Connect with us

Science & Technology

Emerging Technologies of 2015

Published

on

Zero emission cars fuelled by hydrogen and computer chips that mimic the human brain are among the technological breakthroughs recognized as the Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2015.

 The WEF’s Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies, compiles the list each year to help raise attention for those technologies its members believe possess the greatest potential for addressing chronic global challenges. The purpose is also to initiate a debate on any human, societal, economic or environmental risks the technologies pose, with the aim of addressing any concerns before adoption becomes widespread.

This year’s list offers a glimpse of the power of innovation to improve lives, transform industries and safeguard the planet:

1. Fuel cell vehicles
Zero-emission cars that run on hydrogen

“Fuel cell” vehicles have been long promised, as they potentially offer several major advantages over electric and hydrocarbon-powered vehicles. However, the technology has only now begun to reach the stage where automotive companies are planning to launch them for consumers. Initial prices are likely to be in the range of $70,000, but should come down significantly as volumes increase within the next couple of years.
Unlike batteries, which must be charged from an external source, fuel cells generate electricity directly, using fuels such as hydrogen or natural gas. In practice, fuel cells and batteries are combined, with the fuel cell generating electricity and the batteries storing this energy until demanded by the motors that drive the vehicle. Fuel cell vehicles are therefore hybrids, and will likely also deploy regenerative braking – a key capability for maximizing efficiency and range.
Unlike battery-powered electric vehicles, fuel cell vehicles behave as any conventionally fuelled vehicle. With a long cruising range – up to 650 km per tank (the fuel is usually compressed hydrogen gas) – a hydrogen fuel refill only takes about three minutes. Hydrogen is clean-burning, producing only water vapour as waste, so fuel cell vehicles burning hydrogen will be zero-emission, an important factor given the need to reduce air pollution.

There are a number of ways to produce hydrogen without generating carbon emissions. Most obviously, renewable sources of electricity from wind and solar sources can be used to electrolyse water – though the overall energy efficiency of this process is likely to be quite low. Hydrogen can also be split from water in high-temperature nuclear reactors or generated from fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas, with the resulting CO2 captured and sequestered rather than released into the atmosphere.
As well as the production of cheap hydrogen on a large scale, a significant challenge is the lack of a hydrogen distribution infrastructure that would be needed to parallel and eventually replace petrol and diesel filling stations. Long distance transport of hydrogen, even in a compressed state, is not considered economically feasible today. However, innovative hydrogen storage techniques, such as organic liquid carriers that do not require high-pressure storage, will soon lower the cost of long-distance transport and ease the risks associated with gas storage and inadvertent release.

Mass-market fuel cell vehicles are an attractive prospect, because they will offer the range and fuelling convenience of today’s diesel and petrol-powered vehicles while providing the benefits of sustainability in personal transportation. Achieving these benefits will, however, require the reliable and economical production of hydrogen from entirely low-carbon sources, and its distribution to a growing fleet of vehicles (expected to number in the many millions within a decade).

2. Next-generation robotics
Rolling away from the production line

The popular imagination has long foreseen a world where robots take over all manner of everyday tasks.
This robotic future has stubbornly refused to materialize, however, with robots still limited to factory assembly lines and other controlled tasks. Although heavily used (in the automotive industry, for instance) these robots are large and dangerous to human co-workers; they have to be separated by safety cages.
Advances in robotics technology are making human-machine collaboration an everyday reality. Better and cheaper sensors make a robot more able to understand and respond to its environment. Robot bodies are becoming more adaptive and flexible, with designers taking inspiration from the extraordinary flexibility and dexterity of complex biological structures, such as the human hand. And robots are becoming more connected, benefiting from the cloud-computing revolution by being able to access instructions and information remotely, rather than having to be programmed as a fully autonomous unit.

The new age of robotics takes these machines away from the big manufacturing assembly lines, and into a wide variety of tasks. Using GPS technology, just like smartphones, robots are beginning to be used in precision agriculture for weed control and harvesting. In Japan, robots are being trialled in nursing roles: they help patients out of bed and support stroke victims in regaining control of their limbs. Smaller and more dextrous robots, such as Dexter Bot, Baxter and LBR iiwa, are designed to be easily programmable and to handle manufacturing tasks that are laborious or uncomfortable for human workers.
Indeed, robots are ideal for tasks that are too repetitive or dangerous for humans to undertake, and can work 24 hours a day at a lower cost than human workers. In reality, new-generation robotic machines are likely to collaborate with humans rather than replace them. Even considering advances in design and artificial intelligence, human involvement and oversight will remain essential.

There remains the risk that robots may displace human workers from jobs, although previous generations of automation have tended to lead to higher productivity and growth with benefits throughout the economy. Decades-old fears of networked robots running out of control may become more salient with next generation robotics linked into the web – but more likely familiarisation as people employ domestic robots to do household chores will reduce fears rather than fan them. And new research into social robots – that know how to collaborate and build working alliances with humans – means that a future where robots and humans work together, each to do what it does best – is a strong likelihood. Nevertheless, however, the next generation of robotics poses novel questions for fields from philosophy to anthropology about the human relationship to machines.
 
3. Recyclable thermoset plastics
A new kind of plastic to cut landfill waste

Plastics are divided into thermoplastics and thermoset plastics. The former can be heated and shaped many times, and are ubiquitous in the modern world, comprising everything from children’s toys to lavatory seats. Because they can be melted down and reshaped, thermoplastics are generally recyclable. Thermoset plastics however can only be heated and shaped once, after which molecular changes mean that they are “cured”, retaining their shape and strength even when subject to intense heat and pressure.
Due to this durability, thermoset plastics are a vital part of our modern world, and are used in everything from mobile phones and circuit boards to the aerospace industry. But the same characteristics that have made them essential in modern manufacturing also make them impossible to recycle. As a result, most thermoset polymers end up as landfill. Given the ultimate objective of sustainability, there has long been a pressing need for recyclability in thermoset plastics.

In 2014 critical advances were made in this area, with the publication of a landmark paper in the journal Science announcing the discovery of new classes of thermosetting polymers that are recyclable. Called poly(hexahydrotriazine)s, or PHTs, these can be dissolved in strong acid, breaking apart the polymer chains into component monomers that can then be reassembled into new products. Like traditional unrecyclable thermosets, these new structures are rigid, resistant to heat and tough, with the same potential applications as their unrecyclable forerunners.
Although no recycling is 100% efficient, this innovation – if widely deployed – should speed up the move towards a circular economy with a big reduction in landfill waste from plastics. We expect recyclable thermoset polymers to replace unrecyclable thermosets within five years, and to be ubiquitous in newly manufactured goods by 2025.

4. Precise genetic-engineering techniques
A breakthrough offers better crops with less controversy

Conventional genetic engineering has long caused controversy. However, new techniques are emerging that allow us to directly “edit” the genetic code of plants to make them, for example, more nutritious or better able to cope with a changing climate.
Currently, the genetic engineering of crops relies on the bacterium agrobacterium tumefaciens to transfer desired DNA into the target genome. The technique is proven and reliable, and despite widespread public fears, there is a consensus in the scientific community that genetically modifying organisms using this technique is no more risky than modifying them using conventional breeding. However, while agrobacterium is useful, more precise and varied genome-editing techniques have been developed in recent years.

These include ZFNs, TALENS and, more recently, the CRISPR-Cas9 system, which evolved in bacteria as a defence mechanism against viruses. CRISPR-Cas9 system uses an RNA molecule to target DNA, cutting to a known, user-selected sequence in the target genome. This can disable an unwanted gene or modify it in a way that is functionally indistinguishable from a natural mutation. Using “homologous recombination”, CRISPR can also be used to insert new DNA sequences, or even whole genes, into the genome in a precise way.
Another aspect of genetic engineering that appears poised for a major advance is the use of RNA interference (RNAi) in crops. RNAi is effective against viruses and fungal pathogens, and can also protect plants against insect pests, reducing the need for chemical pesticides. Viral genes have been used to protect papaya plants against the ringspot virus, for example, with no sign of resistance evolving in over a decade of use in Hawaii. RNAi may also benefit major staple-food crops, protecting wheat against stem rust, rice against blast, potato against blight and banana against fusarium wilt.

Many of these innovations will be particularly beneficial to smaller farmers in developing countries. As such, genetic engineering may become less controversial, as people recognize its effectiveness at boosting the incomes and improving the diets of millions of people. In addition, more precise genome editing may allay public fears, especially if the resulting plant or animal is not considered transgenic because no foreign genetic material is introduced.
Taken together, these techniques promise to advance agricultural sustainability by reducing input use in multiple areas, from water and land to fertilizer, while also helping crops to adapt to climate change.

5. Additive manufacturing
The future of making things, from printable organs to intelligent clothes

As the name suggests, additive manufacturing is the opposite of subtractive manufacturing. The latter is how manufacturing has traditionally been done: starting with a larger piece of material (wood, metal, stone, etc), layers are removed, or subtracted, to leave the desired shape. Additive manufacturing instead starts with loose material, either liquid or powder, and then builds it into a three-dimensional shape using a digital template.
3D products can be highly customized to the end user, unlike mass-produced manufactured goods. An example is the company Invisalign, which uses computer imaging of customers’ teeth to make near-invisible braces tailored to their mouths. Other medical applications are taking 3D printing in a more biological direction: by directly printing human cells, it is now possible to create living tissues that may find potential application in drug safety screening and, ultimately, tissue repair and regeneration. An early example of this bioprinting is Organovo’s printed liver-cell layers, which are aimed at drug testing, and may eventually be used to create transplant organs. Bioprinting has already been used to generate skin and bone, as well as heart and vascular tissue, which offer huge potential in future personalized medicine.

An important next stage in additive manufacturing would be the 3D printing of integrated electronic components, such as circuit boards. Nano-scale computer parts, like processors, are difficult to manufacture this way because of the challenges of combining electronic components with others made from multiple different materials. 4D printing now promises to bring in a new generation of products that can alter themselves in response to environmental changes, such as heat and humidity. This could be useful in clothes or footwear, for example, as well as in healthcare products, such as implants designed to change in the human body.
Like distributed manufacturing, additive manufacturing is potentially highly disruptive to conventional processes and supply chains. But it remains a nascent technology today, with applications mainly in the automotive, aerospace and medical sectors. Rapid growth is expected over the next decade as more opportunities emerge and innovation in this technology brings it closer to the mass market.

6. Emergent artificial intelligence
What happens when a computer can learn on the job?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is, in simple terms, the science of doing by computer the things that people can do. Over recent years, AI has advanced significantly: most of us now use smartphones that can recognize human speech, or have travelled through an airport immigration queue using image-recognition technology. Self-driving cars and automated flying drones are now in the testing stage before anticipated widespread use, while for certain learning and memory tasks, machines now outperform humans. Watson, an artificially intelligent computer system, beat the best human candidates at the quiz game Jeopardy.
Artificial intelligence, in contrast to normal hardware and software, enables a machine to perceive and respond to its changing environment. Emergent AI takes this a step further, with progress arising from machines that learn automatically by assimilating large volumes of information. An example is NELL, the Never-Ending Language Learning project from Carnegie Mellon University, a computer system that not only reads facts by crawling through hundreds of millions of web pages, but attempts to improve its reading and understanding competence in the process in order to perform better in the future.

Like next-generation robotics, improved AI will lead to significant productivity advances as machines take over – and even perform better – at certain tasks than humans. There is substantial evidence that self-driving cars will reduce collisions, and resulting deaths and injuries, from road transport, as machines avoid human errors, lapses in concentration and defects in sight, among other problems. Intelligent machines, having faster access to a much larger store of information, and able to respond without human emotional biases, might also perform better than medical professionals in diagnosing diseases. The Watson system is now being deployed in oncology to assist in diagnosis and personalized, evidence-based treatment options for cancer patients.

Long the stuff of dystopian sci-fi nightmares, AI clearly comes with risks – the most obvious being that super-intelligent machines might one day overcome and enslave humans. This risk, while still decades away, is taken increasingly seriously by experts, many of whom signed an open letter coordinated by the Future of Life Institute in January 2015 to direct the future of AI away from potential pitfalls. More prosaically, economic changes prompted by intelligent computers replacing human workers may exacerbate social inequalities and threaten existing jobs. For example, automated drones may replace most human delivery drivers, and self-driven short-hire vehicles could make taxis increasingly redundant.
On the other hand, emergent AI may make attributes that are still exclusively human – creativity, emotions, interpersonal relationships – more clearly valued. As machines grow in human intelligence, this technology will increasingly challenge our view of what it means to be human, as well as the risks and benefits posed by the rapidly closing gap between man and machine.

7. Distributed manufacturing
The factory of the future is online – and on your doorstep

Distributed manufacturing turns on its head the way we make and distribute products. In traditional manufacturing, raw materials are brought together, assembled and fabricated in large centralized factories into identical finished products that are then distributed to the customer. In distributed manufacturing, the raw materials and methods of fabrication are decentralized, and the final product is manufactured very close to the final customer.
In essence, the idea of distributed manufacturing is to replace as much of the material supply chain as possible with digital information. To manufacture a chair, for example, rather than sourcing wood and fabricating it into chairs in a central factory, digital plans for cutting the parts of a chair can be distributed to local manufacturing hubs using computerized cutting tools known as CNC routers. Parts can then be assembled by the consumer or by local fabrication workshops that can turn them into finished products. One company already using this model is the US furniture company AtFAB.

Current uses of distributed manufacturing rely heavily on the DIY “maker movement”, in which enthusiasts use their own local 3D printers and make products out of local materials. There are elements of open-source thinking here, in that consumers can customize products to their own needs and preferences. Instead of being centrally driven, the creative design element can be more crowdsourced; products may take on an evolutionary character as more people get involved in visualizing and producing them.
Distributed manufacturing is expected to enable a more efficient use of resources, with less wasted capacity in centralized factories. It also lowers the barriers to market entry by reducing the amount of capital required to build the first prototypes and products. Importantly, it should reduce the overall environmental impact of manufacturing: digital information is shipped over the web rather than physical products over roads or rails, or on ships; and raw materials are sourced locally, further reducing the amount of energy required for transportation.
If it becomes more widespread, distributed manufacturing will disrupt traditional labour markets and the economics of traditional manufacturing. It does pose risks: it may be more difficult to regulate and control remotely manufactured medical devices, for example, while products such as weapons may be illegal or dangerous. Not everything can be made via distributed manufacturing, and traditional manufacturing and supply chains will still have to be maintained for many of the most important and complex consumer goods.

Distributed manufacturing may encourage broader diversity in objects that are today standardized, such as smartphones and automobiles. Scale is no object: one UK company, Facit Homes, uses personalized designs and 3D printing to create customized houses to suit the consumer. Product features will evolve to serve different markets and geographies, and there will be a rapid proliferation of goods and services to regions of the world not currently well served by traditional manufacturing.

8. ‘Sense and avoid’ drones
Flying robots to check power lines or deliver emergency aid

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have become an important and controversial part of military capacity in recent years. They are also used in agriculture, for filming and multiple other applications that require cheap and extensive aerial surveillance. But so far all these drones have had human pilots; the difference is that their pilots are on the ground and fly the aircraft remotely.
The next step with drone technology is to develop machines that fly themselves, opening them up to a wider range of applications. For this to happen, drones must be able to sense and respond to their local environment, altering their height and flying trajectory in order to avoid colliding with other objects in their path. In nature, birds, fish and insects can all congregate in swarms, each animal responding to its neighbour almost instantaneously to allow the swarm to fly or swim as a single unit. Drones can emulate this.

With reliable autonomy and collision avoidance, drones can begin to take on tasks too dangerous or remote for humans to carry out: checking electric power lines, for example, or delivering medical supplies in an emergency. Drone delivery machines will be able to find the best route to their destination, and take into account other flying vehicles and obstacles. In agriculture, autonomous drones can collect and process vast amounts of visual data from the air, allowing precise and efficient use of inputs such as fertilizer and irrigation.
In January 2014, Intel and Ascending Technologies showcased prototype multi-copter drones that could navigate an on-stage obstacle course and automatically avoid people who walked into their path. The machines use Intel’s RealSense camera module, which weighs just 8g and is less than 4mm thick. This level of collision avoidance will usher in a future of shared airspace, with many drones flying in proximity to humans and operating in and near the built environment to perform a multitude of tasks. Drones are essentially robots operating in three, rather than two, dimensions; advances in next-generation robotics technology will accelerate this trend.

Flying vehicles will never be risk-free, whether operated by humans or as intelligent machines. For widespread adoption, sense and avoid drones must be able to operate reliably in the most difficult conditions: at night, in blizzards or dust storms. Unlike our current digital mobile devices (which are actually immobile, since we have to carry them around), drones will be transformational as they are self-mobile and have the capacity of flying in the three-dimensional world that is beyond our direct human reach. Once ubiquitous, they will vastly expand our presence, productivity and human experience.

9. Neuromorphic technology
Computer chips that mimic the human brain

Even today’s best supercomputers cannot rival the sophistication of the human brain. Computers are linear, moving data back and forth between memory chips and a central processor over a high-speed backbone. The brain, on the other hand, is fully interconnected, with logic and memory intimately cross-linked at billions of times the density and diversity of that found in a modern computer. Neuromorphic chips aim to process information in a fundamentally different way from traditional hardware, mimicking the brain’s architecture to deliver a huge increase in a computer’s thinking and responding power.
Miniaturization has delivered massive increases in conventional computing power over the years, but the bottleneck of shifting data constantly between stored memory and central processors uses large amounts of energy and creates unwanted heat, limiting further improvements. In contrast, neuromorphic chips can be more energy efficient and powerful, combining data-storage and data-processing components into the same interconnected modules. In this sense, the system copies the networked neurons that, in their billions, make up the human brain.
Neuromorphic technology will be the next stage in powerful computing, enabling vastly more rapid processing of data and a better capacity for machine learning. IBM’s million-neuron TrueNorth chip, revealed in prototype in August 2014, has a power efficiency for certain tasks that is hundreds of times superior to a conventional CPU (Central Processing Unit), and more comparable for the first time to the human cortex. With vastly more compute power available for far less energy and volume, neuromorphic chips should allow more intelligent small-scale machines to drive the next stage in miniaturization and artificial intelligence.

Potential applications include: drones better able to process and respond to visual cues, much more powerful and intelligent cameras and smartphones, and data-crunching on a scale that may help unlock the secrets of financial markets or climate forecasting. Computers will be able to anticipate and learn, rather than merely respond in pre-programmed ways.

10. Digital genome
Healthcare for an age when your genetic code is on a USB stick

While the first sequencing of the 3.2 billion base pairs of DNA that make up the human genome took many years and cost tens of millions of dollars, today your genome can be sequenced and digitized in minutes and at the cost of only a few hundred dollars. The results can be delivered to your laptop on a USB stick and easily shared via the internet. This ability to rapidly and cheaply determine our individual unique genetic make-up promises a revolution in more personalized and effective healthcare.
Many of our most intractable health challenges, from heart disease to cancer, have a genetic component. Indeed, cancer is best described as a disease of the genome. With digitization, doctors will be able to make decisions about a patient’s cancer treatment informed by a tumour’s genetic make-up. This new knowledge is also making precision medicine a reality by enabling the development of highly targeted therapies that offer the potential for improved treatment outcomes, especially for patients battling cancer.

Like all personal information, a person’s digital genome will need to be safeguarded for privacy reasons. Personal genomic profiling has already raised challenges, with regard to how people respond to a clearer understanding of their risk of genetic disease, and how others – such as employers or insurance companies – might want to access and use the information. However, the benefits are likely to outweigh the risks, because individualized treatments and targeted therapies can be developed with the potential to be applied across all the many diseases that are driven or assisted by changes in DNA.

Continue Reading
Comments

Science & Technology

Digital Child’s Play: protecting children from the impacts of AI

Published

on

UNICEF has developed policy guidance to protect children from the potential impacts of AI. UNICEF/ Diefaga

Artificial intelligence has been used in products targeting children for several years, but legislation protecting them from the potential impacts of the technology is still in its infancy. Ahead of a global forum on AI for children, UN News spoke to two UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) experts about the need for improved policy protection.

Children are already interacting with AI technologies in many different ways: they are embedded in toys, virtual assistants, video games, and adaptive learning software. Their impact on children’s lives is profound, yet UNICEF found that, when it comes to AI policies and practices, children’s rights are an afterthought, at best.

In response, the UN children’s agency has developed draft Policy Guidance on AI for Children to promote children’s rights, and raise awareness of how AI systems can uphold or undermine these rights.

Conor Lennon from UN News asked Jasmina Byrne, Policy Chief at the UNICEF Global Insights team, and Steven Vosloo, a UNICEF data, research and policy specialist, about the importance of putting children at the centre of AI-related policies.
AI Technology will fundamentally change society.

Steven Vosloo At UNICEF we saw that AI was a very hot topic, and something that would fundamentally change society and the economy, particularly for the coming generations. But when we looked at national AI strategies, and corporate policies and guidelines, we realized that not enough attention was being paid to children, and to how AI impacts them. 

So, we began an extensive consultation process, speaking to experts around the world, and almost 250 children, in five countries. That process led to our draft guidance document and, after we released it, we invited governments, organizations and companies to pilot it. We’re developing case studies around the guidance, so that we can share the lessons learned.

Jasmina Byrne AI has been in development for many decades. It is neither harmful nor benevolent on its own. It’s the application of these technologies that makes them either beneficial or harmful.

There are many positive applications of AI that can be used in in education for personalized learning. It can be used in healthcare, language simulation and processing, and it is being used to support children with disabilities.

And we use it at UNICEF. For example, it helps us to predict the spread of disease, and improve poverty estimations. But there are also many risks that are associated with the use of AI technologies. 

Children interact with digital technologies all the time, but they’re not aware, and many adults are not aware, that many of the toys or platforms they use are powered by artificial intelligence. That’s why we felt that there has to be a special consideration given to children and because of their special vulnerabilities.

Privacy and the profit motive

Steven Vosloo The AI could be using natural language processing to understand words and instructions, and so it’s collecting a lot of data from that child, including intimate conversations, and that data is being stored in the cloud, often on commercial servers. So, there are privacy concerns.

We also know of instances where these types of toys were hacked, and they were banned in Germany, because they were considered to be safe enough.

Around a third of all online users are children. We often find that younger children are using social media platforms or video sharing platforms that weren’t designed with them in mind.

They are often designed for maximum engagement, and are built on a certain level of profiling based on data sets that may not represent children.

Predictive analytics and profiling are particularly relevant when dealing with children: AI may profile children in a way that puts them in a certain bucket, and this may determine what kind of educational opportunities they have in the future, or what benefits parents can access for children. So, the AI is not just impacting them today, but it could set their whole life course on a different direction.

Jasmina Byrne Last year this was big news in the UK. The Government used an algorithm to predict the final grades of high schoolers. And because the data that was input in the algorithms was skewed towards children from private schools, their results were really appalling, and they really discriminated against a lot of children who were from minority communities. So, they had to abandon that system. 

That’s just one example of how, if algorithms are based on data that is biased, it can actually have a really negative consequences for children.

‘It’s a digital life now’

Steven Vosloo We really hope that our recommendations will filter down to the people who are actually writing the code. The policy guidance has been aimed at a broad audience, from the governments and policymakers who are increasingly setting strategies and beginning to think about regulating AI, and the private sector that it often develops these AI systems.

We do see competing interests: the decisions around AI systems often have to balance a profit incentive versus an ethical one. What we advocate for is a commitment to responsible AI that comes from the top: not just at the level of the data scientist or software developer, from top management and senior government ministers.

Jasmina Byrne The data footprint that children leave by using digital technology is commercialized and used by third parties for their own profit and for their own gain. They’re often targeted by ads that are not really appropriate for them. This is something that we’ve been really closely following and monitoring.

However, I would say that there is now more political appetite to address these issues, and we are working to put get them on the agenda of policymakers.

Governments need to think and puts children at the centre of all their policy-making around frontier digital technologies. If we don’t think about them and their needs. Then we are really missing great opportunities.

Steven Vosloo The Scottish Government released their AI strategy in March and they officially adopted the UNICEF policy guidance on AI for children. And part of that was because the government as a whole has adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child into law. Children’s lives are not really online or offline anymore. And it’s a digital life now.

Continue Reading

Science & Technology

How digital technology and innovation can help protect the planet

Published

on

As a thick haze descended over New Delhi last month, air quality monitors across the Indian capital began to paint a grim picture.

The smoke, fed by the seasonal burning of crops in northern India, was causing levels of the toxic particle PM 2.5 to spike, a trend residents could track in real time on the Global Environment Monitoring System for Air (GEMS Air) website.

By early November, GEMS Air showed that concentrations of PM 2.5 outside New Delhi’s iconic India Gate were ‘hazardous’ to human health. In an industrial area north of the Indian capital, the air was 50 times more polluted.

GEMS Air is one of several new digital tools used by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to track the state of the environment in real time at the global, national and local levels. In the years to come, a digital ecosystem of data platforms will be crucial to helping the world understand and combat a host of environmental hazards, from air pollution to methane emissions, say experts.

“Various private and public sector actors are harnessing data and digital technologies to accelerate global environmental action and fundamentally disrupt business as usual,” says David Jensen, the coordinator of UNEP’s digital transformation task force.

“These partnerships warrant the attention of the international community as they can contribute to systemic change at an unprecedented speed and scale.”

The world is facing what United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has called a triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss. Experts say averting those catastrophes and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals will require fundamentally transforming the global economy within a decade. It’s a task that would normally take generations. But a range of data and digital technologies are sweeping the planet with the potential to promote major structural transformations that will enhance environmental sustainability, climate action, nature protection and pollution prevention.

A new age

UNEP is contributing to that charge through a new programme on Digital Transformation and by co-championing the Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability as part of the Secretary-General’s Digital Cooperation Roadmap.

UNEP studies show that for 68 per cent of the environment-related Sustainable Development Goal indicators, there is not enough data to assess progress. The digital initiatives leverage technology to halt the decline of the planet and accelerate sustainable finance, products, services, and lifestyles.

GEMS air was among the first of those programmes. Run by UNEP and Swiss technology company IQAir, it is the largest air pollution network in the world, covering some 5,000 cities. In 2020, over 50 million users accessed the platform and its data is being streamed into digital billboards to alert people about air quality risks in real time. In the future, the program aims to extend this capability directly into mobile phone health applications.

Building on lessons learned from GEMS Air, UNEP has developed three other lighthouse digital platforms to showcase the power of data and digital technologies, including cloud computing, earth observation and artificial intelligence.

Managing freshwater

One is the Freshwater Ecosystem Explorer, which provides a detailed look at the state of lakes and rivers in every country on Earth.

The fruit of a partnership between UNEP, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and Google Earth Engine, it provides free and open data on permanent and seasonal surface waters, reservoirs, wetlands and mangroves.

“It is presented in a policy-friendly way so that citizens and governments can easily assess what is actually happening to the world’s freshwater resources,” says Stuart Crane, a UNEP freshwater expert. “That helps countries track their progress towards the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal Target 6.6.”

Data can be visualized using geospatial maps with accompanying informational graphics and downloaded at national, sub-national and river basin scales. Data are updated annually and depict long-term trends as well as annual and monthly records on freshwater coverage.

Combating climate change

UNEP is also using data-driven decision making to drive deep reductions in methane emissions through the International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO). Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, responsible for at least a quarter of today’s global warming.

The observatory is designed to shine a light on the origins of methane emissions by collecting data from various sources, including satellites, ground-based sensors, corporate reporting and scientific studies.

The Global Methane Assessment published by UNEP and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) found that cutting human-caused methane by 45 per cent this decade would avoid nearly 0.3°C of global warming by the 2040s, and help prevent 255,000 premature deaths, 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits, and 26 million tonnes of crop losses globally.

“The International Methane Emissions Observatory supports partners and institutions working on methane emissions reduction to scale-up action to the levels needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change,” says Manfredi Caltagirone, a UNEP methane emissions expert.

Through the Oil and Gas Methane Partnership 2.0, the methane observatory works with petroleum companies to improve the accuracy and transparency of methane emissions reporting. Current member companies report assets covering over 30 per cent of oil and gas production globally. It also works with the scientific community to fund studies that provide robust, publicly available data.

Preserving nature

UNEP is also backing the United Nations Biodiversity Lab 2.0, a free, open-source platform that features data and more than 400 maps highlighting the extent of nature, the effects of climate change, and the scale of human development. Such spatial data help decision-makers put nature at the heart of sustainable development by allowing them to visualize the natural systems that hold back natural disasters, store planet-warming gasses, like carbon dioxide, and provide food and water to billions.

More than 61 countries have accessed data on the UN Biodiversity Lab as part of their national reporting to the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international accord designed to safeguard wildlife and nature. Version 2.0 of the lab was launched in October 2021 as a partnership between UNDP, UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre, the Convention on Biodiversity Secretariat and Impact Observatory. 

All of UNEP’s digital platforms are being federated into UNEP’s World Environment Situation Room, a digital ecosystem of data and analytics allowing users to monitor progress against key environmental Sustainable Development Goals and multi-lateral agreements at the global, regional and national levels.

“The technical ability to measure global environmental change—almost in real time—is essential for effective decision making,” says Jensen.

“It will have game-changing implications if this data can be streamed into the algorithms and platforms of the digital economy, where it can prompt users to make the personal changes so necessary to preserving the natural world and achieving net zero.”

UNEP

Continue Reading

Science & Technology

Housing needs, the Internet and cyberspace at the forefront in the UK and Italy

Published

on

Modern construction methods and smart technology can revolutionise the building process and the way we live.

Population growth and demographic changes have led to a global housing shortage. According to research carried out by the Heriot-Watt University National Housing Federation and by the Homeless Charity Crisis Organisation, the UK will face a shortage of four million housing units by the end of 2031. This means that approximately 340,000 new housing units will need to be built each year. The houses built shall meet the demands of home automation and increasing environmental constraints.

Traditional building technology is unlikely to meet this demand. It is relatively expensive and too slow in fulfilling the necessary procedures and complying with all rules and regulations. Furthermore, the quality and capabilities of traditional construction methods are also limited. The only solution is modular production based on the principles of factory automation. This solution uses cordless and battery-free controls and sensors to perfectly integrate with home automation.

Modular buildings are based on a combination of construction methods called Modern Method of Construction (MMC). They include the use of panelling systems and components, such as roof and floor boxes, precast concrete foundation components, prefabricated wiring, mechanical engineering composites and innovative technologies.

With the opening of several factories, the UK has started to use the MMC to build prefabricated and fully equipped houses in modular form, which can be loaded onto trucks for transport across the country. This type of on-site assembly enables the house to be completed in days rather than months, thus reducing costs significantly. Modular buildings have become popular in Europe. In Italy, a pioneering company is the RI Group of Trepuzzi (Lecce), which is also operating in the fields of logistics and services and building health care facilities, field hospitals and public offices, which are cost-effective and quick to construct.

The impact of modular construction is expected to be significant and factories producing up to five thousand houses per year could become the best builders in the sector.

The construction standards of these new technology houses are higher than those of traditional houses. Thanks to better insulation, the electricity bill could be only half that of a traditional house.

Modular houses have kitchens and bathrooms, and are equipped with power and lighting via power cables, which are also modular, and wireless controls, in addition to the increasingly important network and telecommunications infrastructure.

Structural and modular wiring are derived from commercial electrical and industrial installations to ensure efficient and minimal electrical installation work. As technology changes, this standard installation is adaptable and offers a high degree of flexibility.

Experience in industrial and commercial construction shows that traditional fixtures are labour-intensive, rather rigid and still expensive. In contrast, on-site prefabricated modular cabling and the IDC system combined with wireless controllers and sensors can be fully installed at low cost. These are proven technologies and are moving from commercial to domestic use scenarios.

With the help of CAD support for modular cabling, all power cables are laid in the ceiling or wall space. The installation of wireless energy harvesting equipment simplifies the installation process as no switches and duct installation are required. For the first electrical fixing through the wall, the cable takes less time because there is no need to coordinate the position of the switch with the wall bolts. The level of dependency of on-site installation activities has also been reduced. Sensors, switches and wireless energy harvesting controls can be installed anywhere in the building, even in hard-to-reach areas.

After installation, the principle of energy harvesting will be used. Switches and sensors are powered by the surrounding environment and there is no need to replace old batteries and other maintenance equipment. Moreover, this flexibility and this reliability enable the system to be expanded at any time.

The modular construction technology enables it to adapt to various types of houses and meet the needs of today’s life through flexible shapes and various exterior decorations. This is not exactly the same as the old prefabricated houses, “granted” in Italy to earthquake victims who have been waiting for years for a decent, civilised home.

By providing a range of traditional and modern exterior decorative panels, the roofline can also be customised to suit local customs and architecture.

Through the combination of innovative product technology and good design, the aim of the smart home is to provide security and comfort. The usual requirement is to place the light switch and dimmer (or potentiometer) in the most convenient place. Driven by the kinetic energy collected by the switch itself, they can be placed anywhere.

They do not require wiring, but can send wireless signals to the receiver inside or near lights or DIN-rail mounts (German Institute for Standardisation). In addition, there is no need to use batteries and no need to replace them. This saves all the inconvenience and environmental risks that can be caused by replacing batteries.

Since this type of equipment has reached a wide range of applications, lighting and home entertainment will choose battery-free products. Besides controlling brightness and colour, self-powered switches can also be used to control sound systems or blinds. A key application of the smart home is the switch that can turn off/on devices that do not use traditional electricity when leaving or coming back home.

Energy harvesting technology also supports other sensor-based applications. For example, self-powered sensors can be wirelessly connected to an intruder alarm. Furthermore, by installing light-activated touch sensors on windows, lighting and heating can be turned off when no one is at home.

Another source of energy is the temperature difference between the heating radiator and the surrounding environment. For example, this energy harvesting enables a self-powered heating valve to perform heating control via a room temperature controller according to specific conditions.

From factories to offices, from multifunctional buildings to smart homes, wireless energy harvesting technology has been tested in approximately one million buildings worldwide. Most sensors, switches and other self-powered energy-harvesting devices can communicate at a distance of up to 30 metres in a building and meet the EnOcean international wireless standard, which encrypts messages below 1 GHz by sending a short message.

There are also some self-powered devices that integrate EnOcean energy harvesting technology and can communicate directly with the lights via the well-known Bluetooth or Zigbee (wireless communication standard based on the IEEE 802.15.4 specification, maintained by the ZigBee Alliance). This makes it possible to use green, battery-free switches and solar sensors to flexibly control other applications, such as LED lights or speakers.

Now that wireless sensors for energy harvesting can frame data at home, it will be a huge step forward to aggregate information and perform useful analysis. They process data through the Internet of Things (IoT), which refers to the path in technological development whereby, through the Internet, potentially every object of everyday life can acquire its own identity in cyberspace. As mentioned above, the IoT is based on the idea of “smart” items which are interconnected to exchange the information they possess, collect and/or process.

It also uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to keep track of living patterns and activities in modular homes. Energy analysis is an application that can currently help homeowners further reduce energy consumption through AI.

Looking to the future, the combination of the IoT and AI will bring many benefits. Geographical data, weather and climate information, as well as activities, water and energy consumption and other factors will be very useful for planners, building organisations, builders and landlords.

Perceived architecture represents the next generation of sustainable building systems. Smart buildings will soon be able to integrate the IoT devices on their own, as well as generate large amounts of information and use it to optimise buildings. This provides a whole new dimension to the service and to the business and home economics model.

This is particularly relevant for the ageing population, as these smart technologies can radically change the lifestyles of the elderly people and their families. They are expected to bring transformative benefits in terms of health and well-being.

The key elements of such a home include smart, non-invasive and safe and secure connections with friends, family members, general practitioners, nurses and health care professionals, involving the care of residents. Technology based on battery-free sensors connected to the IoT will help prevent accidents at home, resulting from kitchens utensils and overflowing toilets, etc., and keep up with residents’ interactions with healthcare professionals.

Continue Reading

Publications

Latest

Africa Today1 hour ago

Rights experts call for end to violence against women in Tigray conflict

Experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council have called for urgent action to end violence against women and girls...

Human Rights3 hours ago

‘Bodyright’ campaign launched, to end rise in gender-based violence online

Corporate logos and Intellectual Property (IP) receive “greater protection online than we do as human beings”, the UN’s women’s health agency that works to end gender-based violence, UNFPA, said on Thursday, launching a new...

Africa5 hours ago

Gender Equality at the Expense of Democracy in Africa

At a first glance, the Transitional Charter released by the Comité national du rassemblement et du développement (CNRD), the junta...

Defense7 hours ago

Will India go Nuclear in the Future? – A regional overview

South Asia has not seen stability in long while. Ever since the colonial takeover by the British, it has been...

Finance9 hours ago

GCC returns to growth amid high oil prices and strong responses to COVID-19

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) economies are expected to return to an aggregate growth rate of 2.6% in 2021, according to...

Southeast Asia11 hours ago

Vietnam’s President Phuc visit to Switzerland and Russia

Vietnam’s President Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited Switzerland and Russia(November25-December 2) to promote his country’s bilateral ties with the two countries. During the visit to...

Africa Today13 hours ago

New Project to Support the Emergence of a Digital Economy in Djibouti

The World Bank today approved a US$10 million credit from the International Development Association (IDA), the World Bank’s program for...

Trending