Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Mar 09 2020

Using Neural Networks for Image Sensing

A new study published in Nature details the use of a neural network on a 2-dimensional computer chip that by itself can be trained to recognize specific images within nanoseconds. This is more of a proof of concept than something with direct immediate applications, but let’s talk about that concept.

To back all the way out – evolution represents hundreds of millions of years of tinkering with multi-cellular structures, and even longer when talking about biochemistry. This is a natural laboratory that has developed some elegant designs, and at the very least can serve as a useful source of inspiration for modern technology. That is the concept of neural networks, designing computers to work more like a vertebrate brain. Specifically, the “neurons” in a neural network are not just binary, on or off, but rather can fire with various degrees of strength. Further, their firing affects the activity of those neurons they are connected to. Computer hardware with networks designed on these basic principles are called  artificial neural networks (ANN). They hold the promise of not only faster and more powerful computing, but are designed to learn (which is why they are so often associated with artificial intelligence).

Another principle at work here is top-down vs bottom-up processing, another concept that has increasingly been incorporated into AI. If we go all the way back to the early days of AI the basic idea was to create high level computer intelligence that could solve problems with the top down, with deep understanding. That goal, now referred to as general AI, is still a ways off. But meanwhile AI has advanced considerably through more of a bottom-up approach, using algorithms to sift data in increasingly sophisticated and adaptable ways. We now have deep learning AI and other specific processes that can produce impressive results without any general AI “understanding” what it is doing.

One question is – will we be able to build a general AI out of these limited AI components? Is it just a matter of building in enough sophistication and complexity? We won’t know until we do it, but if living organisms are any guide, I think there is reason to be positive. Specifically – that is basically how our brains work.

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Mar 05 2020

Organic and Flow Batteries – Hype or Promise

Published by under Technology

It’s important to recognize that we currently do not know with any confidence the path forward that our energy infrastructure will take. This is why we have to spread our bets out on as many technologies as possible – we don’t know which ones will be the most successful. Many people place their hopes on battery technology, and there is no doubt that batteries are a great energy storage medium and will play a critical role in our energy future. But batteries are not a simple panacea, and we may run into important limits. This is why we need new battery technology.

The demand for batteries is likely to increase significantly. Electric cars depend on batteries, and therefore putting millions of EVs onto the road means necessarily putting millions of batteries on the road as well. Also, batteries are one possible solution to home and grid energy storage, which will be necessary if we want to maximize renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Current lithium-ion battery tech is great, and is getting incrementally better all the time, but it has limitations. One significant limitation is the availability of lithium and cobalt which are necessary for their manufacture.

Cobalt, for example, comes mostly from the DRC, an unstable country, and it comes mostly as a byproduct of copper and nickle mining. Global supplies are expected to fall short of global demand, and if there is a surge in Li-ion batteries this will only get worse. Lithium is more complicated, and we are not really sure what the worldwide supply is. For now there is no problem, but there is widespread concern that lithium supply will not keep up with demand as EVs take to the streets. We also do not currently have the ability to recycle lithium into a pure enough state to reuse in batteries.

What battery tech is on the horizon that will potentially change the game for batteries? For now, continued incremental improvements in Li-ion battery technology are important. We need to squeeze as much function out of the raw materials as possible, with greater capacity, and longer charge-discharge lifespans. Right now Tesla boasts million-mile batteries for its EVs. Increasing the lifespan further will decrease the need for new batteries as replacements. Batteries from retired EVs can also be repurposed for grid storage, where it wont’ matter if their range has decreased.

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Feb 24 2020

AI Antibiotic Drug Discovery

The use of artificial intelligence in the drug discovery process is not new, but it is advancing in significant ways. Several weeks ago the BBC announced the first AI developed drug to be taken to human trials. Now they are announcing the discovery of a new antibiotic using AI. Let’s talk about drug development to see how advances in AI are impacting this process.

Finding a drug that is useful medically is tricky, because it has to have a lot of properties simultaneously, and any one property can be a deal-breaker. A useful drug needs to get into the body, get to the target tissue, survive long enough to have the desired effect, it needs to have a desired effect at a dose that is lower than doses that cause significant side effects, and it needs to lack significant toxicity, such as liver or kidney damage. Will the compound be stable on the shelf? The same needs to be true, at least in lack of side effects and toxicity, for all the metabolites of the drug that may be created before everything is eliminated. On top of that we have to worry about drug-drug interactions, and even interactions with certain foods.

For this reason there is no perfect drug. Every pharmaceutical is a trade-off. Being “natural” is also not a magic wand that bypasses all these concerns. Substances that occur in nature did not evolve for our benefit. They generally evolved to be poisons to creatures that might eat them, including us. Drugs derived from plants are basically poisons that we have purified, usually altered, and then discovered a dose range that can be safely exploited.

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Feb 18 2020

Bezos $10 Billion Earth Fund

Published by under Technology

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is the richest person in the world, with a net worth of around $115 billion. He recently announced that he is pledging 10 billion of those dollars to the Bezos Earth Fund, the primary objective of which is to fight climate change:

⁣⁣⁣”Climate change is the biggest threat to our planet. I want to work alongside others both to amplify known ways and to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change on this planet we all share. This global initiative will fund scientists, activists, NGOs – any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.”

Bezos reports that he will begin dolling out money this summer. Here is the big question – how will he spend this money? And how should he spend it? How would you spend it? This is a complex question. His statement suggests that he wants to primarily fund research, which I think is a good place to start – but research into what? I think this question is answered by simply looking at the sources of human CO2 release:

“87 percent of all human-produced carbon dioxide emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and oil. The remainder results from the clearing of forests and other land use changes (9%), as well as some industrial processes such as cement manufacturing (4%).”

Clearly the largest culprit is the burning of fossil fuels. Land use is also a big chunk, and then 4% make up other industrial processes. Every bit helps, but let focus on these top two, starting with the smaller portion, land use. I think there are three significant efforts that could help reduce CO2 loss from improper land use. The first is to stop cutting and burning forests that represent major carbon sinks. I am not talking about logging for lumber, which can be done sustainably, but mostly the reduction of the Amazon rainforest and other old-growth forests. This will require regulations, but also we need to seek ways to reduce the incentive for farmers to clear forest to grow more crops.

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Jan 24 2020

Small Modular Reactors

Published by under Technology

What do you call it when you are both excited and pessimistic about something at the same time? Well whatever the word is, that’s what I feel now. Rolls-Royce has announced that it plans to build so-called small modular reactors (SMRs), which could be in operation by 2029. These are small nuclear reactors that would sit on a 10 acre space, about 1/16 the size of a standard reactor. The Rolls-Royce design is not the first one. The US has been developing SMRs of varying sizes, up to 300 MW capacity, and China and South Korea are developing SMRs.

Actually – small nuclear reactors are not new. We have been using them on nuclear submarines and other vessels for years. What is new is commercial SMRs for grid power. I could not find any in operation currently. The US company NuScale, has approval for a design and could be operational by 2026. They estimate the electricity costs at $65 per MW hour, which is not far from the current costs of solar at $60, and offshore wind at $50. Of course, wind and solar prices are dropping, but the hope is that economies of scale will also drop the cost of SMRs.

There are also potential advantages of SMRs over renewable and traditional nuclear power plants. Regarding renewables, while the prices are dropping now once we saturate the grid with renewable energy, something like 30% penetration, in order to increase the grid share of power from renewables you need some combination of two things, grid storage and overcapacity (sharing energy across the grid). The latter also requires a massive grid update. So the effective cost of renewables will start to skyrocket. The solution is to make up the rest of our energy infrastructure with on-demand energy sources. We can try to maximize hydroelectric and geothermal (which are geographically limited), but for now that means fossil fuel or nuclear.

So realistically, over the next several decades at least, the real choice we face is not between nuclear vs renewables, it’s nuclear vs fossil fuel – and I think the answer here is a no-brainer (I will return to this below).

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Jan 07 2020

Carbon Efficiency of Electric Cars

Published by under Technology

Arguments about which technology is the most energy and carbon efficient over their entire lifetime are good ones to have. This is where the conversation should be focusing, not rehashing questions that are not currently scientifically controversial. But the debate about life cycle efficiency is complex, and often gets abused or misunderstood. We face these questions from biofuels to solar, wind energy, and all-electric vehicles.

With regard to electric vehicles, for example, it is not enough that they do not emit carbon from a tailpipe. We have to consider the energy used and carbon released during the entire manufacturing process, including sourcing the raw material. We also need to consider the source of energy used to charge the vehicle, and what happens to the battery at the end of its lifetime. This is a difficult assessment to make, and every study that attempts to do so must make a number of assumptions which affect the outcome.

The result is many studies with a range of outcomes based on different techniques and assumptions used. This is a common situation in science, and what is typically done is to look at the full range of study outcomes, which should follow somewhat of a bell curve of results, and see where the peak is. It does not make sense to rely upon individual studies that are out by either tail – these are literally outliers. So bottom line – what do these studies show? They indicate that over the entire lifetime of an electric vehicle, under most driving conditions, they produce less carbon than an average gas vehicle, and hover around the efficiency of a gas-electric hybrid. The greatest individual determining variable is the source of the electricity (“fuel cycle” in the chart).

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Jan 03 2020

Golden Rice Approved in Philippines

Published by under Technology

This is a quick follow up in the golden rice story (golden rice is a GM rice with added beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A). I have written about it here, here, and most recently here. The news is that the Philippines have just approved golden rice as safe for human and animal consumption. The US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have already approved golden rice, but these approvals were symbolic and none of those countries would actually need to grow it. The Philippines is the first nation that both consumes large amounts of rice and suffers from large numbers of vitamin A deficiency to approve this GM crop, meaning that they intend to actually grow and eat it. There is still one more step before the rice will be grown:

“The Philippine Rice Research Institute and the International Rice Research Institute will now carry out taste tests as they seek approval for farmers to grow specific strains commercially.”

This is good news, the approval of golden rice is grinding forward despite dedicated opposition from anti-GMO groups. As I discuss in more detail in the earlier articles, both the opposition and approval are partly because golden rice breaks all the typical anti-GMO propaganda tropes. The rice was developed as a humanitarian project, it’s sole purpose is to improve nutrition for the world’s poorest children, it will be made available patent and royalty free and without restriction, and it does not involve the use of any pesticides. There is no issue here of farmer sovereignty, corporate profits, or any of the usual nonsense.

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Jan 02 2020

Update On Wind Turbines and Birds

Published by under Technology

Objective numbers are great for any debate or discussion. They have a way of cutting through all the subjectivity, confirmation bias, and nonsense. I like to say – you can’t argue with the numbers – but of course, I know that people still do. More importantly, they straight up ignore, deny, or distort the numbers, painting an alternate reality at will. But for those who still care about data and facts, here are some recently updated numbers on bird deaths from various sources.

This story is in the news again because Trump recently renewed his attack on wind turbines. Pretty much everything he said was wrong or significantly distorted, as others have pointed out. I want to focus on his previous claim that wind turbines, “kill all the birds.” He recently added:

“You want to see a bird graveyard? You just go, take a look, a bird graveyard, go under a windmill someday you will see more birds than you ever seen, ever in your life.”

This is, of course, hyperbole, but I don’t think that excuses his lack of precision and context. He is making a clear point – we should oppose wind turbines in part because they cause an unacceptable number of bird deaths. Look at the chart above – this makes it visually clear that the number of bird deaths from wind turbines does not even register when compared to other sources. It is less than the uncertainty in other sources of bird deaths. In fact, if anything the chart visually underestimates the difference because you can’t really even see how small the total from wind turbines is.

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Dec 20 2019

Commercial Spaceflight in the 2020s

Published by under Technology

To spaceflight enthusiasts, the 2010s was a transitional decade. The shuttle program ended in 2011, and along with it America’s ability to put astronauts into space. We have been hitching rides with the Russians to get to the space station (ISS) ever since. NASA had no plans to replace the shuttle anytime soon, and instead announced that it would focus on deep space capability while relying on commercial companies to take over missions to low Earth orbit. So, after almost a decade, how is this plan working out?

Well, there have been the inevitable delays, but otherwise I think NASA’s plan was a good one. Earlier this year SpaceX successfully tested their Dragon capsule, and they are planning to launch their first astronauts in the first quarter of 2020. SpaceX has had an impressive decade. Not without failures, but the development of reusable rockets able to land vertically is a game-changer for space travel and is definitely an impressive achievement for the company.

Meanwhile, Boeing also received a contract from NASA to develop the capacity to launch people into space. They are about to launch their Starliner capsule to the ISS with supplies as a final test before being approved the take crew. The capsule will also have an “anthropomorphic test device (ATD)”, which is fancy tech speak for a test dummy. The ATD will be loaded with sensors to see what an astronaut will experience during take off and landing. The capsule is designed for a ground landing, using parachutes and airbags to land on desert sand in New Mexico. If all goes well they also plan to launch people in 2020.

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Dec 17 2019

Where is Fusion?

Published by under Technology

The promise of commercial-scale fusion energy has been looming in the background of our collective conversations about climate change and the future of our energy infrastructure. The potential of fusion is tremendous, but we are likely still decades away from commercial power plants. Exactly how far away is a matter of debate. There are some indications, however, that the industry is progressing from proof of concept research to commercialization. No one is seriously arguing that we are close, but this may be a sign of real progress.

Fusion energy is the energy that powers the sun. It comes from fusing light elements into heavier elements, starting with fusing two hydrogen atoms into one helium atom. You can get net energy out of fusing light elements, all the way to iron. Iron requires energy to either fuse or to undergo fission, and so that is the end of the line in terms of energy production. The heavier the element, the more pressure and heat it takes to fuse. All suns start our fusing hydrogen into helium, by definition. Once the hydrogen fuel is burned, suns that are sufficiently massive will contract, increasing their temperature and pressure, until their helium core starts to burn. More and more massive stars can fuse more and more heavier elements. The most massive stars can fuse lighter elements into iron, and then, as stated, that is as far as they can go.

Here on earth researchers hope to build devices that create sufficient heat and pressure to fuse hydrogen into helium. Deuterium and tritium (isotopes of hydrogen with one and two neutrons respectively) are easier to fuse, so that is what is being used. The advantage to a successful fusion reactor is that the conversion efficiency of fuel into energy is tremendous, greater than fission. Only matter-antimatter annihilation can produce more energy for a given mass. Further, fusion produces no long-lived nuclear waste, and releases no carbon or other pollutants. The end product is helium, which is a useful element. Tritium itself is radioactive, but very short-lived. Also, the containment vessels will become bombarded with neutrons, and it remains to be seen what technologies will be used to protect the structure.

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