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
I think that some of the most exciting developments in human evolution are in the realm of new and creative approaches to harnessing energy. Certainly, our dependence on fossil fuels – coal and petroleum – has done such damage to the environment of the planet that the sustainability of human life is uncertain. The new Pope Francis has taken the issue to heart saying “An economic system centred on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it. The system continues unchanged, since what dominates are the dynamics of an economy and a finance that are lacking in ethics.”
However, it may be that human ingenuity will yet come to our rescue.
I love trees !! So this unique approach to harvesting wind energy being developed by NewWind of France is reaching right down deeply into my environmentalist heart. Each tree like structure includes a hundred mini-windmills. I suspect that such trees will pose far less risk to birds than the gargantuan windmills that make up the wind farms.
Due to the light construction of the “leaves,” the Wind Tree generates power at wind speeds as low as 4.4 miles per hour! This translates into sustained operation times (an average of 320 days a year) that are almost double those of standard windmills that need higher wind speeds in order to produce electricity. Total output for the tree is about 3.1 kiloWatts. This is substantially below standard windmills, but they can’t operate on as many days due to higher wind thresholds.
The Wind Tree is made entirely of steel and, according to the manufacturer, it is completely silent while running. Each tree is about 36 feet tall and 26 feet wide, allowing it to reach above low obstacles like buildings and other smaller trees and have uninterrupted access to breezes at that level. They can either be plugged in to the public grid or used to power an individual building or complex.
Each tree costs about $36,500, but the payback will be fast. “Planting” them in “groves” may be the key to making the model work most cost effectively. NewWind is planning a test this March, with several units being installed in Paris.
Harnessing wind power really isn’t a new idea. The first grinding of grain harnessing wind power may have developed in Persia. Evidence of windmills in England dates from the 12th century. Wind was not the first non-human power source applied to the task of grinding corn – it was preceded by both animal power, and in all probability by water power. And of course, the Dutch are famous for employing their own unique style of windmill to pump water.
Our family unexpectedly discovered the Shattuck Windmill Museum and Park while traveling through Oklahoma to share Thanksgiving Dinner with family. This little museum was established in 1994 by a gathering of old windmillers. By January 2013 there were 62 diverse examples of windmills standing in the park with no two exactly alike. Beyond displaying these historic structures the park also shows visitors how homesteaders lived and why the windmill was so important to their survival. The park is located at the junction of US Highway 283 and OK State Highway 15.
Wind is the movement of air from an area of high pressure to an area of low pressure. In fact, wind exists because the sun unevenly heats the surface of the Earth. As hot air rises, cooler air moves in to fill the void. As long as the sun shines, the wind will blow. And as long as the wind blows, people will harness it to power their lives.
Wind is a clean source of renewable energy that produces no air or water pollution. And since the wind is free, operational costs are nearly zero once a turbine is erected. Mass production and technology advances are making turbines cheaper, and many governments offer tax incentives to spur wind-energy development.
Some people think wind turbines are ugly and complain about the noise the machines make. The slowly rotating blades can also kill birds and bats, but not nearly as many as cars, power lines, and high-rise buildings do. The wind is also variable: If it’s not blowing, there’s no electricity generated.
During our travels of the blue highways of the back roads we encountered the biggest wind farm we had ever seen in Texas. It turned out to be a project promoted by T Boone Pickens. He bought 500 turbines from GE to build the farm. But then the recession hit hard in late 2008, the Texas wind farm struggled to get the proper transmission lines permitted, and natural gas started on its downward spiral in price, making clean power less attractive to investors.
I’m not complaining about the incredibly low gas prices we are all experiencing currently in the United States. Some of that is driven by excess supply generated by the fracking boom and I suspect some of this has to do with geopolitics influenced by both the Middle East and Russia but I wonder if humanity is being short-sighted about the long-term costs. A General Accounting Office report noted that “shale oil and gas development poses risks to air quality, generally as the result of (1) engine exhaust from increased truck traffic, (2) emissions from diesel-powered pumps used to power equipment, (3) gas that is flared (burned) or vented (released directly into the atmosphere) for operational reasons, and (4) unintentional emissions of pollutants from faulty equipment or impoundment-temporary storage areas”.
But back to novel approaches to harnessing wind energy, how about the winds that blazing-fast trains create (and mechanical forces and energy beyond that including the heat of stations, train car interiors and even the sweat of passengers) ? Around the world, small-scale projects are starting to find innovative ways to harness all this energy. Passengers waiting for a train on the platform are accustomed to the whoosh of wind when their train arrives. Making use of China’s high-speed rail network, designers Jiang Qian and Alessandro Leonetti Luparini have created a prototype of a small power generator called the T-box to make use of those gusts.
Knowing that all “good” things (a relative term if ever there was one) pass, I remain optimistic about human creativity and all of the ways that humanity is going to find to access energy that we never considered as a resource and have either been wasting the potential of or failing to harness the presence of – like wind which is as constant as the sun shining somewhere on this planet every minute of every day.
~ Information Resources
Pope Francis’s edict on climate change will anger deniers and US churches – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/27/pope-francis-edict-climate-change-us-rightwing
History of Windmills – http://www.windmillworld.com/windmills/history.htm
Shattuck Windmill Museum – http://www.shattuckwindmillmuseum.org/
Wind Power Information – http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/wind-power-profile/
T Boone’s wind farm plans finally blow away – https://gigaom.com/2012/10/15/t-boones-wind-farm-plans-finally-blow-away/
How Has Fracking Changed Our Future ? – http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/energy/great-energy-challenge/big-energy-question/how-has-fracking-changed-our-future/
6 Ways to Harness the Wasted Energy of Trains (and Their Passengers) – http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/energy/efficiency/6-ways-to-harness-wasted-transit-energy#slide-5
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer