organic and traditional farming, a choice between two evils.

Image by Photoeverywhere.co.uk (CC BY)

In this post I’ll ask you to choose between two evils. Do you want organic grown food or do you want your food from the traditional industrialized farm? Although some make organic food out to be the only way forward there are some significant downsides to it as well.

First the problems with the more traditional farms. They use a lot of pesticides, artificial manure and other chemicals to increase the yield of their crop and promote growth. Large area’s of land become a monoculture with only one race of plants. Hurting biodiversity and putting our food sources at risk of diseases.

On the other hand we have the organic farms. They are free of pesticides use natural manure and rotate crops to keep the soil healthy. The downside is that the yield per acre is lower. You simply need more space to feed the same amount of people. And there are some indications that this gets worse as more farmers turn to organic farming because pesticides from other fields can’t contaminate the organic fields and indirectly protect the fields of organic farms. We already cut down a lot of tropical rainforests in favour of the food production. If we were to turn to organic food as a solution for the masses we might as well say goodbye to the rainforests now.

The problems are worse in both industries when we take into account the animal farming. In the traditional farms animals don’t have a lot of room and the number of animals kept in one place promotes disease. To maximize production growth hormones are added to an already high calorie diet. To make sure animals aren’t getting sick they use loads of antibiotics. This decreases effectiveness of antibiotics in general and brings with it the very real danger of antibiotics becoming useless. Resistant bacteria are already creating major problems in hospitals around the world.

In the organic farm animals get more room, get a more natural feed and take a longer time to grow. Though this is great for the animals it also means that you need a larger farm for fewer animals. And since the feed is organic as well you get a compound effect of space required needed to get a same amount of meat. Also the impact on the climate per animal is higher due to their more natural diet. Though there is a decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) this is made up by an increase in the amount of methane (CH4) and laughing gas (N2O) they produce which are more powerful greenhouse gasses and therefore have a greater net impact on the environment.

The biggest trouble with meat industry is the enormous amount of resources it requires. To produce a kilo of beef you need 9 kilograms of food and 15.000 litres of water (20 pounds and 4000 gallons respectively). The difference between these is negligible between both industries. They just require huge spaces of land to be sacrificed to produce the meat we eat. Though pork and chicken have better returns it still is a huge demand on the fresh water supply and the food chain.

The best thing would be if we would eat less meat. And some initiatives like the meat-free Thursday could have a major impact if widely adopted. The trouble is that we don’t want to eat less meat, on the contrary as more people can afford it the consumption will only increase. This is because we are programmed to eat meat and like it because meat used to be scarce. Also eating meat is a status symbol, it signifies you are wealthy enough to eat a more expensive type of food. If that is not bad enough there is a psychological phenomenon at work. The not in my backyard phenomenon. Most people think we should eat less meat as a whole at least if it doesn’t affect us personally. When it threatens to affect us personally we will resist the change.

So if the standard farm isn’t good and the organic industry isn’t a good alternative what should we do then? We’ll combine the best of both worlds. You see this in greenhouses. They reduced the number of pesticides needed to grow tomato’s and paprikas to almost zero in the Netherlands by using insects to fight pests that can destroy the crop while they can still use artificial manure to increase the yield of the harvest. This can be implemented relatively easily around the world. In the meat industry test are ongoing to see if antibiotic use can be lowered by adding garlic to the diet because it has antibiotic properties. Results so far are optimistic.

A solution for our meat problem could be insects. They require relatively little water and food to grow when compared to chickens for instance, let alone pigs or cows. Insects have also been eaten traditionally around the world as a source of protein. The trouble is that as people get wealthier they start to favour meat too insects. In the Western World it is even worse as the eating of insects is considered unacceptable. A solution could be grounding it up into burgers and rebranding it.  The eating of imitation crab became acceptable when we started calling it surimi. By grounding it we don’t need to be reminded of the origin which is a plus for most consumers who rather don’t like to be reminded that their beef came from a cow either.

Another solution could be the use of algae as a basis for the animal feed. In contrast to soy and corn it can be grown anywhere provided you can get water there and it is highly nutritious. Algae can be fed using the manure from the animals in effect recycling the waste. At the moment algae farms cannot compete with soy just yet though, being a factor ten more expensive. This will be overcome when it is produced on a larger scale or when crops start to fail more often due to more extreme weather patterns as a consequence of global warming.

A last solution, still far off is just growing the meat we need. When we eat beef we mostly eat muscle tissue with a bit of fat. The rest, organs, bones and less desired meat cuts, are pretty much waste products. Wouldn’t it be great if we could only grow the bits we need? This is exactly what researchers are trying to do. Only grow muscle tissue in large vats and eliminate a lot of unnecessary waste products. It will be years before we actually get to this stage however. Currently it costs an enormous amount of money to grow a small piece of meat which isn’t even tasty either. When we do however, we will see new types of meat hitting the shelves. Fancy a roast of lion perhaps?

Advertisements

Robot workforce: A bright future

Artist rendering of a space mine (NASA, 1977)

Artist rendering of a space mine (NASA, 1977)

As robots become more complex they will replace more and more jobs. In these articles I will examine the implications of increasing unemployment. Now the last story.

As money on a governmental level has been abolished we will have an unprecedented opportunity for great projects which are now hampered by available funding. Programs (largely) abandoned for economic reasons or just sheer technical difficulty can once again flourish. Even projects not even attempted yet can get a go ahead.

We will see permanent bases on the Moon and Mars. Maybe even on Europe, a moon of Jupiter, which is likely to be covered in a liquid ocean. Both the Moon and Mars might eventually see their population reach in the millions, even if it will take a while. We will send robots first preparing the land and building the colonies until humans can come. The moon will be a premium location for space tourism because it is close to earth and because it still has gravity. True micro gravity (which you have in the ISS for instance) makes many people sick, not what you’d want on your holiday.

We will start terraforming Mars. We will build factories which put greenhouse gasses into the air, warming the planet. It will melt the ice eventually and we will seed the first plants on it’s surface (or actually moss, which precedes plant life on earth). Eventually making Mars a relatively lush planet, at least near it’s equator. When the oxygen level gets high enough we might see cities that mirror the cities on earth. Even if, due to the lower gravity, the buildings might be a little more imposing. The hardest part might even be to create a stable biosphere with diverse plant and animal life.

New Mining opportunities will arise.  Space and deep sea mining will become normal. In space we can mine asteroids and comets for water, organic compounds and precious metals. It might be the key for interstellar travel. The hardest part of building large spaceships is getting the required materials into space.  To escape the gravity of a planet you need tremendous amounts of energy, which is why we need rockets. Of course if we used materials mined from the moon we would safe on fuel due to the lower gravity but it would still require a lot. When we have a complete production line in space there will be nearly no limit to what we can build in space. We could start relatively simple by reclaiming the space junk in earth’s orbit today having the bonus of not having to refine the mined ores you’d get from asteroids.

Deep sea mining in some ways is even harder then mining in space. Although you need not worry about extreme temperatures you do need to worry about extreme pressure. The pressure difference between space and earth is one atmosphere the difference between sea level and the bottom of the ocean can be over a 1000 atmospheres. still deep sea mining is interesting since over 70% of the earth’s surface is covered in ocean’s. The first steps of mining under water are already under way. For instance off the Namibian coast the seabed is mined for high quality diamonds. The use of robots could potentially keep the environmental impact down.

We will see innovation and exploration on a scale unprecedented in human history, it can be a great time. When this will happen is impossible to know. Some technologies needed are developed as we speak. I think for instance that professional drivers (pilots, captains, taxi drivers and truck drivers) will be replaced by robotic drivers within my lifetime and rather sooner, say before 2030, then later. Other technologies, like space mines might be a little further off. But I truly think that we are one of the last generations that knows what it is to work for our money.

Robot workforce: Education and purpose

Image by woodleywonderworks (CC BY)

As robots become more complex they will replace more and more jobs. In these articles I will examine the implications of increasing unemployment. Today the fourth story out of five.

In 1979 Pink Floyd sang the legendary words “We don’t need no education.” These words might have been prophetic. When there is no more work we will not need the traditional education system any more since it is geared towards preparing you for a job. It is naïve to think there won’t be any education whatsoever however. Humans are naturally inquisitive and in a stimulating environment we want to learn. The basic premise of education will change however. From an education system which centres on what we as a society expect from students we will get an education system which centres on individual qualities and interests.

By a society driven education system I don’t mean individual tastes and preferences have no place in the current education system. Of course you can choose if you want an alpha beta or gamma education and later on you choose your own profession. But accept for those choices society expects a certain standard from you. We expect a basic understanding of math, writing, geography, history etc. and based on what level education you have and what profession you choose we expect certain skills to be more advanced and at least at a minimal professional level.

In an education focussed on the individual there are no minimal requirements. In theory if someone  would not want to learn anything he/she would not have to. But as stated we are naturally inquisitive and want to learn and therefore we will. Schools which focus on individual preferences from children already exist. A good example is the democratic school for instance where kids are free to explore any topic they want as long as they are at school. If a kid wants to fish for half a year straight it can and it will learn anything and everything that has to do with fishing on its own. Teachers are present but don’t teach in the traditional sense. They help the children to find what they are looking for but will not steer them in a certain direction.

Reading and writing skills will come more naturally. Let’s take the kid which wants to learn about fishing. If it wants to get better it will need to read a book about fish. It will teach itself to read with the help of teachers so it can get better at fishing. You will see the child will read much quicker then other kids who are more traditionally schooled because it is interested in the subject matter in stead of having to begin with some abstract uninteresting words. If the kids get certain skills at a professional level is up to them. In our society that could be a problem because if they don’t get there they need welfare benefits and cost money. In the neo communist society it isn’t a problem since nobody needs to work anyway.

After we ‘graduate’ from school we will need to find a purpose in life. Nowadays many people find purpose in their work, caring for the kids etc. But without jobs, the household being cleaned by a robot maid and a robot nanny for the kids we will have to find new purposes in life. We will become an adventure and hobby driven society.  The entertainment industry will boom and we will travel like we have never travelled before. We will try and find purpose in our hobbies trying to be best at whatever we like. Who knows, some might actually become scientists out of hobby. Our primary care will be to be happy. The irony will be that the pressure to be happy will actually cause depression for some people. Those who fail to have a purpose in life will die unhappy, often too soon. Problems with drug abuse and other addictions will become greater.

Robot workforce: The end of money

By Vmenkov (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

As robots become more complex they will replace more and more jobs. In these articles I will examine the implications of increasing unemployment. We are halfway now with our third story.

When (nearly) all of our jobs have been replaced by robots and computers we will find that our current economic system is obsolete. The trouble with nobody having work is that nobody gets paid. When nobody gets paid nobody has any money to spend to keep the economy running.

Well we could think about doing away with money altogether but we will find it is impractical.  The problem we have without money is that not all goods will be readily available. We only have one Earth, space will therefore still be at a premium, we just can’t all live in a villa. Other goods are limited by the available resources. The government could decide to issue certain premium goods each month in an extreme communistic fashion. This, however, would limit our freedom so much that most will find it an unacceptable proposition.And even if we were able to find a way with doing away with money we would find that trading is engrained in our core being. We have been trading for millennia maybe even for millions of years, it is part of our DNA. This means that we would be uneasy without any form of money or trade.

Best way to go therefore is a midway. Governments issue an amount of credits per person which you can spend as you wish. If you want more space you buy a bigger house but it means you cannot spend the money on the latest gadget. This allows the government to preserve the individual freedom while also controlling the space and resources available so shortages won’t arise. As a society we would all basically become upper middle class people, not just in the countries which have the power today but in the entire world. Poverty could actually be abolished.

On an intergovernmental level money could be abolished altogether. Governments can tackle any project they want provided they can get the necessary resources for the project. This will open grand new possibilities which I will examine in a later story.

This might seem like a communist idea but the difference between a true communist government and this neo communism is that it can have a multi party government. Each party with different agenda’s. The production in mining, agriculture, industry and services will be higher than ever because machines do not care if they get paid or not, how long they work and under what circumstances and just produce things as it is needed. (with technologies as 3D printing factories might even be able to switch instantly between products). Even the capitalist ideal of a true 24/7 economy will become a reality in this society.

This transition won’t come easy though. There are a lot of forces acting against it. 90% (this is a wild guess) of the world would become (a lot) richer. Trouble is the richest 10% will become (a lot) poorer. And let those 10% be the people who have a lot of power. They are politicians, CEO’s and other influential people. It would also require a new level of intergovernmental cooperation to distribute resources equally. One country might have a lot of coal while another has a lot of iron ore and a third has, basically, nothing. If the governments with natural resources do not share with governments without natural resources a new kind of poverty could be born. Some countries, like the Netherlands where I live, do not have many natural resources but can rely on urban mining (fancy word for recycling) to still participate in the global new economy if needed. Mostly countries without natural resources and which are poor today (which means they don’t have a lot of stuff to recycle which will be of value) would be left out.

Robot workforce: Turbulent times

As robots become more complex they will replace more and more jobs. In these articles I will examine the implications of increasing unemployment. Today the second of five articles.

The first countries to notice the shift in employment are of course the third world countries. The least educated are always the first to suffer and the least educated can be found in third world countries. This will mean the income divide between rich and poor countries will once again grow and that any progress made in the recent years will become undone. Food shortages will lead to riots and revolts. Third world countries do have an advantage to other countries because a relatively high percentage of the population is still employed in the agricultural sector and those people can, in effect, feed themselves. For people in cities the economic downfall might be harder.

In the typical European welfare state we won’t see all that much at first. The jobless will get benefits from the state. Businesses might pay a higher income tax helping the state deal with the higher unemployment. Unfortunately this cannot last and eventually the welfare state collapses. In several years at best or in several days in a worst case scenario many people will be without income of any kind. Countries without this support system will find more and more people roaming the streets. Welfare organizations will be overwhelmed. When the support system collapses protests and even riots may be prone in many cities. It is not unthinkable wars for resources will break out.

We will see a rise in anti technology parties similar to the extreme right fascist parties. They will not target foreigners (as much) but will orchestrate terrorist attacks against companies they feel are responsible for their misfortune. As unemployment rises the fascist parties might even gather a considerable following. Some countries might even get fascist governments distrusting other countries which seemingly embrace these new technologies. This will potentially destabilize the area in which such a country is situated creating tension in the region.

Fascist government or not all governments will initially react by suppressing the advancement of robotics in the workplace. It is human nature to shun new things and try to hold on to what you had, especially when you were in the lead. We have seen this for instance with the entertainment industry trying to fight a losing battle against internet piracy. This is a temporary measure and cannot work in the long run. Countries embracing the new technologies will eventually find themselves in the lead. Their increased production will help to undercut prices in other countries helping them recover from the recession. When others get in on it we will see a new global economic boom and a new society structure will emerge.

Robot workforce: The robots are coming

As robots become more complex they will replace more and more jobs. In the coming months I will examine the implications of increasing unemployment. Today the first of five articles.

As computers get smaller and more powerful and robots get more sophisticated more and more jobs will be replaced by technology. Eventually there won’t be enough jobs left to keep the entire population working. We have seen a steady increase in automation for years and it is likely that it will continue into the future. Jobs like the telephone operator are a thing of the past. Nowadays we see bank tellers being replaced by ATM’s and internet banking; factory workers are being replaced with an ever increasing automated production line and the first automated vehicles are on the road today threatening to put every professional driver out of work eventually.

We won’t have much of a problem for years to come seen as the increase in technology will create jobs we haven’t even thought of today. The workers which are unnecessary in one field will find work in another. Eventually, however, there just won’t be enough jobs any more to go round. An ever increasing number of people will never have a job in their life. The single reason we still have to work today in production plants is because robots cannot replace us yet. We are more nimble than a robot and thus can complete tasks way beyond a robots dexterity. Robots however are getting more nimble all the time.

In the services industry we still are ahead in thinking creatively and in understanding one another. But with a computer winning Jeopardy it is only a matter of time before they will beat us in that department as well. You can even see it happening as automated costumer services are starting to replace human interaction for larger companies. Some websites allow you to ask the computer a question which it will try to answer as best it can.

You might feel irreplaceable right now and think this is a long way off.  You might reason that a computer is a long way off from a human and cannot do what humans can. The trouble is that they don’t need to. A computer only needs to be good at the task that it is designed to do. It doesn’t need to be good at darts if we want it to do the weather forecasting.

Of course the first to suffer here will be the least educated workers. Their work is usually easiest to replace. But eventually more and more highly educated workers will find themselves obsolete. Even the boardrooms of the major corporations will not be filled with humans eventually. Everyone will be laid off from a cost and efficiency perspective.

You might think about becoming a scientist or a programmer in the hope of not being replaced. However when  artificial intelligence become sophisticated enough they can start designing themselves and at a pace that will be far to fast for humans to keep up. Some will say that computers cannot be creative and thus cannot design themselves. However creativity in the end is just a algorithm in our heads. In a recent competition programmers designed a program to let the computer make a painting like the Victory Boogie Woogie by Mondriaan. It ain’t much yet but it’s a first step towards true creativity.

A story about forgetfulness, numbers and associations

Think about a Beatles song. Got it? Now think of a song from Queen and then Meat Loaf. I’m pretty sure the ones you didn’t think about were: Boys, Keep Yourself Alive and For Crying Out Loud. More likely the songs you thought about were Hey Jude, Bohemian Rhapsody and Paradise By The Dashboard light (based on their place in the Dutch 2012 Top 2000). Chances are you haven’t even heard about the first trio  or you forgot about them a long time ago.

This post is about music (if you haven’t guessed that already). Music nowadays is under attack by pretty much anyone who isn’t from the current generation (and even by some from the current generation). We like to think that music from the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s was better. I however am not that sure. We will have to wait at least 20 years before we can even think about determining if music was better back then.

The trouble is when we think of music from bygone eras is that we think of the best songs, the biggest hits, the ones that stuck. The music that wasn’t as good, as I have demonstrated above, we forget about. Music nowadays doesn’t seem as good just because we haven’t had time to filter out the bad songs yet, the one day flies. When listening to MTV (they sometimes actually still show music videos) you’ll get a wide array of music, some of which will make it and some of which we’ll forget about, even if it sold a gazillion copies today.

Another thing you have to keep in your mind is that when talking about bands like The Beatles, Queen, Elvis, Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones is that their career spans decades (and some are still going). In this time they produced many albums and dozens of songs. Artists who came up in recent years don’t have that career yet. They may have an album or two and a dozen songs or so but it will take time to get as many songs as the aforementioned bands have (and many never will.) Simple truth is that if you write a million songs chances are that at least one will be (very) good.

Last thing I need to talk about is the association you have with music. As many have said before me: music is emotion. When you think about music from bygone eras you usually think about music from your youth. This music has a strong emotional attachment for you because your youth is filled with lots of happy memories (usually). Our youth is filled with firsts (first day of school, first crush, first kiss etc.), and firsts are the things we remember most. Firsts are our accomplishments, our success and thus we associate our youth with excitement and happiness. When we grow up the number of firsts dwindles fast (simply because you cannot experience a first kiss for a second time) and so we remember less from it and our association might become less happy with it.

Now some will say that they listen to music from the 70’s and 80’s even though they are a child from the 90’s and that the argument above is irrelevant. We’ll I’m guessing that your parents listen to this music and thus it is music from your youth. And even if that is not the case, not everybody conforms to the majority of course.

All those forces are at play when you think about music from bygone eras so that it seems music back then was better. Just keep that in mind next time you listen to today’s music. I also like to say I do not want to talk down aforementioned bands. Music that survived this long just has got to be good and I’m thankful I can still listen to it today (and still do). This story is about perspective, not about talking trash.

Will Moore’s Law hold true

Moore’s law states that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles (roughly) every two years. This has held true ever since the first observation by Dr. Moore in the 60’s. It has been at the basis of our rapid increase in technology. There might be a problem however. The current technology is pretty much at it’s max. Transistor increase is slowing in the next few years and might actually stop eventually unless we get a new technology altogether.

I think we will find something to perpetuate Moore’s law. First is that our current technology isn’t the first inception of computer technology. Before integrated circuits we had transistors, vacuumtubes and even computers based on mechanical components. All these followed a similar pattern in the increase of computing power over time. This makes it likely to say that another technology will come along soon so that Moore’s law will stay true.

We still have a long way to go before computers can’t get any more powerful due to the basic laws of physics.

Let’s not be arrogant

I love science fiction. The possibility it shows us of a better world (and dangers that might come with it) I find inspiring. I especially like Star Trek the promise of a world free of racism, poverty, disease and hunger, peace not only on Earth but also with other worlds and alien races is something to strife for. (To avoid conflict I also enjoy Star Wars and other shows/movies/books etc.)

However when you watch documentaries or read about the future whether science fiction will ever come true scientists cannot help but to put you down. They like to use words like can’t won’t shan’t. I once heard a professor say that an antimatter propulsion system would be impossible because even if we would use every particle accelerator on earth and put it on full antimatter production it would still take an impossibly long time (he used a number but it’s been a while since I’ve seen it) to make enough antimatter to power a spaceship. I do not doubt he is right, at least at this moment. I do however think that we should not get too arrogant.

We are still at the beginning of the age of discovery. Modern science is only a few hundred years old, it is arrogant to think we know everything. Technology is progressing so fast that it is impossible to know where we will stand in one hundred years, even fifty is a long shot. If you look at computers you will see what I mean: the laptop I’m writing this post from is about as fast as the best super computer in 1993. It only took 20 years to get from a computer the size of a (small) building to something that is small and light enough to sit on my lap. Even if something is impossible by today’s standard we might find by tomorrow that it’s actually child’s play.

I think that scientists should use the word impossible sparingly, you never know what tomorrow holds. Even if a trip to the stars might be unlikely.