Back in 1922, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin invented the word Noosphere to describe a sphere of human thought. It is an emergence of human cognition that would fundamentally transform the biosphere (biological life) of the Earth. In our modern civilization there is developing a non-physical (though accessed through a multitude of physical devices) resource of enormous value and potentially enormous risk for humanity. There is now so much information available to people all over the planet via the internet that it is like a quantum leap in intelligence for our species. I depend on it to write this blog. I depend on it to craft dinner out of diverse ingredients I happen to have on hand. I would rather have a targeted recipe that I can keep or pitch than a shelf full of cookbooks (though there seems no dearth of new ones published – just think of the trees saved !!)
Not only do my children know that they can find the answer to anything they can think to ask a question about on the Internet but they also know to be wary about and try to discern what is more likely to be truthful from what is more likely fiction or myth. I use the internet to get a better sense of our Yemm & Hart recycled material’s customers (primarily interior designers and architects) by visiting their firm’s websites or track down contacts who have been on the move, often thanks to Linked In.
Today, I googled the answer to one of my children’s questions – “Is a mushroom a plant ?” Actually it isn’t, it has more in common with an animal but it is also simply a unique species of life that my sons spent all last winter studying thanks to the book “Missouri’s Wild Mushrooms” by Maxine Stone and then they spent all summer finding and identifying them and we ate many varieties of them. Even my youngest son, our most picky eater, has fallen in love with wild mushrooms. I have looked up images of mushrooms on the internet when the photo in the book just wasn’t enough. A friend signed me up for a mushroom group on Facebook.
Last Dec 29, 2014 an op-ed by Ray Kurzweil appeared in Time Magazine that had a more positive perspective on AI than Stephen Hawking or Elon Musk have been offering. He makes many arguments including that AI has reduced the violence (or loss of human life) in war situations. He also points to “safeguards” in Biotechnology created at a conference back in 1975 that while revised over time have worked very well to avoid the problems identified for almost 40 years now.
2015 marks the 10th anniversary of Kurzweil’s book – The Singularity is Near. In the decade since its publication, we’ve witnessed an explosion of breakthroughs in genetic engineering, medical regeneration of the human body, autonomous robotics, computing power, and renewable energy. Advanced sensor arrays and internet meshes are uniting all people and things within the interconnected environments we live in, and with each other. Today’s massively scaled, crowd-sourced knowledge, innovation, and shared human experience are driving this momentum. The future is now.
Kurzweil explains we’re already in the early stages of this transition, and within a few decades, life as we know it will be completely different. He says, “The singularity will be a merger of our bodies and minds with our technology. The world will still be human, but transcend our biological roots. There will be no distinction between human and machine, nor between physical and virtual reality. “If you wonder what will remain unequivocally human, it’s this quality — our species inherently seeks to extend its physical and mental reach beyond current limitations.”
In the Dec 2014 op-ed in Time Magazine, Kurzweil identified some effects that I certainly see with my children who are allowed unlimited access to electronics and the Internet in our home as part of their “free-spirit, self-guided, natural education”. He points out that AI is not being integrated into the world today in such a way as to spell the extinction of human beings. As one example, he says “AI is not in one or two hands; it’s in 1 billion or 2 billion hands. A kid in Africa with a smartphone has more intelligent access to knowledge than the President of the United States had 20 years ago. As AI continues to get smarter, its use will only grow. Virtually everyone’s mental capabilities will be enhanced by it within a decade.” Maybe instead of “artificial intelligence”, we should be thinking of this as distributed intelligence ?
Currently the mass migrations taking place out of the Middle East and Northern Africa into Europe include smartphones wrapped in plastic and rubber bands to protect them from moisture. Time Magazine in their Oct 19, 2015 issue has an article by Patrick Witty about why the smartphone is the refugee’s best friend. They use them to message people concerned about their welfare, take selfies and document their journey, use mapping apps to share their current location or the safest routes with others. This is a realm of internet based information put to entirely new uses in the sagas of humanity.
I already believe that the evolution of individual transportation (at least until we begin teleporting wherever we want to go) will definitely migrate to a dominance of self-driving vehicles, though there will remain those who like to drive a vehicle themselves for recreation or out of preference. Not only Google and many of the major automotive manufacturers but now also an announcement from Tesla, who’s recently equipped central operating system models S and X will simply update all of the models that have been purchased recently simultaneously over the airwaves.
There are many people who hope that technology will create a world that provides for every person at a reasonable level of basic qualities and even free us all to more fully realize our highest potentials. Others, such as the Center for Existential Risk which Stephen Hawking heads along with many other thoughtful illuminaries, plus the likes of Elon Musk and Bill Gates have grave concerns. Concerns that any thoughtful person also shares. The future is uncertain but technology is here to stay.
~ Information Resources
Noosphere – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noosphere
“What is a Mushroom ? Mushroom Facts” – http://www.gmushrooms.com/info.htm
The Old Mushroom Identification Page – a secret (and not so secret with over 1,300 members) group on Facebook
Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence – http://www.kurzweilai.net/
Time Magazine – http://time.com/
“Tesla’s Cars Now Drive Themselves, Kinda” by Molly McHugh posted Oct 14, 2015 at Wired.com – http://www.wired.com/2015/10/tesla-self-driving-over-air-update-live/
Centre for the Study of Existential Risk – http://www.cser.org/
“Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates Warn About Artificial Intelligence” by Michael Sainato on Aug 19, 2015 in the Observer – http://observer.com/2015/08/stephen-hawking-elon-musk-and-bill-gates-warn-about-artificial-intelligence/
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer
It is often hard for environmentalists to love plastics. A realist however knows that plastics are here to stay. Lately, I’ve become aware of several pieces of “good news” for plastics thanks to the publication known as “Plastics News”.
As with many aspects of life, there are good and bad qualities to things that exist in this world, including Cyanobacteria, also known as Algae. In an Aug 27, 2015 article titled “Researchers probe microbes for a future plastics building block” Michael Lauzon writes for Plastics News that “Researchers at the U S Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are tweaking cyanobacteria to produce ethylene through photosynthesis. . . . working with a specific strain . . . that makes ethylene when exposed to sunlight”, this sustainable process (if researchers can get its yields up) could mean that making plastics (ethylene) would also play a role in cutting atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide which is the greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. It just so happens that Ethylene is one of the chemicals this microbe makes when it converts carbon dioxide to biomass as it grows.
I find this exciting !! It may still be another 10 years before this research actually results in semi-commercial farms according to Jianping Yu who heads the research group at Golden CO. Previously, researchers explored a bio-based route to making ethylene from sugar cane or other plant matter. However this approach used lots of water in growing the feedstock plants and had the drawback of tying up land that could be used to grow food for a still growing global population. The new system works in both fresh water and more importantly in seawater, which is available in abundance on this planet. Happily oxygen is one of the byproducts of this cyanobacteria route. It is interesting to note that these ancient microbes are thought to have created most of earth’s oxygen billions of years ago when they were the dominant life form on the planet.
The new approach cuts the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere when compared to ethylene production sourced from oil and gas. Using fossil fuels generates between 1.5 and 3 tons of carbon dioxide per ton of ethylene. By contrast, the NREL approach removes 3.4 tons of carbon dioxide because the cyanobacteria capture CO2 from the air in order to perform its photosynthesis. Ethylene production is the highest volume petrochemical made on earth.
Mealworms are food for many living creatures including humans. Not that I’ve ever eaten them myself but I remember buying some to feed some creature we had responsibility for once upon a time. Mealworms are vegetarians feeding on fresh oats, wheat bran or grain, with sliced potato, carrots, or an apple as a source of moisture. I have seen them in novelty “food products” such as tequila-flavored candies which adds a definite creepiness factor. Mealworms are typically used as a pet food for captive reptiles, fish, and birds. They are also provided to wild birds in bird feeders, particularly during the nesting season. Mealworms are useful for their high protein content and are also used as fishing bait.
Now comes news that the plastic foam used for carryout food containers could become a new part of the mealworm’s diet and in the process solve a major garbage problem. It turns out that the larvae of the darkling beetle will actually feed on expanded polystyrene (EPS). The beauty of this is that microorganisms in their guts effectively biodegrade the EPS internally. The end result is that the larvae’s poop from this food source seems to be a safe product that may eventually be suitable as a soil product to grow more plant crops.
Researchers at Stanford University in the civil and environmental engineering department headed by professor Craig Criddle and senior researcher Wei-Min Wu in collaboration with colleagues in China have high hopes for its implications “to find a way to remediate current plastic pollution” according to Wei-Min Wu. Researchers at the Beihang University in China had previously observed waxworms, the larvae of Indian mealmoths, break down polyethylene in the form of plastic bags because of microorganisms existing in their guts.
The findings of the latest research are also “significant because EPS ‘has been considered basically non-biodegradable and it causes pollution problems in soil, rivers, lakes and oceans’, Wu said.” “Microbes in the guts of the baby bugs broke down the plastic and converted some of it into carbon dioxide and some of it into biodegradable fragments, which were excreted like tiny rabbit droppings within 24 hours.”
The researchers at Stanford and in China plan to study whether the microorganisms in mealworms and other insects could biodegrade other plastics, such as polypropylene, microbeads and bioplastics and they will also begin looking for a marine equivalent of the mealworm. “This is early stage research,” Criddle said. “We don’t know where it will go.” Their research may develop powerful enzymes to degrade plastic or guide manufacturers to design polymers that don’t accumulate in the environment or food chains.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge the work of the Vancouver, British Columbia-based organization known as the Plastic Bank which is monetizing plastic waste to reduce litter, especially marine debris, while helping people living in poverty.
The organization does this through standard commercial channels but not with the standard commercial emphasis on their own bottom line. Individuals voluntarily pick up discarded plastic from beaches, canals or streets and then take it to a collection center for recycling. The Plastic Bank then pays the center above-market rates for the recyclables — some of which are being ground into flake and injection molded into containers at Plascon Plastics Corp. in Delta, British Columbia, for Lush brand cosmetics. Also based in Vancouver, Lush has a green policy to protect people, animals and the planet in the production of its makeup and toiletries.
What’s not to feel GOOD about business that is managed this way ?
In Haiti, an individual who turns in their collected items will then be able to get cooking fuel, internet access or cell phone minutes, all items with a real world value. So that in a poverty-stricken pocket of the world plastic is upcycled instead of finding its way into the ocean. Ripples of a cleaner and better world have a significant impact even though it is coming from such a modest undertaking.
The co-founders of the Plastic Bank – David Katz and Shaun Frankson – call their recycled feedstock “social plastic”. They are leveraging social media to create demand for their materials. They have a page on Facebook titled “Social Plastic” which now has more than 1 million followers and Twitter users publicly ask major corporations to buy it and to do their part to reduce poverty and plastic waste.
A visionary thinker, Katz is a fan of plastic and how it can go from a PET bottle to a T-shirt to a car component. He raves about its versatility and durability. He sees solutions in its ability to change form and be used over and over — if properly handled. This is what Yemm & Hart does as well – take cleaned and ground up milk jugs and detergent bottles and turn them into construction grade panels that can be used to make restroom partitions and countertops. Personally, I have thought of our thick recycled plastic panels like the gold stored in Fort Knox. By keeping it out of the landfill, it remains viable into the future for re-use. A single 1″ thk panel at 60″ x 120″ typically used to fabricate a restroom partition side wall uses up approx 2,200 containers !!
~ Information Resources
“Researchers probe microbes for a future plastics building block” by Michael Lauzon posted in Plastics News on Aug 27, 2015 – http://www.plasticsnews.com/article/20150827/NEWS/150829910/researchers-probe-microbes-for-a-future-plastics-building-block
Mealworms info at Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mealworm
“Hungry mealworms may be the future of EPS recycling” by Catherine Kavanaugh posted in Plastics News on Oct 1, 2015 – http://www.plasticsnews.com/article/20151001/NEWS/151009984/hungry-mealworms-may-be-the-future-of-eps-recycling
PlasticBank.org – http://plasticbank.org/
“Plastic Bank aims to reduce marine debris, help people” by Catherine Kavanaugh posted in Plastics News on Oct 6, 2015 – http://www.plasticsnews.com/article/20151006/NEWS/151009927/plastic-bank-aims-to-reduce-marine-debris-help-people
“Social Plastic” on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/PlasticBank
Yemm & Hart Origins Slideshow illustrates applications for 100% post-consumer recycled HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) plastic – http://www.yemmhart.com/materials/origins/slideshow_origins/slideshow.html
The United States Bullion Depository Fort Knox, Kentucky – http://www.usmint.gov/about_the_mint/fun_facts/?action=fun_facts13
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer