Misguided Engineering

September 27, 2017 0 Comments

I am a big fan of technological progress. Sure, I have always been drawn to science and math, but the main reason I would like to see technological progress continue is so that we can cure diseases and perhaps even rejuvenate the human body in the not-too-distant future. Other people would like to travel to other planets or the stars. Some people are very excited about virtual reality. Everyone has their own desires for the future.

Almost all of these would be sped along by continued technological progress.

Most of these advancements will produce positive or at least relatively safe/benign outcomes for the human race.

There are notable exceptions that have a higher risk factor. One that garners a lot of attention is artificial general intelligence (AGI). This is a theoretical type of software/bot that can learn and change on its own, without human help. For obvious reasons, this would be dangerous. An AGI that is smarter than humans cannot not be controlled by humans and we will end up doing whatever the AGI wants us to do. Of course, an AGI could help solve most of our problems (including disease), but is the risk worth it. We could achieve many of the things we desire with regular “expert” software, like what is available in the present. So why are so many companies and software engineers trying so hard to develop AGI as fast as possible? For profit?

If you don’t think this is a pressing issue in 2017, just consider this recent news story that passed by with hardly anyone noticing. A couple of conversational software programs at Facebook, when left to learn on their own, created their own language. No one is sure if the language was useful, but it is a sign of things to come. Sophisticated artificial intelligence will do surprising things. Considering that military organizations around the world are rushing to develop killer bots with artificial intelligence, this is a big issue.

There is another recent angle of scientific progress that has me a bit worried and it revolves around environmental challenges such as potential anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in the future. Some of the technology is potentially dangerous and some of it is just a tremendous waste of time, energy, and money.

You have probably heard of ideas for geo-engineering the earth’s climate. Some of these revolve around blocking out some of the sun or fertilizing the oceans. As you know, I am all for controlling the weather and climate; not for the specific reason of heading off AGW, but in more general terms, to achieve a safer and more pleasant experience on earth.

Trees capture a lot of carbon every year

The methods of geo-engineering the climate that have been proposed so far (like blocking out the sun) have dangers  that are fairly easy to foresee and calculate. New engineering revolving around genetic manipulation of plants have dangers that are more difficult calculate, plus they seem unnecessary. GMO foods have to go through years of safety testing before wide release for cultivation and consumption. I am unsure if the level of security applies to plants used for carbon capture. They will generate the same potential environmental problems as food crops so they should require the same amount of safety regulations. Some scientists are developing these (potentially disruptive) strains of plants for what they think is a good reason – to help stave off starvation caused by future climate change. Nice effort, but unnecessary. We already produce enough food to feed the world (political problems are what cause most of the famines nowadays). Better farming techniques, including robots, will continue to help increase yields around the world with hardly a need to more aggressively manipulate genetics.

How to remove carbon dioxide?

Another area of research that might not be as disruptive, but seems to be a complete waste of resources, is using synthetic photosynthesis and/or other carbon capture techniques to produce fuel and useful industrial chemicals from the carbon dioxide in the air. Here is one example out of many – from the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology. It is a great scientific advancement – very ingenious, but if the CO2 is formulated into chemicals or fuel, and then is used again, what do we gain with respect to the current AGW theory. Nothing. Why not just turn plants into biochar and bury it. Plants already sequester carbon dioxide by the gigaton every year. It would probably be cheaper and actually lower the levels of CO2 in the air. With synthetic photosynthesis creating fuel or other products, we would just be “running in place”, essentially.

The same goes with this undeniably cool feat of engineering from Climeworks. It is great that they are taking CO2 out of the air, but if it is made into useful products for modern society, it will just end up back in the air. Combine this with the fact that the process is very expensive, again why not just create biochar? Just think of all the money that would be saved AND CO2 levels would have a chance of coming down a bit sooner. The money saved could be spent on renewable energy.

Meteorologist Justin Loew


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