plus, European countries’ comparatively small size makes it much more practical to rely on public transit than in the US; many US states are larger than European countries.

The cities in developing countries that are set for population booms in the next two to three decades would be wise to follow Europe’s example rather than that of the US.

A Habit We’ll Never Fully Kick

Cars will, of course, continue to be widely used, including right at the edges of the cities that are banning them. The measures to discourage car usage and ownership are a start, but major shifts in urban planning and in peoples’ behavior aren’t as straightforward, and will take much longer to change.

If big tech’s vision plays out, though, people will be able to use cars and reduce the danger, time, and stress associated with them; autonomous cars will pick us up, deftly navigate city streets, drop us at our destinations, then go pick up their next passenger.

It does seem, then, that the days of cars as we know them are numbered, whether they’re replaced by high-tech versions of their former selves or switched out for bikes and trains.

But fear not—the transition will happen slowly. There’s plenty of time left to sing at the top of your lungs (in between honking at bad drivers and checking a maps app to see how traffic looks) while sealed inside your good old reliable, private, gas-powered, human-driven chariot.

Image Credit: Joshua Bolton / Unsplash

By Vanessa Bates Ramirez

This article originally appeared on Singularity Hub, a publication of Singularity University.

Science Fiction’s Greatest Power? Inspiring Us to Build the Future

Science fiction’s visions of the future can appear more fantasy than fact. Sometimes books and movies are unnerving, other times they’re way off. Although sci-fi isn’t always right, it does something else that’s more important than mere prediction—it inspires the people who can build the future to go out there and get to work.

And so when I received an invitation to participate in SU Labs’ pilot workshop—SciFi D.I.: Design Intelligence for the Future Home, a two-part workshop bringing together an uncommon mix of partners to create a sci-fi graphic novel envisioning the future home in 2030—I was pretty fired up.

Full disclosure: I’m a bit of a sci-fi novice and had some serious catching up to do. So where did I begin? Binge watching the original Star Trek TV series. But the deeper I dug into sci-fi, the more hooked I became.

Star Trek alone has inspired multiple technologies, like telepresence and the cell phone. In fact, Motorola’s director of research and development Martin Cooper attributes the design of their first cell phone to the Star Trek communicator.

The design of Apple’s debut iPad in 2010 was said to be inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and the Johnny Cab in Total Recall (1990) is credited as early inspiration to many currently developing autonomous cars. In more recent news, October 21, 2015 marked national Back to the Future day, which celebrated the many realized technologies that were featured in the 1980s film—biometric scanners, hydroponics, wearable VR/AR technology—and the list goes on.

As the graphic novel comes together in the months ahead, I’ll be leaking pre-release bits from the story, along with some of the technologies we’ve come up with.

But for now, this is an inside look at putting science fiction to use as a tool for innovation during part one of the SciFi D.I. workshop—the workshop that turned me from a sci-fi skeptic to believer.

Inside Part I of the SciFI D.I. Workshop

My badge for the workshop

Once gathered in beautiful Bodega Bay, California for part one of the workshop, Robert Suarez, managing director of innovation and design at SU Labs, kicked things off by framing a few core questions to focus on:

  • What should or should not exist in 2030?
  • How can closed-loop systems like greywater recycling make homes more sustainable?
  • How can design create seamless integration with surrounding natural environments?
  • What new technologies can be used for urban planning and home design to support developing cities build efficient, safe, and affordable housing?

We then divided into four multi disciplinary teams, each tasked with crafting their own fictional world of 2030, a compelling protagonist, and a range of futuristic products woven into the storyline.

The mix of co-collaborators was incredible and the energy in the room was buzzing.

On my team alone was the head of Ashoka Asia, Bayer LifeScience iHub’s director of digital health, Caterpillar’s director of innovation, Lowe’s Innovation Lab’s distributive innovation manager, a graphic novelist from Saudi Arabia, a comic book artist who has worked on pieces like Iron Man and Green Lantern, and the managing director of innovation and design at SU Labs—previously a senior portfolio director at renowned design firm IDEO.

For the first half of the day we rotated through four ideation sessions—biomes and biospheres, virtual and augmented reality, biomimicry, neuroscience and consciousness—interacting with a new technology as it relates to the future of the home.

By the second half of the day, my team landed on our character—a 120-year-old nomadic woman with a sophisticated exoskeleton.

With our character in hand, we moved into a series of intensive design stages, including persona development and world building, to further develop our protagonist and explore questions like: Why was this 120-year-old nomadic woman so determined to extend her life?

On the final day of the workshop the full group reconvened and the teams presented the characters, plots, and future products they developed.

Since October, when the first part of the workshop took place, a group of science fiction writers and illustrators have been doing the heavy lifting to bring it all together. And last week, during the second part of the workshop with the full group, they further built on the characters and futuristic technologies that made the cut for the final graphic novel.

Closing photo shot by drone

What will the end result look like? Stay tuned. I’ll give you a peek in the coming weeks.

Get an inside look at part one of the workshop by watching this video from the SciFi D.I. Part One.

By Alison E. Berman

This article originally appeared on Singularity Hub, a publication of Singularity University.

If Energy Becomes Free in the Future, How Will That Affect Our Lives?

Technology is making the cost of many things trend towards zero. Things we used to have to pay a lot for are now cheap or even free—think about how much it costs to buy a computer, make long-distance calls, take pictures, watch movies, listen to music, or even travel to another state or country. Down the road even more of our day-to-day needs will join this list—including, possibly, electricity.

That’s great, right? Because, free stuff! Who doesn’t love free stuff?

The energy case, though, is more complex.

The cost of burning coal can only go so low, but the cost of harvesting energy from the sun just keeps dropping. October 2017 saw bids for a Saudi Arabian solar plant as low as 1.79 cents per kilowatt hour, breaking the previous record in Abu Dhabi of 2.42 cents/kWh. Granted, it’s no coincidence that these uniquely low prices are coming from some of the sunniest parts of the world. For comparison’s sake, the average residential price for electricity in the US in 2017 was 12.5 cents/kWh.

Just when we think prices can’t go any lower, they do—and perhaps the most amazing part about the continual price decline is that it’s in spite of, not thanks to, batteries. Cheap, efficient batteries are still the biggest bottleneck for renewables, but once we figure them out, the sky—or, in this case, the floor?—is truly the limit. It’s also only a matter of time until transparent solar cells become a reality and turn every outdoor glass surface into a small-scale power plant.

So what would a world of free energy for all look like? Electricity would become ubiquitous in the many parts of the world where that’s not yet the case. In other places, electric bills would disappear—but that would be the least of it. Manufacturing costs would plummet, as would transportation costs, as would, well, pretty much all costs.

The money we’d save on energy could be put to use on social programs, maybe even spawning a universal basic income that would help bring about more just and equitable societies. If everything cost less, we wouldn’t need to work as much to earn as much money, freeing up our time to pursue creative endeavors or other personal passions.

There’s a flip side to every coin, though, and the old adage about the best things in life being free unfortunately doesn’t necessarily hold true in this case. Let’s look at what’s happened when we’ve made other resources free or cheap.

In the US we made food cheap and abundant by learning how to process it and manufacture it at scale—and now we’re fatter and sicker than we’ve ever been. We figured out how to produce plastic bottles and bags for pennies, and now the oceans are choked with our abundantly cheap, non-biodegradable garbage.

The Jevons Paradox holds that as technological progress increases the efficiency of a product or resource, the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand, effectively canceling out any savings in efficiency. That’s right—humanity appears to be, at our core, a species that takes, and free electricity would be no exception.

Middle Eastern countries, where electricity prices are the cheapest in the world, present a telling example. Excessive use of energy is commonplace, and there’s no incentive to rein in use. Ideally, energy use per capita should be reflected in GDP per capita, but countries like Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia all have an imbalance in this metric, using much more energy than is needed to achieve their GDPs.

As energy becomes cheaper in other parts of the world, people will use more of it, and the first victim will be the planet. Even though the energy will be renewable, that doesn’t mean there won’t be environmental costs; there could be repercussions we haven’t even imagined yet, just as whoever invented plastic probably never envisioned it poisoning marine life.

So as energy gets cheaper and ultimately moves toward being free, how do we handle its abundance wisely? Government regulation will play a role, as will market forces, despite the absence of economic impetus. As with any new technological development, we may have a phase of adjustment where we go too far, catch ourselves, and swing back the other way.

Free, clean energy will undeniably bring many benefits with it. But we can’t afford to forget that there’s usually a price to pay, too—it’s just not always obvious from the outset.

Image Credit: Len Green /

By Vanessa Bates Ramirez

This article originally appeared on Singularity Hub, a publication of Singularity University.

The Internet Is a Force of Nature. It’s Our Job to Civilize It.

We’re a long way from the halcyon days of the early internet, when the promise of a decentralized digital communications network meant anyone could talk to anyone without appealing to the gatekeepers. Knowledge would be liberated from elite newsrooms and stodgy old encyclopedia sets. “Information wants to be free” was the slogan of the day.

We’ve since learned “free” information often has a price.

Fast-forward to 2019, when science fiction author Neal Stephenson’s book, Fall; or Dodge in Hell, traces a near future in which the internet is nicknamed the “Miasma.” The digital haves and have-nots are separated by who can afford human “editors” to curate the web, filter out the rubbish, and guard their employers’ identities and information online. There are those privileged enough to float above the noise, selectively dipping in for reliable information, and those drowning in, and being driven mad by, the mass of disinformation and propaganda lurking below.

Science fiction reflects the cultural moment as much as it predicts the future, and Stephenson’s vision extrapolates and intensifies today’s challenges just plausibly enough to be unsettling.

Where’s all this headed? Can we still turn things around and recapture that early dream?

Doc Searls at Global Summit.

In a talk titled “What If the Internet Was Safe?” at Singularity University’s Global Summit in San Francisco this week, Doc Searls, editor-in-chief of Linux Journal, and Richard Whitt, president of the GLIA Foundation and founder of the GLIAnet Project, took a stab at an answer.

According to Searls, we need to adjust how we look at the online world. Asking how to make the internet safe is like asking how to make gravity safe, he said. “The internet is elemental. It’s a genie that’s not going back in the bottle.” We can’t make the internet safe any more than we can gravity, so instead, it’s our job to civilize it.

Life in the Wild

Whitt, who is a former Googler, suggested the current situation, in which a lack of trust and a lack of accountability reign, was brought about by four, mostly familiar, root causes.

Network effects. Everybody wanted to be on Facebook because their friends were there. The more people there were on the inside, the more FOMO on the outside. Everyone piled in, until the company had captured a significant fraction of the world’s population in their products. Google search improved the more people used it, and the more it improved, the more users it attracted. These effects bestowed quick growth and dominance on today’s internet giants.

Web inputs. Users yield behavioral data (knowingly or not) that draws a picture of who they are, and what they like and dislike. Users also freely create content that draws in other users or can be mined for data. That is, users supply the inputs and outputs that drive the business.

The attention economy. A healthy platform is a platform stocked with highly engaged users. Companies are constantly questing after the next click and trying to figure out how to ensure users stick around. Strong engagement is driven by emotion—joy but also anger and fear—which has led to some of the “pernicious societal issues which we’re still grappling with.”

Platform dynamics. Digital platforms are still a fairly new type of business—and a potent one at that. In the last two decades or so, economists have shown that platform businesses are uniquely powerful in a way the old, more familiar models can’t match.

But simply attracting a billion users onto a platform doesn’t a business make. Google figured out they could pair ads with search back in 2002, Facebook followed suit, as well as many others. It’s the self-reinforcing interplay of these trends and practices and the incentives in the ad-based business model that have resulted in some of today’s less-than-desirable outcomes.

That doesn’t mean we’re stuck with the system we’ve created. “This is all something [that’s] very new in the unfolding of this technology, and I would submit there’s ample room for us to say, you know what, we want to shift course a little bit and do something different,” Whitt said.

Take the Power Back

If the power is with the platforms today, the solution may be to invert that dynamic. Users are objects from which data is extracted and analyzed in the current model. A more people-friendly model would see us become clients and customers and regain some agency.

Richard Whitt at Global Summit.

As Whitt wrote in a Fast Company article, “…what if users had the same power as platforms? What if users had a whole layer advocating for them—an arsenal of sophisticated tools to swat away invasive ads, safeguard their personal data, and negotiate fiercely with platforms?”

Whitt’s GLIAnet Project aims to build an ecosystem of such tools.

One component that might enable this new agency would be the development of personal, local AIs that act on our behalf, as opposed to platform AIs, like Alexa or Google Assistant, that collect our data, store the information on their servers, and share it with vendors. These personal AIs would be like “virtual envoys” that interact and negotiate with platform AIs.

Further, our online profiles—which websites we’ve visited or what we’ve purchased—would no longer be free for the taking but stored locally. These profiles and the data in them could then be far more selectively shared (in part or whole) in exchange for services provided online.

Some tools already exist, such as ad-blockers and VPNs, but they aren’t always easy to set up and use and they’re standalone—the GLIAnet Project hopes to gather everything together and provide a more user-friendly, all-encompassing ecosystem that’s more or less plug-and-play.

With his project, Customer Commons, Searls is similarly working to shift the power dynamic.

Every app and online service you sign up for requires you agree to their terms of service. Just think of the hundreds of contracts you’ve automatically checked the “agree” box on over the years. These agreements are long, legal, and variable. No one reads the fine print. Most don’t have the expertise to understand all the legal implications even if they did.

What if, instead of having terms presented to us, we presented our terms to companies? “You can show me ads, but don’t personalize them, and don’t track me. These are my terms, if you agree to them, I’ll happily use your service.” Then you have one set of terms that you understand because you set them, and you’d never have to check another “agree” box again.

Back to the Land

This isn’t about making the internet safe or stumbling on the perfect regulations. It’s about taking the internet at face value and inventing the tools to live there more comfortably.

The natural world isn’t safe. There’s not much we can do to change that. Instead, we’ve adapted to nature with personal technologies like clothes and shelter that provide protection from the elements. Now we live in nearly every clime, and instead of being constantly under threat by the natural world, we enjoy and find inspiration out in the wild.

Why not apply this approach to the internet too?

Image Credit: Alina Grubnyak / Unsplash

By Jason Dorrier

This article originally appeared on Singularity Hub, a publication of Singularity University.

This Light-based Nervous System Helps Robots ‘Feel’

Last night, way past midnight, I stumbled onto my porch blindly grasping for my keys after a hellish day of international travel. Lights were low, I was half-asleep, yet my hand grabbed the keychain, found the lock, and opened the door.

If you’re rolling your eyes—yeah, it’s not exactly an epic feat for a human. Thanks to the intricate wiring between our brain and millions of sensors dotted on—and inside—our skin, we know exactly where our hand is in space and what it’s touching without needing visual confirmation. But this combined sense of the internal and the external is completely lost to robots, which generally rely on computer vision or surface mechanosensors to track their movements and their interaction with the outside world. It’s not always a winning strategy.

What if, instead, we could give robots an artificial nervous system?

This month, a team led by Dr. Rob Shepard at Cornell University did just that, with a seriously clever twist. Rather than mimicking the electric signals in our nervous system, his team turned to light. By embedding optical fibers inside a 3D printed stretchable material, the team engineered an “optical lace” that can detect changes in pressure less than a fraction of a pound, and pinpoint the location to a spot half the width of a tiny needle.

The invention isn’t just an artificial skin. Instead, the delicate fibers can be distributed both inside a robot and on its surface, giving it both a sense of tactile touch and—most importantly—an idea of its own body position in space. Optical lace isn’t a superficial coating of mechanical sensors; it’s an entire platform that may finally endow robots with nerve-like networks throughout the body.

Eventually, engineers hope to use this fleshy, washable material to coat the sharp, cold metal interior of current robots, transforming C-3PO more into the human-like hosts of Westworld. Robots with a “bodily” sense could act as better caretakers for the elderly, said Shepard, because they can assist fragile people without inadvertently bruising or otherwise harming them. The results were published in Science Robotics.

An Unconventional Marriage

The optical lace is especially creative because it marries two contrasting ideas: one biological-inspired, the other wholly alien.

The overarching idea for optical lace is based on the animal kingdom. Through sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and other senses, we’re able to interpret the outside world—something scientists call exteroception. Thanks to our nervous system, we perform these computations subconsciously, allowing us to constantly “perceive” what’s going on around us.

Our other perception is purely internal. Proprioception (sorry, it’s not called “inception” though it should be) is how we know where our body parts are in space without having to look at them, which lets us perform complex tasks when blind. Although less intuitive than exteroception, proprioception also relies on stretching and other deformations within the muscles and tendons and receptors under the skin, which generate electrical currents that shoot up into the brain for further interpretation.

In other words, in theory it’s possible to recreate both perceptions with a single information-carrying system.

Here’s where the alien factor comes in. Rather than using electrical properties, the team turned to light as their data carrier. They had good reason. “Compared with electricity, light carries information faster and with higher data densities,” the team explained. Light can also transmit in multiple directions simultaneously, and is less susceptible to electromagnetic interference. Although optical nervous systems don’t exist in the biological world, the team decided to improve on Mother Nature and give it a shot.

Optical Lace

The construction starts with engineering a “sheath” for the optical nerve fibers. The team first used an elastic polyurethane—a synthetic material used in foam cushioning, for example—to make a lattice structure filled with large pores, somewhat like a lattice pie crust. Thanks to rapid, high-resolution 3D printing, the scaffold can have different stiffness from top to bottom. To increase sensitivity to the outside world, the team made the top of the lattice soft and pliable, to better transfer force to mechanical sensors. In contrast, the “deeper” regions held their structure better, and kept their structure under pressure.

Now the fun part. The team next threaded stretchable “light guides” into the scaffold. These fibers transmit photons, and are illuminated with a blue LED light. One, the input light guide, ran horizontally across the soft top part of the scaffold. Others ran perpendicular to the input in a “U” shape, going from more surface regions to deeper ones. These are the output guides. The architecture loosely resembles the wiring in our skin and flesh.

Normally, the output guides are separated from the input by a small air gap. When pressed down, the input light fiber distorts slightly, and if the pressure is high enough, it contacts one of the output guides. This causes light from the input fiber to “leak” to the output one, so that it lights up—the stronger the pressure, the brighter the output.

“When the structure deforms, you have contact between the input line and the output lines, and the light jumps into these output loops in the structure, so you can tell where the contact is happening,” said study author Patricia Xu. “The intensity of this determines the intensity of the deformation itself.”

Double Perception

As a proof-of-concept for proprioception, the team made a cylindrical lace with one input and 12 output channels. They varied the stiffness of the scaffold along the cylinder, and by pressing down at different points, were able to calculate how much each part stretched and deformed—a prominent precursor to knowing where different regions of the structure are moving in space. It’s a very rudimentary sort of proprioception, but one that will become more sophisticated with increasing numbers of strategically-placed mechanosensors.

The test for exteroception was a whole lot stranger. Here, the team engineered another optical lace with 15 output channels and turned it into a squishy piano. When pressed down, an Arduino microcontroller translated light output signals into sound based on the position of each touch. The stronger the pressure, the louder the volume. While not a musical masterpiece, the demo proved their point: the optical lace faithfully reported the strength and location of each touch.

A More Efficient Robot

Although remarkably novel, the optical lace isn’t yet ready for prime time. One problem is scalability: because of light loss, the material is limited to a certain size. However, rather than coating an entire robot, it may help to add optical lace to body parts where perception is critical—for example, fingertips and hands.

The team sees plenty of potential to keep developing the artificial flesh. Depending on particular needs, both the light guides and scaffold can be modified for sensitivity, spatial resolution, and accuracy. Multiple optical fibers that measure for different aspects—pressure, pain, temperature—can potentially be embedded in the same region, giving robots a multitude of senses.

In this way, we hope to reduce the number of electronics and combine signals from multiple sensors without losing information, the authors said. By taking inspiration from biological networks, it may even be possible to use various inputs through an optical lace to control how the robot behaves, closing the loop from sensation to action.

Image Credit: Cornell Organic Robotics Lab. A flexible, porous lattice structure is threaded with stretchable optical fibers containing more than a dozen mechanosensors and attached to an LED light. When the lattice structure is pressed, the sensors pinpoint changes in the photon flow.

By Shelly Fan

This article originally appeared on Singularity Hub, a publication of Singularity University.

Printable Organs are Closer than Ever Thanks to Three Bioprinting Breakthroughs

Over the next few weeks, while browsing cuties on the dating app, Tinder, you may find an image of a celebrity with an ‘organ donor’ icon next to their photo. By swiping right (usually an action which means “sexy!”), you will be given the option to register as an organ donor.

In what might seem an unlikely partnership, Tinder has partnered with the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) to recruit organ donors.

Why? Desperate times sometimes call for unconventional measures.

The NHS recently reported that organ donor rates have fallen for the first time in over a decade. In the US specifically, over 122,000 people are on a waitlist to receive much needed organs. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), every 10 minutes another name is added to the transplant waiting list, but an average of 21 people still die every day because there aren’t enough organs available.

Unfortunately, even actively recruiting organ donors won’t make the organ shortage go away. Dr. Mark Siegler, MD, Director of the MacLean Center for Medical Ethics argues that the shortage can only be solved with living donors.

“The growing gap between waiting list and available organs cannot be solved without living donors, because the potential supply is far, far greater than the potential supply of deceased donors.”

The good news is we’re getting closer to a future where neither living nor deceased donors will be necessary. You know what’s even sexier than organ donation? Bioprinting organs.

Let’s take a look at a few recent breakthroughs in bioprinting getting us closer to a world in which organ shortages will be a thing of the past.

3D Printed “Living” Blood Vessels

At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Monica Moya and her team have developed a method which allows vascular networks to self-assemble in bioprinted tissues.

The team has successfully bioprinted structures out of cells and other biomaterials with artificial tubes to allow nutrients to flow through the the bioprinted environment. As blood flows through the artificial vessels, the vascular network self assembles, connecting to the bioprinted tubes and delivering nutrients to the cells on their own.

Moya describes the approach as co-engineering with nature:

“We’re leveraging the body’s ability for self-directed growth, and you end up with something that is more true to physiology. We can put the cells in an environment where they know, ‘I need to build blood vessels.’ With this technology we guide and orchestrate the biology.”

Bioprinted Mouse Thyroid Gland Successfully Transplanted — Human Thyroid Is Next

According to the World Health Organization, 665 million people in the world are affected by thyroid disorders. In the case of thyroid dysfunction caused by cancer, not even a donor transplant helps because patients who receive organ transplants have to undergo immunosuppression therapy, which can speed up the development of cancer cells.

Moscow-based 3D Bioprinting Solutions Lab is focused on solving this problem.

In March of 2015, 3D Bioprinting Solutions became the first group to successfully bioprint a thyroid gland for a mouse with the intention of transplanting into living mice. Months later, the group announced they had successfully transplanted the bioprinted thyroid and reported that after 11 weeks of monitoring the subjects’ 3D printed thyroid glands, they were in working order with completely restored function.

Last week, Vladimir Mironov, head of 3D Bioprinting Solutions, announced his laboratory is ready to start printing a human thyroid gland after their successful experiments on mice. They also have plans to bioprint a human kidney.

The team used the company’s own patented bio-printing process to construct the thyroid. They began by extracting stem cells from the living organism via its fat cells. These cells are then mixed with a hydrogel and extruded layer by layer. Once the cells take shape, the hydrogel dissolves.

3D Printed Human Skin for Testing

San Diego headquartered Organovo designs and creates functional human tissues for use in drug testing and medical research. Earlier this year, the company partnered with L’Oreal to provide bioprinted human skin for use in testing the safety of cosmetic products.

This is just one new step for Organovo in their mission of bioprinting functioning human organs.

We’re still some time away from being able to print fully functioning human organs, so we might have to depend on Tinder (and others) to recruit donors in the short term. But over time, these breakthroughs will add up to a day when new organs will be readily available for everyone.

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This article originally appeared on Singularity Hub, a publication of Singularity University.

The Challenge of Abundance: Boredom, Meaning, and the Struggle of Mental Freedom

As technology continues to progress, the possibility of an abundant future seems more likely. Artificial intelligence is expected to drive down the cost of labor, infrastructure, and transport. Alternative energy systems are reducing the cost of a wide variety of goods. Poverty rates are falling around the world as more people are able to make a living, and resources that were once inaccessible to millions are becoming widely available.

But such a life presents fuel for the most common complaint against abundance: if robots take all the jobs, basic income provides us livable welfare for doing nothing, and healthcare is a guarantee free of charge, then what is the point of our lives? What would motivate us to work and excel if there are no real risks or rewards? If everything is simply given to us, how would we feel like we’ve ever earned anything?

Time has proven that humans inherently yearn to overcome challenges—in fact, this very desire likely exists as the root of most technological innovation. And the idea that struggling makes us stronger isn’t just anecdotal, it’s scientifically validated.

For instance, kids who use anti-bacterial soaps and sanitizers too often tend to develop weak immune systems, causing them to get sick more frequently and more severely. People who work out purposely suffer through torn muscles so that after a few days of healing their muscles are stronger. And when patients visit a psychologist to handle a fear that is derailing their lives, one of the most common treatments is exposure therapy: a slow increase of exposure to the suffering so that the patient gets stronger and braver each time, able to take on an incrementally more potent manifestation of their fears.

Different Kinds of Struggle

It’s not hard to understand why people might fear an abundant future as a terribly mundane one. But there is one crucial mistake made in this assumption, and it was well summarized by Indian mystic and author Sadhguru, who said during a recent talk at Google:

Stomach empty, only one problem. Stomach full—one hundred problems; because what we refer to as human really begins only after survival is taken care of.

This idea is backed up by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which was first presented in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Maslow shows the steps required to build to higher and higher levels of the human experience. Not surprisingly, the first two levels deal with physiological needs and the need for safety—in other words, with the body. You need to have food, water, and sleep, or you die. After that, you need to be protected from threats, from the elements, from dangerous people, and from disease and pain.

Maslow's Hierarchy of needs perspectives
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Photo by Wikimedia User:Factoryjoe / CC BY-SA 3.0

The beauty of these first two levels is that they’re clear-cut problems with clear-cut solutions: if you’re hungry, then you eat; if you’re thirsty, then you drink; if you’re tired, then you sleep.

But what about the next tiers of the hierarchy? What of love and belonging, of self-esteem and self-actualization? If we’re lonely, can we just summon up an authentic friend or lover? If we feel neglected by society, can we demand it validate us? If we feel discouraged and disappointed in ourselves, can we simply dial up some confidence and self-esteem?

Of course not, and that’s because these psychological needs are nebulous; they don’t contain clear problems with clear solutions. They involve the external world and other people, and are complicated by the infinite flavors of nuance and compromise that are required to navigate human relationships and personal meaning.

These psychological difficulties are where we grow our personalities, outlooks, and beliefs. The truly defining characteristics of a person are dictated not by the physical situations they were forced into—like birth, socioeconomic class, or physical ailment—but instead by the things they choose. So a future of abundance helps to free us from the physical limitations so that we can truly commit to a life of purpose and meaning, rather than just feel like survival is our purpose.

The Greatest Challenge

And that’s the plot twist. This challenge to come to grips with our own individuality and freedom could actually be the greatest challenge our species has ever faced. Can you imagine waking up every day with infinite possibility? Every choice you make says no to the rest of reality, and so every decision carries with it truly life-defining purpose and meaning. That sounds overwhelming. And that’s probably because in our current socio-economic systems, it is.

Studies have shown that people in wealthier nations tend to experience more anxiety and depression. Ron Kessler, professor of health care policy at Harvard and World Health Organization (WHO) researcher, summarized his findings of global mental health by saying, “When you’re literally trying to survive, who has time for depression? Americans, on the other hand, many of whom lead relatively comfortable lives, blow other nations away in the depression factor, leading some to suggest that depression is a ‘luxury disorder.’”

This might explain why America scores in the top rankings for the most depressed and anxious country on the planet. We surpassed our survival needs, and instead became depressed because our jobs and relationships don’t fulfill our expectations for the next three levels of Maslow’s hierarchy (belonging, esteem, and self-actualization).

But a future of abundance would mean we’d have to deal with these levels. This is the challenge for the future; this is what keeps things from being mundane.

As a society, we would be forced to come to grips with our emotional intelligence, to reckon with philosophy rather than simply contemplate it. Nearly every person you meet will be passionately on their own customized life journey, not following a routine simply because of financial limitations. Such a world seems far more vibrant and interesting than one where most wander sleep-deprived and numb while attempting to survive the rat race.

We can already see the forceful hand of this paradigm shift as self-driving cars become ubiquitous. For example, consider the famous psychological and philosophical “trolley problem.” In this thought experiment, a person sees a trolley car heading towards five people on the train tracks; they see a lever that will allow them to switch the trolley car to a track that instead only has one person on it. Do you switch the lever and have a hand in killing one person, or do you let fate continue and kill five people instead?

For the longest time, this was just an interesting quandary to consider. But now, massive corporations have to have an answer, so they can program their self-driving cars with the ability to choose between hitting a kid who runs into the road or swerving into an oncoming car carrying a family of five. When companies need philosophers to make business decisions, it’s a good sign of what’s to come.

Luckily, it’s possible this forceful reckoning with philosophy and our own consciousness may be exactly what humanity needs. Perhaps our great failure as a species has been a result of advanced cognition still trapped in the first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy due to a long history of scarcity.

As suggested in the opening scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, our ape-like proclivity for violence has long stayed the same while the technology we fight with and live amongst has progressed. So while well-off Americans may have comfortable lives, they still know they live in a system where there is no safety net, where a single tragic failure could still mean hunger and homelessness. And because of this, that evolutionarily hard-wired neurotic part of our brain that fears for our survival has never been able to fully relax, and so that anxiety and depression that come with too much freedom but not enough security stays ever present.

Not only might this shift in consciousness help liberate humanity, but it may be vital if we’re to survive our future creations as well. Whatever values we hold dear as a species are the ones we will imbue into the sentient robots we create. If machine learning is going to take its guidance from humanity, we need to level up humanity’s emotional maturity.

While the physical struggles of the future may indeed fall to the wayside amongst abundance, it’s unlikely to become a mundane world; instead, it will become a vibrant culture where each individual is striving against the most important struggle that affects all of us: the challenge to find inner peace, to find fulfillment, to build meaningful relationships, and ultimately, the challenge to find ourselves.

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This article originally appeared on Singularity Hub, a publication of Singularity University.

This Mini Wind Turbine Can Power Your Home in a Gentle Breeze

The first time you see a Nemoi wind turbine, you may not realize it’s a turbine at all. A white and silver metallic structure about the size of a garden shrub, Nemoi has three vertical blades that spin carousel-like around a central axis. The spinning is constant, but completely silent, and it doesn’t look fast enough to be generating much energy.

But appearances can be deceiving. According to its creator, Semtive Energy CEO Ignacio Juarez, a Nemoi turbine can power a four-person household at wind speeds of just 10-13 miles per hour. It’s also made of 95 percent recyclable aluminum, can be quickly assembled by one person, and is locally manufactured.

Semtive Energy / Flickr

Nemoi was created by energy startup Semtive, and with great timing—the International Energy Agency’s 2016 medium-term forecast for renewables predicts that by 2021, 60 percent of the world’s energy will come from renewables, and between now and then, wind turbines will go up at a rate of 2.5 every hour.

To really make renewables widespread, though, they need to be more accessible. This has already started to happen with solar, as evidenced by the panels you may see on your neighbors’ roofs. Wind is just as abundant as sunlight, but it’s been harder to adopt on a local scale, and that’s part of the problem Nemoi’s creators are trying to solve.

During a visit to Semtive’s office in Mountain View, Juarez told me about his motivation for building Nemoi, and his vision of decentralized, user-generated clean energy.

Smaller, closer, simpler

“We started wondering why there isn’t a wind turbine on every rooftop, and we started thinking about how to solve the problems with existing turbines,” he said. He explained that conventional turbines require high wind speeds, plus they’re big, heavy, and hard to install and maintain.

GE’s 1.5 MW model, for example, has blades 116 feet long, making the spinning blades’ diameter wider than the wingspan of a Boeing 747. You can’t just plop one of those down in the middle of your typical town or city.

That’s why we see wind farms extending across sprawling fields in the middle of nowhere. And while those massive horizontal-axis turbines are highly efficient, the energy they’re generating still has to be transported back to end users.

“You lose up to 40 percent of that energy from its point of generation to its point of use, because you need to transport it, store it, and convert it,” Juarez said. “The solution is to produce the energy where you’re going to consume it.”

And that’s what Nemoi turbines do. Upon being set up and plugged in, they immediately start to feed the grid, and can be operated off-grid as well. The goal is for each turbine to produce the same amount of energy its owner is using, or more.

“It’s the whole idea of houses becoming smarter, people generating what they need in their own homes,” Juarez said.

Marketing Manager Sofia Garcia Enciso added, “We want to motivate people to become ‘prosumers,’ or producers and consumers—you produce your own energy then consume it.”

The virtues of vertical

The turbines we’re used to seeing have horizontal axes; like windmills, their blades spin between parallel and perpendicular to the ground. As noted above, these turbines have gotten huge, because bigger means better when it comes to efficiency. Despite the energy that’s lost in transport and conversion, large turbines are still worth our while.

But there’s a limit to how big horizontal-axis turbines can get, and once we reach that limit, we’ll need a different solution. Dr. Maurizio Collu of Cranfield University’s Offshore Renewable Energy Center thinks vertical axis wind turbines (VAWTs) are the answer.

“Vertical-axis turbines…experience a constant gravitational force, always in the same direction,” he wrote. “Without the stress of holding up 80-meter metal blades by one end, VAWTs can potentially become much larger.”

Since their rotation doesn’t take up as much space as horizontal-axis turbines, he adds, vertical turbines can be placed closer to each other in a wind farm, meaning more electricity can be generated in a given area.

Add up more turbines per given square area and less wind needed to make them keep turning, and what you get is cheaper electricity. With Nemoi, Semtive has taken this concept and made it available to smaller-scale operations. “We see it as a step towards democratizing energy,” Juarez said.

Winds of change

Juarez and Garcia Enciso are from Argentina, and in keeping with their go-local mentality, Nemoi’s first big customer was the government of Buenos Aires. The city installed solar and wind-powered charging docks in subway stations, public parks, and other municipal areas, and attached panels and turbines to streetlights.

Semtive Energy / Flickr

Since then, Semtive has expanded its customer base to include distributors, utility companies, and end-users. “Customers at the end-user level are using wind to complement solar or as an alternative to installing solar panels,” Juarez said.

The turbines have an MSRP of $4,695. It’s not a small sum for most homeowners, but government subsidies and incentive programs are becoming more widespread as states and cities encourage their residents to go green.

At an average cost to the end user of five cents per kilowatt hour, Juarez estimates Nemoi owners get a full return on their investment as soon as two years into ownership—if they received a rebate and they live in a windy area—or seven years at the longest, for no rebate and low-wind areas. He estimated the cost of installing solar panels for equivalent energy generation to be around $20,000.

Given our growing energy needs, the benefits of vertical-axis turbine technology, and the cost and environmentalism-fueled movement toward renewables, Semtive has its work cut out for it.

Despite four years and countless iterations getting Nemoi’s design just right, though, Juarez and Garcia Enciso are aware that their growing pains aren’t over quite yet. Government regulations and energy policies currently pose some major limitations. In Argentina, for example, end users are not allowed to feed the grid yet.

The shift in cost and profit structures that will come with the decentralized energy made possible by technologies like Semtive’s will be tough to navigate for utilities, governments, and entrepreneurs alike. In the end, though, it’s hard to go wrong with energy sources that are both cheap and green.

“Governments are conscious that they need to start developing renewables,” Garcia Enciso said. “So their policies are starting to change.”

Image Credit: Semtive Energy / Flickr


This article originally appeared on Singularity Hub, a publication of Singularity University.

Sci-Fi Short Film ‘Uncanny Valley’ Paints a Dark Future for Virtual Reality

What’s the worst possible outcome of virtual reality technology going mainstream?

A generation of burnt-out, washed-up VR junkies losing touch with reality and surviving only to sustain their virtual existence.

That reality is where the haunting sci-fi short film, Uncanny Valley, begins. Written and directed by Argentine filmmaker Federico Heller, the short is already slated to be developed into a feature film.

We are introduced to several men who are squatting in a decaying building. In documentary style, these characters tell us about their lives and addiction to VR. One tells us he’s online for 17 hours a day, averaging “100 kills” a day in the immersive first-person shooter game that has become his life.

Another admits, “I haven’t left this house in quite a few years.”

uncanny-valley-arte-acto-ii_flotaciones_v_presentacion-5664cecb9a75fThese VR junkies depend on food printers for their sustenance and never have to leave their dwelling. They enter the virtual world via a thumb-sized device that attaches between the nostrils.

These are the outcasts of society. They find great solace in the virtual world where, by their own admission, they can feel free to express their anger in a way that’s not dangerous. In VR, they are free to do things that would get them locked up in the real world.

In a moment of ironic foreshadowing, one tells us, “I don’t feel comfortable around people, I don’t really know what I should say or do. Game play is just simpler. There’s no people. Just targets.”


The film tackles two frightening ideas: the consequences of addiction to immersive gameplay, and the even more frightening notion that the game is not merely a game.

It’s doubtful that we will end up with a generation of junkies addicted to VR, as portrayed in Uncanny Valley. It’s more likely that VR will unleash greater opportunity for creativity and collaboration than this film’s version of the future. However, we know that this kind of addiction is very real, and we have yet to understand how significant time spent in immersive virtual environments could affect children as well as adults.

Still, in another way, it’s possible we’re already living in a version of this frightening future.

It’s no secret warfare is becoming more and more automated. Drones are just one example of technology that can be controlled remotely to survey and kill. A few years ago, the Atlantic published “Playing War: How the Military Uses Video Games,” a piece that chronicles the history of the military’s connection with the video game industry.

“The military has used video games ‘at every organizational level for a broad array of purposes’….It’s had three big aims in this: to recruit soldiers, to train them, and, most recently, to treat their psychological disorders, such as PTSD…The military offers funding and technical expertise to game and computer developers, and, in exchange, they give it proprietary technology and technical consulting.” – Hamza Shaban, The Atlantic

Uncanny Valley, with its take on the potential dark side of VR, stays with you well after you finish watching it. Like all good sci-fi stories, it pulls back the curtain on a potential future and shows us a place we should be wary of. Check out the full film below, and stick around for the end. It’s worth it.

Images courtesy: 3DAR


This article originally appeared on Singularity Hub, a publication of Singularity University.