The Role of Emerging Technologies in Sustainability
- November 8, 2018
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The news is beginning to break that mining for cryptocurrency is up to twice as expensive as mining for actual precious metals, thanks to its heavy use of electricity. This is the first of several examples we'll discuss that describe the interesting relationship between emerging technologies and the drive for sustainability.
Finding this out about crypto mining isn't a blow to the concept of cryptocurrencies. Blockchain-based technologies represent — for the time being — the gold standard in "trustless" currencies and permanent, immutable recordkeeping. But looked at through the lens of sustainability, they become one more avenue of expansion and innovation that will require level-headed thinking about how we use our resources going forward.
In this example, if a nation wanted to position its cryptocurrency as a legitimate competitor on the national stage, it would expand public and private investments in wind, solar power, and other clean energies. Doing so would help drive the price of adoption down for all — including crypto miners.
Here are some other examples of how promising new technologies influence sustainability, and vice versa.
Artificial Intelligence as an Ally in Clean Power
It's become clear that "electrifying everything" and harnessing the inexhaustible power of the sun, for as many of our terrestrial activities as humanly possible, is essential to the long-term health of this planet. Not surprisingly, AI can help us in some of these efforts.
There are many applications for AI in rolling out clean power to more of the developed and developing world, including better energy forecasting, decentralized and peer-to-peer electric grids, optimized "all digital" power plants, and much more. Our existing electric infrastructure lacks most of this predictive modeling and is highly centralized in most cases, which makes it susceptible to natural disasters and even solar flares.
But AI could optimize a considerable amount of the busywork involved with keeping national grids online — and help harden them against events like storms and even solar flares, besides.
Manufacturing Is More Self-Aware Than Ever
Amid worldwide calls to curb the amount of unnecessary waste making its way into landfills and natural areas, the manufacturing industries are moving now to leaner operating standards. In some cases, factories operate with extremely low levels of raw materials on standby at any given time, thereby taking "lean manufacturing" to new heights. This is possible thanks to advanced business forecasting, analytics systems, and end-to-end connected supply chains.
Developing more effective fabrication techniques is another way manufacturers have come to lean on modern technology to curb wastefulness and remain competitive. Something like paint application techniques might not sound like a big deal to somebody on the outside, but for a business specializing in applications of primers, sealants and paints, switching to electrostatic painting methods could shave $25 off the cost of applying each gallon of paint — just by minimizing overspray and wasted material.
Here's another angle:
Until very recently, a company's ability to study and improve the product lifecycle ended when that product left the assembly line. Electronics manufacturers found new ways to gather insights into how their products are used — and ultimately discarded. Philips is one company that uses electronic tagging to gather data on how their products are used — and better understand the place these products occupy in the "circular economy."
The end result, for this and other like-minded manufacturers, is reduced waste thanks to a better awareness of customer demand and usage cycles, and products designed more deliberately with longer lifespans, easier repairability, and less wasteful manufacturing processes.
Low-Energy Pollution Monitoring for Cities and Municipalities
There are entire branches of technology dedicated to taking easier and more accurate measurements — of everything. Measuring is one of the first things you need to do when presented with a problem with a scope like this one:
Poor air quality, including common airborne pollutants from industrial activities, is now linked in scientific circles with "dramatically lowered" intelligence based on our levels of exposure. After studying 20,000 individuals across China over four years, researchers concluded that high pollution can cause residents to lose, on average, cognitive functionality equivalent of one full year of schooling.
In an ideal world, none of our industrial activities would produce close to these levels of pollution. In the meantime, though, breakthroughs in low-energy monitoring equipment help us tackle the air quality problem one city block at a time. In a joint effort involving Google, the Environmental Defense Fund and the University of Texas, researchers now know that air pollution can vary from one end of the block to the other — by a factor of up to eight times, in some cases.
Cities and municipalities are likely to explore this concept even further in the future by taking Houston's lead and affixing a variety of monitoring equipment to autonomous vehicles. These cars would traverse city blocks and constantly gather environmental data to help pinpoint particularly stubborn polluters and help us better understand natural and human-made patterns and how living spaces are affected.
Technology Creates Waste, But It Can Also Help Us Reign It In
It's true: we've all lived wastefully for a long time, to various degrees. And it's also true that breakthroughs in technology are a big part of the reason why we have to clean up our ocean, our atmosphere, and our city blocks. But technology is also what helps us understand these problems more completely — and come up with solutions to raise awareness about and, ultimately, solve them.