As we walk along a forest path, the soil beneath our feet seems like a uniform substance. However,
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Silicon Valley could save the planet. All they need to do is combine their entrepreneurial brilliance with an enormous infusion of cash, and, more importantly, have our society grant them the cultural permission to lead us to a green future.
But we don't want that. And, frankly, that's why we peons annoy the titans of tech so much.
Why won't we hand our environmental challenges to our top technologists to solve? After all, these are among the world's most successful people at identifying unsolved problems and tackling them. And they're loaded with enough money, resources, and cache to get things done.
The reason is simple: We're afraid.
Instead we demand solutions from policymakers — not because we think they're the biggest geniuses, but because we think only the government has the legitimate authority to do big binding things that affect us all, which is what stopping climate change requires.
What's more, many of us think that only government can do the right thing in a divided world. Regardless of our partisanship or our policy preferences, we're increasingly doubtful that big goals can be met except by coercive force. In fact, we suspect that, at bottom, everything is a matter of coercive force.
Consider, for a moment, Jeb Bush. After teasing environmentalists with dreams of a "moderate" Republican — as opposed to yet another "denier" — Bush recently laughed off restrictive policymaking as a solution to our climate challenges, enthusing instead over, well, Silicon Valley.
Innovation and technology, said Bush, are "the source of a lot more solutions than any government-imposed idea and sometimes I sense that we pull back from the embrace of these things." Instead, Americans should "tear down the barriers," allowing new inventions to "accelerate in our lives to find solutions" to our humanity-wide problems.
Speaking for a host of green activists at their wits' end, Salon political writer Simon Maloy called Bush's vision "an impossibly vague nothingburger […] that gives the impression that Jeb cares about climate change as he advocates for the status quo." And indeed, that's one way the story Bush tells could wind up.
Here's another real possibility: Bush's vision could actually make enormous progress toward soliving our environmental struggles.
Why not trust our technologists to actually tackle the difficulties our scientists warn us about? Why do we put our faith in government not even to compel us to do great things, but to stop us from doing little things that add up, such as emit carbon?
We are setting our sights too low, envisioning a government that just skims some value off the top of our emissions in the form of taxes and fees. This is not nearly enough. And our government is incapable of doing the big things that actually need to be done.
At Vox, David Roberts warns that reversing the trend line of net emissions requires us "to imagine all of human society turning on a dime, beginning in 2030, deploying massive amounts of nuclear, bioenergy, wind, and solar, and doing so every year for decades." That public effort "may not violate the laws of physics," says Roberts, "but it is unlikely, given what we know about human beings, path dependence, and political dysfunction."
It's almost as if the best approach is to set aside our lawmakers' climate policy agendas and focus on rendering our old energy technologies ridiculously obsolete. That would take a ton of work, yes. It would probably take government subsides on a massive scale. But if we really wanted to, we could create an energy-industrial complex every bit as powerful, wealthy, and supreme as the military-industrial complex that grew out of World War II. Just look at what one person, Elon Musk, has been able to achieve with even modest government subsidies.
Humanity has a simple problem: We are not good enough at making and using energy. We're slow, inefficient, fearful, and unserious about how plentiful energy can be.
Why don't we turn Washington into the biggest venture capitalist in the world, and hand Silicon Valley a blank check marked "climate"? Because it makes them masters of the universe. Yes, it's all about our fear again. Even worse than lining their pockets with "public money" we envision going to poor people instead, letting our tech titans lead would make them a civilization apart: plainly higher and better than us, in a way that cuts to the heart of our egalitarian envy and pride.
Unless we get over that resentful queasiness about the new ruling techno-class we're winding up with anyway, we'll just keep choking on climate.
The headset I was wearing was supposed to be reading my brain.
Seated across from its inventor, I slid on the sleek wireless device, called Narbis Neurofeedback Glasses. A five-pronged sensor sat on my head, dark lenses shaded my eyes, and two arms hooked behind my ears. As I read a book, the lenses darkened and cleared, allegedly in sync with the drift of my attention.
Devon Greco, the 29-year-old founder of Narbis, wanted to make a brain-training device to help users focus. And unlike most biofeedback tools, his wireless glasses can be used far from a computer screen. Narbis recently raised \$42,997 for its Neurofeedback Glasses in a Kickstarter campaign, and plans to sell the devices at \$295 apiece. The glasses are being targeted at athletes and clinicians who treat ADHD, among others.
But do they really work?
Brain gadgets are becoming ever more popular, as techniques for stimulating or recording from the brain migrate from labs to the garages of do-it-yourself inventors like Greco. Neurofeedback tools like Narbis are one popular trend; "brain zappers" that use transcranial direct cortical stimulation, or tDCS, are another.
The much-hyped tDCS is a cautionary tale. The technique is supposed to ease everything from depression to hyperactivi ty to back pain by electrically stimulating the brain. But amidst hope and enthusiasm, many scientists and entrepreneurs have confused "claims with reality," as Dr. Vincent Walsh cautioned his colleagues in the journal Brain Stimulation. "We constantly sex up our findings for the press, and the result is an understandably overoptimistic public, because we — no one else — have misled them."
Despite a 2008 Harvard study suggesting that tDCS lessens pain, more recent research paints a different picture. In a recent analysis for Cochrane, a World Health Organization-affiliated NGO, Neil O'Connell and colleagues showed that the evidence that tDCS reduces back pain is overwhelmingly weak.
Jared Horvath, a doctoral candidate at the University of Melbourne, used tDCS to study ADHD at Harvard for two years, without success, before deciding to investigate the tool itself. In a large meta-analysis of the brain zappers, he showed that few of the reported effects survive replication by multiple groups. The few that do are small effects that shrink over time, suggesting that the early positive results were misleading outliers.
As a 2012 paper pointed out, the sensationalization of biomedical devices often starts not with entrepreneurs, but with scientists, who spin reports of new discoveries.
"The scientist and the innovative entrepreneur have similar motivations," says O'Connell, a lecturer in physiotherapy at Brunel University in England. "They all want to discover something. Whether your vested interest is academic or entrepreneurial, there is an emphasis on discovery, but not on confirmation, not on rigorous replication."
Narbis' neurofeedback technology is based on work by Devon Greco's father, the late Domenic Greco. Domenic developed a patented brain-feedback device based on a NASA prototype that he used in psychotherapy with ADHD patients. A review of such neuro-feedback technology published last year in the journal Biological Psychology confirmed that the technique may work to reduce inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness, but noted the small sample size and lack of placebo in many studies.
The review also addressed the "theta-beta ratio" on which Narbis' software is based, the measure of attention-related brainwaves developed by pioneering neurofeedback scientist Dr. Joel Lubar. According to research, this variable only affects 20 to 30 percent of ADHD children. So how the gadgets work remains unclear.
Narbis' marketing material, like that of many brain devices, makes claims both broad and specific. "By doing just two short training sessions a week, you can improve the overall performance of the brain," the website says. The company's promotional video adds, "Narbis can help you focus, sleep well, manage stress, and think clearly."
These claims are, of course, "falsifiable," as scientists say: testable hypotheses. But no such studies on the Narbis glasses have yet been done. The assertions are based on prior studies done by outside labs with similar setups, but not on the device the company is selling. The claims are, for now, more wishful marketing-speak than fact.
And while the FDA has approved commercial neurofeedback devices as safe (as long as they are not marketed to treat diseases), they don't have to meet any standard of effectiveness.
None of this means the device doesn't work, just that there is no way yet for consumers to know.
The problem, according to Brunel's O'Connell, starts with the bias toward positive results in science, along with hyperbolic terminology like "neuro-enhancement" and "brain boosting." New discoveries are published far more often than failures to reproduce previous results. These negative results, just as informative as successes, rarely see the light of day. Companies like Narbis have even less motivation to publish negative results.
"The things less incentivized are perhaps most important," O'Connell says. "When we [scientists] don't pay sufficient attention to the uncomfortable questions — low sample size, highly selected sample, loose exploratory statistics — then it isn't just the media who are responsible for hype."
"Of course, the idea of neurofeedback is incredibly intuitive and exciting, so it's no surprise that everyone wants to capitalize on it," says Todd Braver, an expert on cognitive control and a professor of psychology, neuroscience, and radiology at Washington University in St. Louis. "But we should be very wary of placebo effects — probably the most effective neurofeedback device there is: our belief system."
But that doesn't mean we should discourage companies like Narbis.
"I'm very happy for people to keep taking a crack at neurofeedback," says Braver. "That's what science is about anyway. What seem like crazy hare-brained ideas might actually work. But the main tenet of science is also: Show me the evidence. And we know what the history is with these 'neuroscience-inspired' products, software, gadgets: lots of claims and overblown arguments for support without really any direct evidence."
Energy efficiency isn't just a good idea from an environmental perspective; it makes business sense as well. But once companies commit to large hardware—say an aircraft or heavy machinery—there's often not a lot that can be done to improve the equipment's use of fuel. The primary option is to use the hardware as efficiently as possible.
That's gotten a lot easier over the last several years, primarily because of developments in electronics. Aircraft and trains now come equipped with GPS receivers that provide precise positional information, and these vehicles have processors sufficient to run sophisticated software if necessary. That software can then be used to control certain aspects of their operations to provide a more efficient trip.
We recently talked to Lucas Malta, who leads a team that helps develop transportation software for GE. He described two projects the group is working on, both focused on this exact problem—improving the use of fuel by large equipment.
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Rapid development of mobile communication devices, electric vehicles, and other energy-hungry machines detached from landlines is stretching the capabilities of current battery technology. Lithium ion batteries (LIBs) are today’s dominant technology due to their excellent cycle stability and good charge/discharge rates. However, the energy density packed in LIBs has reached its peak and is becoming a limiting factor for widespread use of mobile energy consumers. Energy density translates into charging speed, which is highly sought after by consumers.
Potential replacements for LIBs are a hot area of research, with energy density and cost the main gauging parameters. The chart below depicts the state of the art (in blue), with LIB leading current technology with energy density equivalent to 160 km (100 mile) electric vehicle independence. At the theoretical maximum, LIBs could give 200 km (130 miles) of independence to EVs, before the need for recharging. In the order of increasing energy density, battery technologies that are being considered as successors of LIBs are zinc-air, lithium-sulfur (Li-S), and lithium-air.