Category: Technology Innovation

Elon Musk's new master plan will take more than advanced tech to pull off

Elon Musk – CEO of Tesla Motors – has just revealed the second part of his master plan for the company. And it’s a doozy. Not content with producing sleek electric cars (which to be fair, was only ever a stepping stone to greater things), Musk wants to fundamentally change how we live our lives. But the road to Musk’s techno-utopia may be rocky. In 2006, Musk announced his “Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan.” Steps one to three were simple and elegant: Build [a] sports car Use that money to build an affordable car Use that money to build an even more affordable car.   But cutting through these was a fourth step that had a much stronger social goal in sight: to develop and “provide zero emission electric power generation options.” Step One: complete. Tesla, CC BY-ND   This desire to change the world for the better is apparent in “part deux” of the master plan. Steps one to three of the new plan are superficially technological goals: Create stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage Expand the electric vehicle product line to address all major segments Develop a self-driving capability that is 10X safer than manual via massive fleet learning.   Yet underpinning them is a revolutionary vision for transforming society. Elon Musk doesn’t just want to fast-track the transition to renewable energy and self-driving cars – he wants to rewrite the rulebook on how we build a futuristic sustainable society. Shifting the culture with new technologies This comes through loud and clear in his fourth step in the new master plan. Once there are enough privately owned fully autonomous Teslas on the road, Musk wants to co-opt them into the “Tesla shared fleet.” The concept is as simple as it is audacious: Instead of your Tesla

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Back in 2008, carbon nanotubes – exceptionally fine tubes made up of carbon atoms – were making headlines. A new study from the U.K. had just shown that, under some conditions, these long, slender fiber-like tubes could cause harm in mice in the same way that some asbestos fibers do. As a collaborator in that study, I was at the time heavily involved in exploring the risks and benefits of novel nanoscale materials. Back then, there was intense interest in understanding how materials like this could be dangerous, and how they might be made safer. Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when carbon nanotubes were in the news again, but for a very different reason. This time, there was outrage not over potential risks, but because the artist Anish Kapoor had been given exclusive rights to a carbon nanotube-based pigment – claimed to be one of the blackest pigments ever made. The worries that even nanotech proponents had in the early 2000s about possible health and environmental risks – and their impact on investor and consumer confidence – seem to have evaporated. So what’s changed? Artist Anish Kapoor is known for the rich pigments he uses in his work. Andrew Winning/Reuters Carbon nanotube concerns, or lack thereof The pigment at the center of the Kapoor story is a material called Vantablack S-VIS, developed by the British company Surrey NanoSystems. It’s a carbon nanotube-based spray paint so black that surfaces coated with it reflect next to no light. The original Vantablack was a specialty carbon nanotube coating designed for use in space, to reduce the amount of stray light entering space-based optical instruments. It was this far remove from any people that made Vantablack seem pretty safe. Whatever its toxicity, the chances of it getting into someone’s body were vanishingly

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Three ways synthetic biology could annihilate Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases

In just a few short weeks, Zika has shot from being an obscure infection to a headline-hitting public health disaster. The virus is spreading rapidly across the Americas (and potentially beyond), is suspected of being associated with birth defects that affect brain development and currently has no specific vaccine or treatment. Understandably, scientists are scrambling to respond to what the World Health Organization is now calling a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” In the arsenal of weapons against the mosquito-borne disease, there are tried and tested approaches that include the liberal application of insecticides and repellents, widespread use of mosquito nets and elimination of breeding sites. Yet to combat Zika and other mosquito-borne disease, more is needed. Which is why scientists are increasingly turning to emerging technologies such as synthetic biology for solutions. The joke goes that if you get 10 synthetic biologists in a room together, you’ll get 10 different explanations of what they do. After all, synthetic biology is a young and rapidly evolving field. But underneath this lack of clarity lies a clear and profound shift in our technological capabilities – the ability to “upload” genetic code to computers, edit and manipulate it, and then “download” it into living organisms. In effect, we’ve discovered how to hack biology – how to code in DNA and computer-design living things. It’s early days yet – biology is complex and messy and doesn’t follow the same rules as computer code. But increasingly, scientists are learning how to use synthetic biology to change how organisms operate – including insects that carry dangerous human diseases, such as Zika. Aedes aegypti mosquitoes carry Zika, dengue and chikungunya. Paulo Whitaker Turn off a gene and goodbye mosquitoes Using synthetic biology-based genetic engineering techniques, the British company Oxitec (owned by U.S.-based Intrexon Corp) has

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What will it take to master the fourth industrial revolution

In April 2000, Bill Joy famously wrote in Wired Magazine: Our most powerful 21st-century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech – are threatening to make humans an endangered species. At the time, Joy was an accomplished technologist and chief scientist at Sun Microsystems. Yet he argued passionately that society was in danger of being destroyed by the very technologies scientists and engineers thought could save it. Nearly 16 years on, Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF), has just published an equally passionate treatise on the power of emerging technologies. Unlike Joy, he maps out a vastly more optimistic future where technology innovation – and our ability to harness it – becomes a powerhouse for social and economic growth. Technology as a revolutionizing force for good Klaus Schwab founded the World Economic Forum in 1971 to ‘improve the state of the world.’ World Economic Forum, CC BY-NC-SA In his new book The Fourth Industrial Revolution – published to coincide with the WEF annual meeting in Davos – Schwab argues that we are at the beginning of a technological revolution that “is fundamentally changing the way we live, work, and relate to one another.” At the heart of Schwab’s revolution is an accelerating convergence between our increasingly powerful technological capabilities. Autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, gene editing, robotics, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things – these and many more emerging trends, he suggests, are arising from an unparalleled melding of physical, biological and digital worlds. These coalescing capabilities are both transforming and being transformed by society. And it is this tight coupling that, to Schwab, signals a new era of technology innovation. Just as the widespread use of steam, electricity and computers have in the past revolutionized society, so, he argues, will this new wave of technological convergence. Are

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Steampunk smart pill

It’s that time of year again when technology pundits peer into their crystal balls, and predict the hottest tech trends of the coming twelve months. Let’s be honest though, these lists can get a little stale. So I thought I’d break ranks this year by imagining what a top tech trends list would look like in a “steampunk” world, where steam engines, clockwork mechanisms, and retro-artistic flair, rule supreme.

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The poetry of innovating responsibly

What have technology innovation, haiku, and this summer’s blockbuster-in-waiting Jurassic World got in common? The answer: a short book of haiku on responsible technological innovation that a group of colleagues helped put together last summer.

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I was taken aback- to say the least – by an article from the New York Times that crossed my Twitter feed today that suggested wearable electronics like the new Apple Watch could be has harmful as smoking. I have to wonder whether the author actually read the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) monograph on which it’s based!

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Dunkin Donuts Hopes To Raise $400 Million Through IPO

In response to pressure from the advocacy group As You Sow, Dunkin’ Brands has announced that it will be removing allegedly “nano” titanium dioxide from Dunkin’ Donuts’ powdered sugar donuts. As You Sow claims there are safety concerns around the use of the material, while Dunkin’ Brands cites concerns over investor confidence. It’s a move that further confirms the food sector’s conservatism over adopting new technologies in the face of public uncertainty. But how justified is it based on what we know about the safety of nanoparticles? Titanium dioxide (which isn’t the same thing as the metal titanium) is an inert, insoluble material that’s used as a whitener in everything from paper and paint to plastics. It’s the active ingredient in many mineral-based sunscreens. And as a pigment, is also used to make food products look more appealing. Part of the appeal to food producers is that titanium dioxide is a pretty dull chemical. It doesn’t dissolve in water. It isn’t particularly reactive. It isn’t easily absorbed into the body from food. And it doesn’t seem to cause adverse health problems. It just seems to do what manufacturers want it to do – make food look better. It’s what makes the powdered sugar coating on donuts appear so dense and snow white. Titanium dioxide gives it a boost. And you’ve probably been consuming it for years without knowing. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration allows food products to contain up to 1% food-grade titanium dioxide without the need to include it on the ingredient label. Help yourself to a slice of bread, a bar of chocolate, a spoonful of mayonnaise or a donut, and chances are you’ll be eating a small amount of the substance. Why does As You Sow want this substance gone from Dunkin’ Donuts?  

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The World Economic Forum’s 2015 top 10 emerging technologies reflect the tremendous potential of technology innovation. Yet to build a resilient tech-based future, we need new ideas, new research and new tools that will enable us to realize the benefits of technology innovation, while keeping us a safe distance from potentially catastrophic collapse. It’s a tough challenge, and one that will demand unprecedented levels of interdisciplinary investment, collaboration and creativity. Yet the price of not innovating responsibly is one that may just be too large to live with.

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Is-novelty-in-nanomaterials-overrated-when-it-comes-to-risk

Novelty and nanotechnology are deeply intertwined. The search for nanostructure-enabled materials has driven research funding in nanotechnology for well over a decade now; the exploitation of novel properties has underpinned the commercialization of nanomaterials; and concerns over potential risks has stimulated widespread studies into what makes these materials harmful. Yet ‘novelty’ is an ephemeral quality, and despite its close association with nanotechnology, it may be an unreliable guide to ensuring the long-term safety of materials that emerge from the field. If this is the case, do we need to find alternative approaches to developing advanced materials and products that are safe by design?

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From smart phones to cancer cures, we depend on technology innovation more now than at any point in human history. Yet in a cruel twist of irony, emerging technologies that could help improve lives and protect the environment may ultimately end up doing more harm than good. That is, unless new approaches to responsible innovation are developed and adopted…

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World-Economic-Forum-highlights-risks-of-emerging-technologies-750x400

The challenges of governing emerging technologies are highlighted by the World Economic Forum in the 2015 edition of its Global Risks Report. Focusing in particular on synthetic biology, gene drives and artificial intelligence, the report warns that these and other emerging technologies present hard-to-foresee risks, and that oversight mechanisms need to more effectively balance likely benefits and commercial demands with a deeper consideration of ethical questions and medium to long-term risks. The emerging global risk landscape For nearly a decade, the World Economic Forum has provided an annual expert analysis of some of the most most significant long-term risks worldwide.  This year’s report provides insight into the likelihood and impact of 28 global risks in five domains: economic, environmental, societal, geopolitical and technological. Interstate conflict, extreme weather events and the failure of national governance are the top three risks in terms of  likelihood, while water crisis, spread of infectious diseases and weapons of mass destruction are top in terms of potential impact (see below for infographics). Governance of Emerging Technologies Amongst these risks and risk trends, emerging technologies are singled out as one of three “risk constellations” in need of action.  From the report: The pace of technological change is faster than ever. Disciplines such as synthetic biology and artificial intelligence are creating new fundamental capabilities, which offer tremendous potential for solving the world’s most pressing problems. At the same time, they present hard-to-foresee risks. Oversight mechanisms need to more effectively balance likely benefits and commercial demands with a deeper consideration of ethical questions and medium to long-term risks – ranging from economic to environmental and societal. How Can the Risks and Rewards of Emerging Technologies Be Balanced? The report continues to delve deeper into the opportunities presented by emerging technologies, and the challenges that their development present.  The report acknowledges the benefits that

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A Sony 85-inch Bravia XBR-X950B 4K television plays video after being unveiled during a Sony news conference at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), in Las Vegas

Earlier this week, The Conversation reported that, “The future is bright, the future is … quantum dot televisions.” And judging by the buzz coming from this week’s annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that’s right – the technology is providing manufacturers with a cheap and efficient way of producing the next generation of brilliant, high-definition TV screens. But the quantum dots in these displays also use materials and technologies – including engineered nanoparticles and the heavy metal cadmium – that have been a magnet for health and environmental concerns. Will the dazzling pictures this technology allow blind us to new health and environmental challenges, or do their benefits outweigh the potential risks? Vials of quantum dots producing vivid colors from violet to deep red. Antipoff, CC BY-SA   Answer’s not black and white Quantum dots are a product of the emerging field of nanotechnology. They are made of nanometer-sized particles of a semiconducting material – often cadmium selenide. About 2,000 to 20,000 times smaller than the width of a single human hair, they’re designed to absorb light of one color and emit it as another color – to fluoresce. This property makes them particularly well-suited for use in products like tablets and TVs that need bright, white, uniform backlights. RNGS Reuters    There are of course other chemicals, such as phosphor, that fluoresce and are used in consumer products. What is unique about quantum dots is that the color of the emitted light can be modified by simply changing the size of the quantum dot particles. And because this color-shifting is a physical phenomenon, quantum dots far outperform their chemical counterparts in brightness, color and durability. Unfortunately, the heavy metal cadmium used in the production of many quantum dots is a health and environmental hazard. Under the European Restrictions on Hazardous

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Responsible-Innovation-Seventeen-Haiku-2

How do you creatively explore the challenges and opportunities of developing new technologies responsibly?  This past summer, the University of Michigan Risk Science Center partnered with the V2_ Institute for Unstable Media in Rotterdam to just this.  And the result? A book of seventeen haiku! Exploring Responsible Innovation The book was the result of thirteen academics from the University of Michigan getting together with folks from V2_ over two days to grapple with responsibility and innovation.  We intentionally selected participants who had little formal training in the emerging field of Responsible Innovation, but who were engaged in innovation.  Their expertise ranged from health and engineering through to business, architecture. and art and design. As someone who does work in the area of responsible innovation,  I was blown away by the insights that emerged from this group.  Unconstrained by existing ideas and definitions, the participants were able to peel apart the deep complexities in defining what responsible innovation is – even what innovation itself is. Communicating Insights Through Haiku The idea to capture these insights in a series of haiku was an inspired one – not mine I hasten to add. During our discussions, it became clear that there are uncertainties, nuances and intangibles around the whole idea of responsible technological innovation that could never be captured in a formal academic report or white paper.  Instead, we needed a way of conveying our thoughts to others that would in turn inspire further creative thought on what it means to innovate responsibly. The breakthrough came when a participant pointed out that the then-President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, is an aficionado of haiku.  As well as providing an – if you’ll forgive me – innovative medium for conveying the workshop outcomes to others, this form proved extremely powerful in capturing elusive ideas in a way that would spark further creative thought in others. Seventeen

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Could we one day 3D print a brain

Could we one day 3D print Arnold Schwarzenegger’s brain?  Before you ask, yes, this is a post about risk.  And no, I’m not talking about the dangers of immortalizing the star of Terminator Genisys‘ real-life biological brain. But to begin somewhere near the beginning: 3D Printing 3D printing – and additive manufacturing more broadly – are on a roll.  The idea of creating objects by building them up them layer by layer has been around for a while.  But over the past couple of years, there have been massive advances in access to low cost, extremely sophisticated 3D printing technologies. At one end of the spectrum, you have devices like the $100 Peach Printer.  At the other, industrial 3D printers that are capable of making on-demand parts for jet engines and other high performance products.  And in between, printers that are enabling everyone from kids and hobbyists to entrepreneurs make stuff that it wasn’t possible to make just a few years ago. The technology is opening new doors to how products are made.  But it’s also potentially leading to new health risks.  Whether it’s the products of 3D printers (how do you control weapons that can be printed at-source, or ensure the safety of a bespoke 3D printed car?), to the emissions from the devices (just how many 3D printers in a classroom does it take before the kids are inhaling more nanoparticles and fumes than is healthy?), 3D printing raises questions around risk and safety. Environmental Implications of Additive Manufacturing This past October, I participated in a National Science Foundation workshop on the Environmental Implications of Additive Manufacturing.  It was a valuable meeting – I want to emphasize that, just in case you suspect that my mind began to drift during the proceedings with what follows.  We talked extensively about the potential health risks of 3D printing and other forms of additive manufacturing,  and

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How do we chart a path forward toward the effective and responsible development and use of new technologies?  For the next two years, the World Economic Forum Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies will be tackling this and other questions as it develops ways of supporting informed decisions on technology innovation in today’s rapidly changing world. I’ll be joining my fellow meta-council members in Dubai next week as we begin to flesh out our plans for the next 24 months.  In preparation for this, I’ve been thinking through some of the broader framing issues that are important when considering emerging technologies.  In no particular order: Understanding the role of technology trends in enabling innovation and raising opportunities and challenges, as opposed to discrete technologies Broad, headline-grabbing technology innovation trends include nanoscale science and technology; gene editing; synthetic biology; human enhancement; next generation computing; autonomous vehicles; and many others.  These are often collections of technological capabilities tied together by common factors – either within a specific domain of science and technology, or in the applications domain.  They are rarely discrete technologies. Recognizing the importance of convergence between technologies and technology trends in stimulating innovation Technology convergence is relevant on a large scale, such as in discussions around technology clusters such as Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology and Cognition-based technology (so-called NBIC convergence), and other combinations of what’s capturing people’s imagination – although these clusterings are are often somewhat artificial constructs.  Convergence also relevant at a much smaller scale, and often the less constrained innovators are within specific domains of technology, the more creative they are able to be.  This small-scale convergence may be more important than the acronym-heavy trends, as many advanced products and processes rely on synergies between multiple technologies to be competitive.  It’s very rare that a mono-technology product (or even one built on just two or three technologies) does

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As a member of the selection committee for the World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers, it’s always exciting to see which companies made the bar each year. This year’s Technology Pioneers have just been announced.  They represent 24 of the world’s most innovative and pioneering technology companies. The tech pioneers for 2015 include companies that are significantly improving diagnostics and health treatment; providing electricity to the off-grid underprivileged; pioneering low-cost computing; developing new visual, audio and sensor technologies; and embedding Internet of Things services. For more information, check out the World Economic Forum Technology Pioneers 2015 widget This year’s Technology Pioneers are: AutoGrid Systems, Avegant, BlaBlaCar, Cambrian Innovation, Canonical, Couchbase, Eta Devices, Genomatica, Guardant Health, Health Catalyst, HiBot Corporation, Ionic Security, Jasper Technologies, Kakao Corporation, Labcyte, LearnUp, Mera Gao Power, Newlight Technologies, Organovo, Proterra, Raspberry Pi Foundation, Silicor Materials, SmartThings, and Vaxxas. Image credit: World Economic Forum

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I’ve just had my attention drawn to this inspiring 2 minute video on engineering from University of Michigan PhD student Barry Belmont:   The video’s part of the National Academy of Engineering Engineering for You Video Contest. What I like about it is the way it connects advances in engineering to our needs, hopes and aspirations as people. Barry’s looking for votes for the contest, which closes on September 1st.  If you like video, you can vote for it by giving it the thumbs up on YouTube, or on the NAE website. It’s also worth checking out the other videos that have been submitted – see them all here.  

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Chemistry World posted a good article yesterday on nanotech regulation in Europe (Europe mulls best way to handle nanotech by Andrew Williams).  I have a couple of quotes in the piece, along with Risk Science Center colleague Diana Bowman).  These are taken from a longer set of responses to questions from Williams, which I thought it might be worth posting here (edited slightly so that they make more sense grammatically!) What are currently the main EU nanomaterial regulations? What are the key elements of these regulations? What is REACH’s (Registration Evaluation Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals regulations) stance as a pan-national regulation on nanomaterials – and is it moving towards the creation of a register? REACH has deep implications to how chemical substances are assessed and regulated across the European Union, and is impacting on any company either wanting to trade with member states, or manufacture within these states (and so the reach – if you’ll forgive the pun – goes well beyond the EU). Two associated issues here are what constitutes a nanomaterial, and whether the explicit differentiation of nano- and non-nanoscale materials make sense within the context of REACH. The EC Joint Research Council recently published a massive 280+ page document evaluating the previously released definition of nano materials for regulatory purposes – and this is just part one of the definition review process! This document provides a deep and scientifically rigorous assessment of considerations relevant to a definition for regulatory purposes, but is still driven by the assumption that there is something unique about engineered nanomaterial risks that requires them to be distinguished from other materials. I continue to argue that some emerging materials will lead to unanticipated health challenges, but that fixating on the nanoscale potentially blinkers a larger conversation about advanced material safety (latest piece on this).  

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I was going through the 2020 Science archives the other day looking for pieces on nanoparticles and sunscreens, and was rather shocked to see that the earliest article dates back to 2008! Here they are in chronological order – surprising how little things change with time!  The 2010 exchange with Friends of the Earth is definitely worth a revisit. Nano-sunscreens leave their mark June 21 2008 Accelerated aging on steel roofing in Australia suggests the use of photoactive particles in sunscreens.  Read the full article → Industry critics give nanotechnology sunscreens the thumbs up July 3 2009 The NGO Environmental Working Group (EWG) endorses the use of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens (they still do). Read the full article → Sunscreens and Alzheimer’s – solid science or scare-mongering speculation? August 25 2009 Speculation on links between nanoparticles in sunscreen and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinsons and Alzheimers.  A very poorly conceived press release was at the heart of this – and from a university!  Read the full article → Friends of the Earth come down hard on nanotechnology – are they right? June 8 2010 Back in 2010 Friends of the Earth Australia had some beef with nanoparticles in sunscreens – they still do.  Read the full article → Just how risky could nanoparticles in sunscreens be? June 8 2010 I challenge Friends of the Earth Australia to answer the question ” What is your worst case estimate of the human health risk from titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens?  Read the full article → Just how risky can nanoparticles in sunscreens be? Friends of the Earth respond June 15 2010 I asked the question – Friends of the Earth Australia respond. Read the full article → The safety of nanotechnology-based sunscreens – some reflections July 18 2010 …And

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2020 Science is published by Andrew Maynard - Director of the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University. More ... 

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