I was at a “maker’s lab” the other day, where inventors experimented with computer numerically controlled (CNC) designs of motors, and motored systems like three-dimensional printers. It was fascinating. There is technology today, a lot of it open-source, that enables talented and creative people like those at the maker’s lab to manufacture systems and components that only a few years ago were impossible without enormous and highly capitalized design and manufacturing infrastructure. Given as I am to rhetorical flights that pack decades and centuries of human history into convenient nutshells, I commented that this is a development rivaling in importance the Second Industrial Revolution. That phase of technological development introduced, among other things, the cheap steel, ubiquitous electricity, and chemicals that are the physical basis of our modern world.
A significant underlying development of the Second Industrial Revolution was standardization of parts and components, especially things like nuts, bolts, and screws. Things like these, and the tools—screwdrivers, wrenches, etc.—that went with them, enabled the do-it-yourself types to physically interact with the new technological world, thereby maintaining the link to Mother Earth that many feared had been lost when people began migrating en masse from rural to urban areas in the latter part of the 19th century.
The convergence of open-source software (e.g., Linux and G-code) with hardware (e.g., Arduino) that enabled CNC technology to explode in recent years is, in my limited view at least, roughly analogous to the standardization of parts and tools a hundred years ago, though it is of course proceeding along decidedly different business-model lines. It allows far greater breadth and depth of interaction with the world than ever before.
I cannot predict exactly what this development will produce. But one of the participants at the maker’s lab, my friend Darcy Whyte (who is more than a participant; he’s one of the driving forces) said “this is a revolution.” I think he’s right.
The maker’s lab was in Ottawa, where I live. The maker phenomenon is of course world-wide; step back and look at the possibilities for innovation and your imagination will soar.
Imagination is soaring at Singularity University, and at U.S. public television. But in a contrived way, not organically like at the maker’s lab the other night. Put innovative people together with the media and sometimes you get amazing things. Unfortunately, some innovators’ need for capital and some media’s need for ratings often collaborate to produce little more than hyperbole. A recent PBS report on the goings on at Singularity University says
Food, water and energy, [are] supposedly scarce, but with the tinkerings of technology… [are] potentially abundant.
It’s not really the tinkerings of technology that will make scarce things abundant. Food scarcity could be eradicated by irradiating freshly harvested produce with gamma rays from isotopes made in nuclear reactors. A recent report from Bangladesh Agricultural University estimates that 18 to 44 percent of fruits and vegetables are lost after harvest to pathogens and pests. Humans should be eating this produce. Pathogens and pests could be destroyed by gamma rays, without harming the food. There should be a major push on to get irradiators, loaded with the gamma-emitting isotopes cobalt-60 or cesium-137, into the food supply chain of every developing country.
This is not “tinkering with technology.” The technology is already invented. Gamma irradiators have existed for decades. Canada led the world in developing them. The World Food Organization urges fast uptake of irradiation to solve the harvest spoilage problem and feed more people. The problem is political, not technological.
Same with water and energy. Again, technology could end all shortages. But it’s not a case of inventing it; it was invented decades ago and has been in use for decades. Readers of this blog know I mean nuclear energy. Only uranium and plutonium nuclei contain enough energy to power mankind for the foreseeable future. Water desalination by nuclear heat is totally viable; it just needs uptake.
Unfortunately, the PBS piece did not cut to that chase. Instead it focused on pie-in-the-sky notions and stuck loyally to the “tinkering with technology” line. This gives the impression that if you design a better computer chip, food will grow faster. Water will become easier to manage.
Water is not easy to manage. I mentioned in an earlier post that I personally wrestle with the reality of the specific heat of water every time I visit my Muskoka hibernacle in the winter. I get to the cottage, then spend the next five or six hours heating the place and “looking after the water.” The latter involves sawing a hole in the lake ice, fetching water in pails, lugging the pails into the cottage, transferring the water to a pot, putting the pot on an electric stove, then waiting until the water is hot. The water-fetching and -heating process by itself takes about two hours from fetching to boiling. Good thing somebody else is producing the electricity.
Sometimes it pays not to fetch or heat water. One of those times is right after a sauna, when you want cold water. Here’s one of those times:
That’s my brother Dave taking a dip, after a sauna; the water temperature is somewhere between 0° C and 2° C. If you want the water more comfortable than that, then you’re looking at a lot of work.
So I shook my head at at 05:15 in the PBS video below, when the correspondent introduced the Slingshot, a portable water purification device which according to the report can each day purify 250 gallons of polluted water by boiling it first.
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This gives the impression that the energy to boil the water is of secondary importance in the purification system. It’s not. Africa has a potable water problem because it lacks cheap, widely available electricity. If cheap electricity were as widely available as it is here in, say the southern part of Canada, the poor African women in the video would not have to physically fetch dirty water then try to figure out how to make it safe to drink.
I say the “southern part of Canada” because, amazing as it may sound, there are people who live in Canada’s north who have water problems similar to those of the African women in the video. But their problems are compounded by the temperature. Water freezes at zero degrees celsius, and that introduces a whole new set of problems to anyone dealing with the infrastructure that moves and heats water. The bulk of my Muskoka problem has to do with water’s differing physical phases below and above zero (i.e., the fact that it’s liquid above and solid below).
At one point in the video, the inventor of the Slingshot water purifier says “if we can build these machines to scale, at a cost that is highly realistic, we will be able to put these things all over the world… .” I salute his desire to bring clean water to people who need it. But unless he makes energy cheap, the water purifier will see only limited uptake.
How could the “Maker Revolution” described above approach this problem? Let’s take the issue of water infrastructure on Canadian First Nation reserves in the North. What technological improvements to water infrastructure could be addressed by Makers? In “Inuvik running out of gas,” I suggested using isotope water heaters, based on the heat that the isotope strontium-90 gives off as it disintegrates, to keep potable water and sewage systems from freezing. Once installed, these heaters would work for decades. How could a maker make one?