Friday, March 16, 2012

The Future of Water: The Slingshot

Dean Kamen is possibly the world's greatest living inventor. Although he has been well-known among futurists for years, he rose to wider fame when he invented the Segway in 2001. His inventions also include the world's first wheelchair capable of climbing and descending stairs, and the world's first drug infusion pump which is used to provide diabetics with insulin on an as-needed basis. Kamen is remarkable because unlike most inventors, he does not work under the umbrella of a large corporation, university, or government agency. He is truly a DIY innovator.

Kamen's latest invention sets the stage to change the lives of billions of people over the next decade. His new water purification system, dubbed the Slingshot, is far cheaper and more accessible than anything that has come before it. The refrigerator-sized Slingshot is capable of taking “anything wet,” in Kamen's words, and transforming it into water that is so pure that it can be both consumed and used in sterile injections. It can convert ocean water, polluted water, or raw sewage from an outhouse into pure drinking water.

It works by heating the “raw” water to a boiling point, compressing it under just the right amount of pressure, then allowing it to condense and cool in a separate chamber of the machine. The technique is known as vapor compression distillation. The amount of energy that is required to power the machine is equivalent to the amount it takes to run a small coffee-maker, and enough energy is left over to allow the users to charge cell phones and other electronic devices. It can run on any source of energy, including cow dung. Since the parts of the world where clean water is in short supply tend to also be the places where electricity is in short supply, the ability to power the machine on cow dung is very important for its success. It means that it can work in societies which do not have any energy infrastructure in place.

Kamen plans to sell the machines for $1,000 to $2,000 – a bargain, considering that the machine can produce a thousand liters of clean water every day, and is designed to last for several years without any maintenance. Kamen envisions them being placed in communities all over the world and shared as communal property. He has partnered with Coca-Cola to use Coke's distribution channels to bring the Slingshot to the most remote parts of the world. At this price, even the poorest communities should be able to afford a Slingshot.

Nearly 50% of the world's disease burden is due to people not having access to clean water. More than 1.1 billion people do not have access to clean water, and the UN projects this number will rise to 2.7 billion people by 2025 if nothing changes. But the Slingshot will make sure that things do indeed change. It removes salt, chemicals, urine, feces, poison, parasites, bacteria, eggs, viruses, and all other substances that make water undrinkable.

At the Slingshot's price and energy requirements, water shortages – arguably the biggest cause of extreme poverty in the world today – could be virtually eliminated, as the machine is rolled out to the poorest parts of the world via Coca-Cola's world-class distribution channels. In the longer term, Slingshot (or its successors) could even be able to “greenify” regions of the world like the Arabian Peninsula, which have plenty of salt water nearby but very little freshwater. We could solve many of the environmental problems that our agricultural systems have created by recycling polluted water.

97.5% of the world's water is salt water, and another 1.8% is locked up in the glaciers and ice caps. All of our water shortages are due to lack of access to the remaining 0.7% of the world's water. If we can tap into just a tiny fraction of the previously unusable water by removing salt, we could provide plenty of water for everyone on earth.


By 2030 – Less than 3% of the world's people do not have access to clean drinking water.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Ten Random Ideas

It's been a while since I posted a new blog entry. Since I don't have any specific subject on my mind today, I thought I would just share ten random facts, theories, or ideas that I find fascinating:

1. Dark matter and dark energy – We have no idea what 96% of the universe is made of. Physicists confirm that only about 4% of the universe is composed of the familiar matter that we're accustomed to. Another 24% is made up of dark matter (which only interacts with regular matter via gravity), and 72% is made up of dark energy (which is a repulsive force that causes space itself to expand). But we have no clue what dark energy or dark matter are.

2. Toba Catastrophe Theory - Approximately 70,000 years ago, a supervolcano erupted on Lake Toba, on the island of Sumatra in present-day Indonesia. This eruption was so unimaginably enormous that it blanketed all of South Asia in 15 centimeters of ash, and put enough ash into the atmosphere to cause a volcanic winter, which abruptly changed the entire planet's climate for several decades. At this time, humanity nearly went extinct - the entire human population may have been reduced to just 1,000 breeding pairs, creating a bottleneck in human evolution. We are all descended from the few survivors of this apocalypse.

3. String theory - Why don't the rules of physics that apply to macroscopic objects (i.e. the theory of relativity) seem to apply to particles (i.e. quantum mechanics) and vice versa? Since macroscopic objects are composed of particles, it would stand to reason that they should. String theory attempts to reconcile these two sets of laws by postulating that at an extremely tiny scale (much smaller than subatomic particles), the universe is made up of tiny vibrating strings. Different vibrations produce different kinds of particles. It also calls for the existence of 6 or 7 extra dimensions, which we don't notice in our every day lives because they are so tiny. So far there is zero evidence that string theory is correct, but it has widespread support among physicists due to its mathematical elegance. This is one of the first serious scientific hypotheses to be considered not because the evidence necessarily suggests it is correct (at least not yet), but because physicists believe that the universe “should” be simple. If it proves to be right, it may call for us to reevaluate how scientific theories should be developed.

4. Happiness Economics - For the last 200 years, economists have mostly measured wellbeing in terms of money, such as measurements like GDP. While this is often a good approximation of human wellbeing, it's a crude tool. Consider that Russia and Mexico have approximately the same GDP per capita, yet Mexicans consistently report being much happier than Russians do. Maybe the next big shift in economics is to determine the policies most likely to improve a population's happiness, rather than assuming that more GDP growth will do the trick.

5. Self-driving cars - The transportation industry is about to see its biggest game-changing revolution since the invention of the automobile itself. Self-driving cars are being tested by Google, Stanford University, Carnegie-Mellon, and every major automobile manufacture. They're already on the road being tested, but aren't commercially available yet. They should be by 2017-2020. This will radically change the way we live our lives. It will eliminate most of the 40,000 annual traffic fatalities in the United States, which are mostly caused by human error. It will free us from the stresses of daily commutes, and allow us to do things other than watch the road. And for many people it will eliminate the need for car ownership entirely, as it will be easy to simply summon a car to pick you up whenever you need one.

6. Biology causing mass extinctions - It turns out that we humans are not the first species in the history of the earth to single-handedly wreck the planet's climate. We share that distinction with at least two others: Cyanobacteria and Azolla Ferns. 2.4 billion years ago when life was very primitive and microbial, there wasn't much oxygen in the atmosphere. Therefore, nearly all species were anaerobic - they had evolved in conditions of very little oxygen. Over time, a species of cyanobacteria began to proliferate which excreted oxygen as a waste product. This changed the composition of the earth's atmosphere and poisoned nearly all of the anaerobic species, resulting in the extinction of most types of life on earth. More recently, a mere 49 million years ago the earth had an extremely warm climate, in which ferns were able to grow as far north as the arctic. They began proliferating around the Arctic Ocean, sucking up lots of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and then sinking to the bottom of the ocean when they died. This sudden reduction in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere caused global cooling, which eventually turned the entire planet from a greenhouse into an icehouse.

7. Simulation Hypothesis - Is our reality a simulation, like The Matrix? Transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom thinks so. Consider the following argument: If we assume that it is possible to create simulated worlds, and that at least one species somewhere in the universe would like to do so, then we are almost certainly living in such a simulation. Why? Because such a civilization would be likely to create multiple simulations (some of which might be running simulations of their own), and so probability would dictate that it's far more likely we are living in one such simulation than in the "original" universe. You can be the judge as to how compelling you find this argument...but I can't find any obvious flaws in the logic.

8. Post-scarcity - Assuming that we don't blow ourselves up and that we don't encounter civilization-wrecking climate change in the next few decades, we will soon enter into an age of abundance where virtually everyone has access to the basic necessities of life. This is due to a convergence of several trends. As genomics improves, we will soon be able to grow meat in laboratories and grow crops hydroponically, eliminating the need for most farms/ranches, ensuring a stable food supply, giving the environment a much-needed breather from the damage we've done, and freeing up freshwater to be used for humans. As solar energy improves (the capacity is growing exponentially), it will soon be able to compete dollar-for-dollar with fossil fuels...and soon thereafter leave fossil fuels in the dust. Education will become much cheaper due to effective online tools that are finally becoming available, and the subsequent end of the 19th/20th century model of education. Health care will become much better due to effective personalized medicine, which will proliferate as it finally becomes affordable to have your genome sequenced.

9. VY Canis Majoris - The scale of some of the objects in our universe is so unimaginably vast that it's difficult for us to comprehend. The largest known star is called VY Canis Majoris, and it's located about 4,000 light-years away from us. It's so big that if it were placed in the middle of our solar system, its surface would extend beyond the orbit of Saturn and it could hold over a billion suns (or 11 quadrillion earths). Wow. That's big.

10. The hidden potential of the human brain - Some people (usually with autism) have a rare mental condition called synesthesia, where the senses get mixed up due to neural connections in the brain getting routed to the wrong place. This may take the form of associating numbers with specific shapes or colors, or associating certain sounds with textures or smells. Synesthetes are often capable of amazing feats, such as memorizing pi to tens of thousands of digits or creating beautiful works of art with little training. It is thought that we all have these astounding abilities somewhere within our brain, but we can't access it because we don't yet understand how our brains work enough to unlock those neural pathways.