Headlines at 21st Century Tech for August 9, 2013

If you have been following the thread of blog postings this week you will note that I have been writing about the interrelationship of religion, science and technology here at the beginning of the 21st century. I thank you for your many comments both here as well as on social media and other sites where my musings get reproduced.

The headlines I have chosen to share with you this Friday are those that caught my fancy this week. They include a report on urban transportation infrastructure, advances in paving materials that can make cities cleaner, the current IQ quotient for artificial intelligence, the now less than secret oil spill oozing from the sands of Northern Alberta, and the recreation of a 4 billion-year old protein. Enjoy!

To Save $70 Trillion US Governments Need to Invest in Urban Transportation Now

A report from the International Energy Agency is emphatic in its conclusions. Invest now in urban transportation regardless of election cycles or watch 6.3 billion of us who will be living in urban centers by 2050 face the consequences of bad mass transit, poor neighborhood planning, and increasing pollution. The report states that 20% of the energy we use today is consumed by transportation and 40% of that is consumed in urban centers. With mass migration continuing to fill cities and empty the countryside urban consumption of energy for transportation will double by 2050 even with improvements to vehicle fuel economy.

This is a subject close to the heart of those of my readers who live here in Toronto. We are city that is filled with urban transit plans and devoid of funding and execution on those plans. But what is clear from the report is that every city needs to take a look at the mix of options available from better designed neighborhoods that are pedestrian and cycling friendly, to building a better mass transit infrastructure to minimize individual vehicle use. Unlike the picture below of Los Angeles on pretty much any day, cities in 2050 will have far fewer cars, far more places that can be reached by public transit, and much less air pollution.


Los Angeles traffic


New Photocatalytic Pavement May Lead to Cleaner Air in Cities

A recent study conducted in the Netherlands involved paving a section of roadway with photocatalytic concrete. This is concrete containing titanium dioxide, a catalyst that breaks down nitrous oxide. The new catch phrase – depollution, the opposite of pollution.  The concrete removes contaminants from the air using photocatalysis (the process is illustrated in the image below). Motor vehicles are the primary emitters producing more than a third of this pollutant globally. And nitrous oxide is a leading contributor to asthma and other respiratory diseases, as well as a primary ingredient in acid rain and smog. Now other urban centers are looking at applying depollution technology to roadways and even concrete buildings as a way of cleaning the air. The neat thing is the titanium dioxide does not degrade over time so it continues to work for years and can be applied to almost any kind of concrete, plaster or mortar. An additional benefit, titanium dioxide coatings act as anti-bacterials. It is currently priced at between $1,850 and $2,150 per metric ton.


Depollution technology through photocatalysis


What’s the IQ of AI?

Would you believe no smarter than a 4-year old, not that a 4-year old is dumb. How do we know? Researchers at the University of Illinois in Chicago tested the ConceptNet 4, an artificial intelligence (AI) open source system out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.The AI system was put through its paces. It took the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence Test. The results, very uneven scores across portions of the test with better results related to vocabulary but worse related to comprehension. It seems that commonsense continues to confound programmers designing AI tools. By the way if you want to know how we define commonsense – it is the ability to make sound decisions based on facts. Apparently AI systems have not yet achieved a level of comprehension that would equal a child of 8. But in all fairness to MIT and its AI develpment program, the school has put out ConceptNet 5, its next generation of AI. So don’t be surprised if the next IQ test continues to show marked improvement and maybe some commonsense.


ConceptNet child-ai-brain


Bitumen Spill Continues to Seep into Northern Alberta Environment

Back on July 20 I wrote about a new kind of pollution coming from the extraction of oil from the sands of Northern Alberta. Well it turns out it is not an isolated case in the Cold Lake area where the first one was reported. There are three more “oozing incidents.” Alberta officials who are monitoring these spills describe the extent of them as small, contaminating a total area greater than 20 hectares (50 acres). The process responsible for this is call steam injection. Although this incident sounds like a new event apparently the Alberta government has known about similar occurrences going back to 2009. A spokesperson for the oil sands oversight body in Alberta recently stated that they don’t know“whether it has to do with technology, operating practices, mechanical issues, geology — that sort of thing.” Don’t you feel so much better now knowing that the body responsible for regulating oil sands extraction hasn’t a clue what’s going on. It’s now going on 11 weeks since the oil started leaking and this week the Alberta regulator just approved another steam extraction project.


oil spills Northern Alberta


Recreating a 4-Billion-Year-Old Protein and the Meaning of Life

Researchers at the University of Granada in Spain have reconstructed a protein that would have been in the chemical soup of Earth’s primitive oceans some 4 billion years ago. Proteins are also called enzymes. They are the messengers sent by DNA to execute its instructions. Without proteins DNA cannot function. So recreating the granddaddy of all proteins is an interesting exercise. To come up with what would have been around 4 billion years ago the researchers studied a wide range of proteins found in life forms, particularly those that have been around the longest here on the planet. That allowed them to determine the amino acid sequence within the protein. The end result was what they called a fossil protein that could bind to many different chemicals and could function in an acid environment, similar to what we believe Earth’s early oceans were like. It resembled proteins found in today’s extremophiles, bacteria that live deep within the Earth’s crust and in the mouths of thermal vents in the ocean. One of the researchers speculates that life may not have originated here at all but arrived here from our neighbour Mars, piggybacking on a meteorite. That’s because Mars 4 billion years ago was a more benign environment than the Earth (an artist’s  rendering which appears here).


Primitive Earth


A Postscript

If you have a technology or science story you want to share then don’t be shy. Let me know. Thank you for dropping by.

– Len Rosen

Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...