Jay Ingram is a best-selling science author and broadcaster. He has hosted two national science programs in Canada, Quirks & Quarks on CBC radio and Daily Planet on Discovery Channel Canada. He is the author of The Science of Why series. In 2015, he won the Walter C. Alvarez Award from the American Medical Writers’ Association for excellence in communicating health care developments and concepts to the public. From 2005 to 2015 he chaired the Science Communications Program at the Banff Centre. Jay has six honorary degrees, was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, and is a Member of the Order of Canada.
Below, Jay shares five key insights from his new book, The Future of Us: The Science of What We’ll Eat, Where We’ll Live, and Who We’ll Be. Listen to the audio version—read by Jay himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. We can do something about climate change.
The starting point here is that the carbon dioxide we are emitting traps the energy of sunlight and warms the atmosphere and the earth. The easiest and cheapest way to address this would be to reduce our emissions, but we’re obviously not very good at that.
Beyond that, there are two main technological approaches. You can either try to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or ignore the gas and lower the temperature instead. We can reduce carbon dioxide by capturing it and burying it underground. This can be done right at the source, like the smokestack, where CO2 can be 15 to 20 percent of the total emissions. But so far, the impact of this has been minimal.
A more expensive and more challenging version is called direct air capture. This is an attempt to remove carbon dioxide, not as it’s being emitted, but from the air around us. This is much more challenging. The concentration of CO2 in the air around you is not 15 or 20 percent, but only 0.04 percent. There are some pilot plants underway that can do this, but building their numbers and capacity to the point where they make significant inroads into the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide is a long way away. We should be doing much more of this, but time is the issue.
The other approach is to ignore carbon dioxide and focus instead on the heating of the planet. If incoming sunlight could be reflected or absorbed in some way before it can dump energy into the atmosphere, temperatures would fall. It’s been suggested this could be done by painting roofs white or making clouds more reflective.
“If incoming sunlight could be reflected or absorbed in some way before it can dump energy into the atmosphere, temperatures would fall.”
But the most discussed and most controversial version involves loading the upper atmosphere with sulfates or other molecules. These would scatter some sunlight back into space and cool the Earth. We know this works because of volcanoes. After the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, global temperatures dropped two degrees Celsius.
But politics could dramatically complicate the picture. Say country “A” wants to cool down, so they inject sulfates into the atmosphere. But neighboring country “B”’s precipitation changes dramatically as a result and ruins their crops. This would potentially start climate wars.
Finally, the big risk is that any technology to intercept sunlight might be used as an excuse to continue to burn fossil fuels. Why would we need to stop if we can just control the temperature? But if the temperature controls were turned off, the accumulated carbon dioxide would blow the lid off the temperature records.
2. The global population should reach nearly 10 billion by the year 2050.
That’s an increase of 25 percent from today. But when it comes to food, we’re told we’ll have to produce 50 percent more food than today. Why? Well, partly the greater population, of course, but partly because of rising standards of living. Historically, the higher the standard of living, the greater the consumption of meat.
Can we possibly keep up with that? What we’ve achieved with a domestic chicken is the perfect example. The average supermarket chicken today is four times as big as its 1950s counterpart, yet the demand for more chicken meat continues. It doesn’t seem possible that the birds can continue to grow. Today’s nestling chick is converted into a five-pound adult in just six weeks. The modern chicken breast is 80 percent bigger than it was a few decades ago. The faster the bird grows and the heavier it gets, the further removed from nature it becomes.
This trend cannot continue for humane reasons either. As it is, factory farm chickens today may live their lives in an area the size of a piece of paper. They develop myriad health issues related to their unnatural size, too. Could the chicken reach a dead end? I’m sure there will always be chickens, but it’s hard to see how much further they can go.
What about substitutes? Plant-based chicken, for example, is possible, but it requires a pretty significant cultural shift. Lab-grown chicken meat is a great idea, but very early in its development. Lab-grown chicken has been okayed in the United States, and lab-grown chicken nuggets are already being sold in Singapore.
What about substituting protein by eating insects? Talk about significant cultural shifts. We have to remember, though, that hundreds of millions of people incorporate insect protein into their diets.
3. The line between human brains and computers may get smaller, but it will not disappear.
Elon Musk recently announced that his company, Neuralink, was looking to recruit their first human subject for a brain implant. The typical subject might be someone who’s lost the ability to speak after a stroke or neuromuscular disease. The implant is about the size of a dime made of metal, and once it’s set in the skull, its thousand or so electrodes begin to record the brain activity of the subject. The goal is to train a computer to recognize what the patient is trying to do or say and intervene to make that happen, whether it’s moving a cursor or generating spoken words.
“Ones and zeros do not replicate the brain’s working in any way.”
Not surprisingly, Musk didn’t stop there. He went on to elaborate that the implant would bring us a step closer to “enhancing broadband connections between humans or between humans and AI.” What does that mean? The human-to-human part boggles my mind, maybe because I don’t have an implant. Does that mean I’d know what you’re thinking, or worse, you’d know what I’m thinking?
But the human-to-AI claim is consistent with what a number of technophiles and some who aren’t tech-savvy would like to accomplish in the long-term. That is to establish a robust connection between a human brain and AI, such that the entire contents of the brain could be uploaded to the cloud, and that person would then exist in two forms, biological and technological.
Is this even possible? With brain implants, it is already possible to understand a person’s thoughts to some extent and translate them, but there are many hurdles. Ones and zeros do not replicate the brain’s working in any way, despite what chatbots might have persuaded you. While you could argue that the calculating speed of the brain is well within the capacity of computers, the range of human thought might not be. Founding editor of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly, is certain about that. He says, “No one entity will do all that we do better.”
4. If you write a book about the future, you must write about the flying car.
Where’s the flying car? The Jetsons had them. The thing is, it’s probably within reach, at least technologically. But it might be out of reach for reasons that are beyond its control.
First, there have been flying cars for more than a century. The first was built in 1917, just nine years after the Wright Brothers flew for the first time. It was called the Auto Plane.
There were sporadic attempts after that—one of the most successful being the Arrowbile, powered by a Studebaker car engine. The car company bought five of them. These vehicles looked about as weird as a hybrid-car airplane could. Imagine a small car, with giant wings, and a long tail. There’s no way you would’ve been able to back it out of the driveway, taxi down the street, and take off. Imagine parallel parking! They also required a skillset way beyond a driver’s license.
The technology challenge is that flying and driving put different demands on a vehicle. Planes must be light to be able to generate lots of lift. Cars must be heavy to prevent lift and stay on the ground. It’s no problem for cars to carry a lot of fuel, whether that’s gas or electricity. Because of the weight, planes can’t afford to carry loads of fuel.
“The technology challenge is that flying and driving put different demands on a vehicle.”
And speaking of fuel, in an era of climate change, creating a whole new set of vehicles burning fossil fuel makes no sense. And batteries are not yet energy-intense enough to be practical. They lose their charge too fast.
Finally, who’s going to want or need one? Rich city folk? Maybe, but they could just use a self-driving car. Rich country folk? Again, maybe. But if they just take their flying car to the nearest landing site, and then switch to a non-flying car, what’s the point?
5. The world’s wildlife is doing poorly.
Just the other day, a study revealed that 41 percent of the world’s amphibians are threatened with extinction, and that’s just one study. You’d think any move to restore a healthy biosphere should be applauded, but maybe not always. There’s a lot of interest right now in something called de-extinction, bringing back a species that has gone extinct. How could you possibly do that? That’s a good question. You have to be able to salvage genetic material from remains, whether they’re museum skins or fossil bones. You then have to somehow create a fertilized egg, find some sort of modern surrogate mother, and hope after a long, involved, and technically hugely demanding process, you get a viable embryo. A better question than how is why? I wish sometimes someone would just say, “We’re doing this because it’s cool,” but no, what you usually hear is an elaborate environmental justification.
The wooly mammoth gets most of the publicity, but let’s take the passenger pigeon instead. In the mid-19th century, the skies over the U.S. and Canada were darkened by their flocks, sometimes a billion strong. Even so, it didn’t take long for human greed to wipe them out. The last individual died in a zoo in 1911. In earlier decades, their sheer numbers made them an environmental force. Giant flocks would descend on the forests of the northeast to feed, bringing down branches, covering the ground with guano and opening up clearings, allowing the forest to regenerate. It’s thought that the passenger pigeon was essential to forest health. That’s the why. The justification for trying to bring them back is to reestablish those giant flocks and bring back forest health.
Even if you get through all the hurdles, even getting one nestling, you’re still nowhere. You need hundreds hatching at about the same time to ensure the old social habits can be reestablished, and pretty soon after that, you’d need tens of thousands. How would you train them to migrate in the same old patterns? Would today’s forests react the same way? What would we do? I’d love to see a living passenger pigeon as much as anyone, but there are too many existing species that need our attention.
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