Three Stories for the Future of Food

A large future-oriented organization has recently asked me to write three stories about the future of food in 2050. The organization’s researchers came up with three scenarios for the future of food – a dystopian one, a positive one, and a neutral one (“Business As Usual”) – and I was recruited to write a story about each scenario.

The organization in question gave me permission to share the early drafts of these stories here, so – here they are, and I hope you enjoy them. Comments are always welcome.

 

The Son, the Father, and the H. Cockroach – a story for the dystopian future

“Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.”       – Genesis 9:3

 

If there’s one thing I hate worse than cannibals, it’s interrogating them.

“Tell me what you did,” I steadied my face and let no feeling show. “We already found your son’s corpse, half-eaten. We know you were there. Let’s get this over with.”

The suspect, shackled securely to the interrogation chair, just stared at me with no expression. I banged my fist on the table.

“Tell me! You weren’t starving like everyone. I saw your house, your lab. You’ve got some money on you. You have food. So why did you do it?!”

Instead of answering, he asked me a question of his own. His voice was thick, hoarse.

“Do you remember the day the ocean rose up and swallowed New York City? That same year, in 2035, Mumbai and Osaka were also gone. Nothing remained the same after that. That was the year my son was born.”

I grated my teeth. I could never make up my mind which of the cannibals were worse: the total whackos, or the cold-hearted ones. This guy looked like a prime material for the first category. But I let him go on. He was probably digging his own grave here.

“Tammer was beautiful.” The man said slowly, almost to himself. He wasn’t even looking at me. “When the world starting going mad, he kept me sane – I had to look after him, after his mother died in the first food riots. Even when the hurricanes came and destroyed all the crops, I made sure he still had something to eat. I paid for milk, for food, and when I had to, I stole it. All for him. And after a few years like that, of travelling from one ruined city to another, I finally settled down with the H-cockroaches.”

I felt my upper lip curling, but didn’t say anything. The son’s body was discovered in the farm.

“It’s a small farm.” He said, still staring into the air. “When Tammer was just ten years old, he got excited about the H-cockroaches. Thought they could be used to feed everyone. I told him nobody likes to eat cockroaches, but he was right. What else can you grow when the weather is so volatile that no field remains safe for long? When even the most fertile soil is parched into sand, and no water is available? I started farming H-cockroaches, yeah. Nobody liked it – some people got sick to their stomachs when they saw the farm from the inside. But they all bought the meat flour anyway. They wanted to survive. For me it was a way to earn money, but for Tammer… He actually felt like he was saving the world.”

The man drew a shaky breath.

“Right up to the point when they ate him.”

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Dystopian story – Second Part

“The H-cockroaches ate your son?” I struggled with the concept. “Seriously? That’s your defense?”

The suspect looked resigned.

“I know it sounds crazy – ” He started. I didn’t let him finish.

“Not crazy. Just a damn poor excuse! Admit you’re a cannibal, and let’s get it over with. You were just hungry, right? We found your son’s skeleton with no flesh left on it. I understand. Everybody is hungry today. Nobody has enough to eat. Just say the words, and we’ll stop all this beating around the bush and send you to – “

“He wanted to help everyone.” The man interjected. “He knew how bad things were around the world. He always said that the H-cockroaches were a good start if we wanted to bring food to everybody’s table. Those genetic engineers who created them really knew what they were doing, before everything went to hell. That’s why they nicknamed them holy cockroaches. They’re full of fats, proteins, sugars, can live in dense environments and eat pretty much anything. They’re much better than any other insect anyone ever tried to grow for food, but they’re just not good enough. They lay too little eggs.”

“I don’t care about the H-cockro – “

“You should care!” He slammed his shackled fists on the chair’s armrests. Then he lowered his eyes, and repeated in a whisper. “You should care, because my son did what nobody else could: he found a way to influence them. Where all the experts had failed, he actually made a breakthrough. He found out that they like meat.”

I snickered. “Everybody knows H-cockroaches like to eat meat. Too bad there are almost no cows left. And yeah, they’ll eat human corpses too. So what?”

“Not corpses.” He said. “And not animals. The one thing that really makes them go nuts is human meat. And not dead, either.” He paused to take a shuddering breath. “I don’t know why that is. Why do lobsters taste horrible if you kill them before you cook them? Probably some chemical we release at the moment of death, or – or something. But Tammer found out that if he… if he let them bite him… nibble on his skin… they would lay more eggs…”

I felt the bile rising in my throat, and had to swallow several times.

“When they became more ferocious, he wanted to stop,” he whispered. “But I told him to go on. We needed the money. We had more H-cockroaches than ever. I was going to rent another farm, but then, today some of the seals broke loose when he entered the farm. The H-cockroaches, they knew him by then. They… they knew his smell, his taste. They…”

He could not go on. Neither could I. I stood up shakily and went to the interrogation room’s door.

That was when the Monsantec executive came into the room.

“Sergeant.” He said briskly. “Please leave the room. This man is ours now.”

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Dystopian Story – Third Part

I stated at the Monsantech man. The fact he was even here, in the innermost sanctum of the police station, showed just how much power large firms held over the authorities today. Or maybe just how easy it was to bribe officers today. Both, really. But I wasn’t letting my prisoner go that easily. I looked the man in the suit square in the face.

“This man is a criminal – “ I began, before he cut me off.

“I listened to the conversation from outside the door.” He said briskly. “And sergeant, I don’t care what you think he is. He’s ours now, and you’d best forget all that you heard here. Forget this ever happened.”

“Why?” I demanded. “What do you want with him?”

“That’s none of your business, sergeant.” He replied easily. “Now, do I have to… call the police?”

I tensed. He must’ve had connections in high places, and money to spend on creating connections in lower ones. Still, I refused to give up any ground.

“You want his technology.” I guessed. “You want him to teach you to grow better H-cockroaches.”

I watched his face carefully. It didn’t budge.

“But… you don’t really need him.” I went on, fumbling through the conundrum. “You already heard the secret from him. The H-cockroaches need to eat human beings while… while they’re still alive.”

The man looked at me strangely. It took me a moment to understand that he actually looked sorrowful.

“We checked the farm in question.” He said. “The H-cockroaches are proliferating wildly, laying thousands – millions – of eggs. More than Monsantech has ever managed to make them with any… conventional… means.”

“So you’re going to feed your H-cockroaches with living bodies?” I demanded. “The police may have something to say about that.”

“It’s not going to be like that.” The Monsantech man said, almost gently. “Now that we know the direction we need to take in our research, we’ll find a way to replicate the effect that live human flesh has on the H-cockroaches. Maybe it’s some human pheromone we haven’t discovered yet, or some other chemical. Give us a couple of years, and Monsantech will have the best H-cockroaches in the world – enough to feed everyone.”

His gaze shifted to the prisoner, who wasn’t paying any attention to the conversation, trapped in his own world of misery. “But until we get to that point, sir, I’m afraid your son’s sacrifice will have to remain out of the public eye. We can’t let our competitors gain that knowledge. That won’t do at all.”

He sent one last somber look my way, shook his head in resignation, and left the room while I was still gawking, dumbfounded. The door clang shut behind him. I heard the key turning and turned desperately to the exit. The hatch opened from the outside, and the executive’s voice spoke once more.

“You have my apologies, sergeant. Monsantech can’t afford having that secret out in the world yet.”

He paused, then added – “I’ll send a team to collect you soon, and bring you to our research facility. Your bodies will help us test this new approach. Your wife and kids will be taken care of, financially. We’ll tell them there was a cockroach accident. Eventually, because of your sacrifice, the world will become better place.”

 


 

A PrePac Story – A Story for the Business As Usual Scenario

“If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land;”      – Isaiah 1:19

 

“I need you to talk with Tammer.” My visitor said. “To make him cut out his nonsense.”

“Your son, right?” I asked. “What’s wrong with him?”

He rolled his eyes. “Isn’t it your job to find out? You’re the shrink here. Just talk with him. He’ll probably spill everything. He doesn’t do that with me any longer.”

I crossed my legs on the therapist chair and scrutinized the father before giving an answer. His clothes indicated his wealth, as did his manners. I certainly didn’t want to lose him as a client. Still, some things needed to be said out loud.

“I’m a psychoanalyst.” I agreed. “And I can certainly meet with your son. But the more information you can give me about his issues, the better – and more quickly – I can help him deal with them.”

The man gave an impatient sigh, then stood up and started pacing around the room.

“You know about PrePacs, right?” His tone indicated that a negative answer would not be well accepted.

“Yes, of course.” I told him. Everybody knew about PrePacs. “What about them?”

“I invented them.” He said curtly. “Years ago.”

I nodded. That would explain his wealth.

Then, I waited.

He didn’t take well to the silence. Rich men never do.

“Everybody told me it would be a mistake.” He growled. “The dietitians said the PrePacs had too much sugar in them, too much fat. But I knew that was what people really wanted. And look where we are today: almost everyone has at least one PrePac a day. We have PrePacs for carnivores, for vegetarians, for vegans, you name it. Hell, we even have PrePacs for babies.”

“Some…” I cleared my throat and smoothed my dress. “Some say they’re practically addictive, with all that sugar. And certainly unhealthy.”

“Bah,” he waved the comment away. “Of course my competitors would say that. But because of PrePacs, even the poorest beggar on the street can still feed himself. Nobody goes hungry anymore.”

“And… Your son? Tammer?” I reminded him gently.

“Tammer.” His face contorted, and the mask of self confidence slipped away. His eyes were anguished. “Nobody goes hungry, except for Tammer.”

 

Business As Usual Story – Second Part

For a boy whose father invented the PrePacs, Tammer was awfully skinny. He looked like a good kid. Big brown eyes, earnest expression, determination shining through. He didn’t waste time after coming into my office.

“I know why my father sent me to see you.” He said without preamble. “I’m not going to do it.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Do what?”

“Stop my hunger strike.” He said. “I’m not eating anything solid, until he gets rid of the PrePacs. Takes them off the shelves. Denounces them publicly.”

I held my tongue again. Like father, like son. He couldn’t deal with the silence either.

“Those things are an abomination.” He said heatedly. “Have you seen the statistics about obesity? The year is 2050 and we only now beat world hunger, yay for us. But 75 percent of all people are obese. Of those, nearly half are morbidly obese – so they suffer from a higher frequency of heart diseases, diabetes, asthma, even cancer! And you know what’s more?”

I kept quiet. He leaned forward with a feverish look in his eyes.

“You know who’s obese? The bottom 80 percentile of society. Not people like you or me or my father. The rest of humanity. The ones who can’t afford fresh food, or don’t have time to cook a healthy meal for themselves because they have to take on two or three jobs just to support their families. They’re the ones who buy the PrePacs. It’s poison for them and for their kids – but they keep eating it.”

“And you’re not willing to be part of it.” I reasoned. “So you’re starving yourself, to make your father see sense.”

He sat back in his chair, suddenly tired. I could see his cheekbones, sharp and distinct under his thin skin. How long has he not eaten any solids? His body was obviously wasting away.

“Tell me something,” I said, “have you considered that maybe, just maybe, your father doesn’t realize the effect PrePacs have on people, because they don’t impact the people he really cares about…?”

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Business As Usual Story – Third Part

“You’re a genius, doc!” The father stormed into my office. “I don’t know how you did it, but he’s filling up again!”

I raised my eyes from my notebook. It’s been an entire month since I last saw Tammer, and I figured his father had simply given up on my services.

“Welcome back.” I said. “Can you tell me what happened?”

“It only took a day after you had your little pep-talk with him.” He announced. “And then he started eating again. And not just any kind of food, but my own brand! He’s consuming PrePacs like there’s no tomorrow – five of them every day! That’s the best outcome I could look for!”

I looked at the picture he put on my table. Tammer was not nearly as gaunt as before. His cheeks seemed to be bulging, a somewhat yellowish expression to his face. He was in the middle of shoving an entire PrePac into his mouth.

Alarm bells began clanging softly in my mind.

“I strongly advise you to talk with him.” I said. “Tammer is using the PrePac diet to get you to understand his concerns. He wants you to become more emotionally connected to his struggle against obesity. If you don’t pay heed, you may find that his overeating may be just as harmful to his health as his hunger strike.”

“Nonsense.” He dismissed my words. “The PrePacs are totally healthy. They feed the world. Everyone loves them.”

“Nonetheless,” I said, “I know it’s none of my concern, but maybe it’s time to cut down on some of those sugars and fats in the PrePacs? Maybe talk it over with Tammer and reach some kind of an agreement? You know, whatever’s in those PrePacs is going to affect him directly now.”

“I’ll think about it.” He promised. Then thought some more. “We made the world a better place already, and we can make it even better, like you say. Maybe the PrePacs can be healthier. But not right now. Once we control the market and I can be sure our competitors can’t outflank us somehow, we’ll change some components of the PrePac. It’ll happen eventually.”

He left shortly after that, and I was left with my thoughts. I took another look at Tammer’s picture, in which obesity started settling in, and wondered who will give up on the PrePacs first – the son, the father, or the world.

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Together – A Story for the Optimistic Scenario

“Better a small serving of vegetables with love than a fattened calf with hatred.”      – Proverbs 15:17

 

I opened my eyes groggily, and remembered what day it was, and what had to happen today. My son Tammer was still working in the U-farm, so I had some time for myself. I brushed my teeth slowly, then moved on to the kitchen for my daily breakfast. The super-oven recommended an omelette with beans and spinach, for my heart. I accepted, and watched dully as the robotic hands worked deftly with the kitchen tools, complemented by nozzles that could spray dough, egg whites, molten cheese or even meat, to create an infinite variety of delicious dishes. It only took a minute before the smell of sizzling scrambled egg filled the kitchen.

I ate without much joy. I didn’t want to go on with the day. We could become rich today, but at what price?

The omelette was soon gone from the plate – even as morose as I felt, I couldn’t help but enjoy the taste, which was suited specifically for my taste buds. I rose up from the chair, and opened the door into the U-farm, where Tammer was already tinkering with the robots.

I paused for a moment to look at him. Really look. He was about to turn 16 soon, as was pretty clear from his body. He was tall and gangly, his unkempt hair falling in tangles around his face, and he kept blowing it up from his eyes while he worked on his drone. He raised his eyes to me as I entered the room, and smiled.

“You’re gonna love this one, Dad.” He said excitedly, and hoisted up the drone. “I just finished working on it. It’s the upgraded version of the robot I showed you last week, and it’s going to – “

“To change the world.” I completed his sentence with him. He laughed in agreement, and released the drone into the air. It immediately flew out of the open window.

I raised my eyebrow at Tammer.

“Just wait.” He promised. “Poachy will be back soon.”

“Poachy?” I asked.

“Its name!” He said exasperatedly. “Watch!”

It only took a minute before Poachy came back, buzzing quietly into the room. It carried a basket, and from what I could see, it was full of apples. Tammer waved at the robot, and it turned towards him. One mechanized claw reached into the basket, picked an apple, and threw it unerringly at Tammer’s head.

My son expected that. Hell, I was sure he programmed the robot that way, just for the show. He snatched the apple right from the air, and grinned at me. Poachy did a little dance in the air to indicate its appreciation, then landed on the floor and went silent.

“Take a bite, Dad.” Tammer offered me the apple.

I bit into it. Fresh, crisp, sweet and sour at the same time. Better than any apple I’ve ever had before.

“Good, right?” Tammer smiled at me. “It was plucked from the apple tree that grows on the roof next to us, on the top of the neighboring skyscraper.”

“Stolen, you mean.” Said a stranger’s voice, and we both turned around in surprise. My heart sank in my chest.

It was time for Tammer to meet his new employers.

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Story for Optimistic Scenario – Second Part

I went to the visitor and shook his hand. He was meticulously well-groomed, and fashionably attired in a three part business suit. I could feel Tammer’s eyes on the back of my head.

“Welcome to our U-farm.” I said, fumbling with the words. “Sir.”

The man nodded at me, then glanced at Poachy.

“Let’s see if I understand it correctly.” He said. “You programmed this robot – all on your own and with no assistance – to autonomous fly to a neighboring U-farm, pick up a fruit, and bring it over to you. Is that right?”

Tammer didn’t hesitate. He was proud of his creation.

“Yes sir.” He said excitedly. “But – but it didn’t steal the fruit. I asked the U-farm owner for permission, and he agreed to it.”

“I see.” Said the visitor. “But the robot could, hypothetically, reach into any U-farm, right?”

Tammer bobbed his head. “Yeah, that’s the idea. The city is packed full of U-farms – urban farms. Every skyscraper holds dozens of them, with open windows to let the air in. Every rooftop provides food today. But it takes a lot of time to get the food off from the rooftops, process and redistribute it via the commercial retailers – the supermarkets and the grocery stores. Poachy could change all that. It could pluck fruit straight from tree branches, or even use its hands to pull carrots and other vegetables out of the soil.”

“Stealing.” The man stated. “Stealing from hard-working farmers.”

Tammer’s eyes narrowed. “Most U-farms today are owned by Monsantech anyway, and only robots work in them.” He said with restraint. “It costs too much for ordinary people – like my dad and me – to keep a U-farm, because it’s so damn expensive to deliver the yields down the building, and the retailers pay us pennies anyway. Poachy could change that. If every family has a robot like Poachy, they could reach agreements with U-farms smallholders all around the city, so that they’ll get the best and most fresh products every day, every hour, for a fee. It would – “

He stopped and glanced at me. I kept silent. He lowered his head and muttered, “It would change the world.”

“No,” said the man. “It won’t. Because as of right now, it is no longer yours. Kindly hand it over, and make your way to the exit. This U-farm and all the robots in it are now Monsantech’s legal property. Congratulations, by the way – you are now millionaires. You can thank you father for that.”

I hanged my head low. For a millionaire, I wasn’t feeling all that swell with myself.money-2724241.jpg

 

Story for the Optimistic Scenario – Third Part

“Dad?” Tammer turned to me. “What is he talking about?”

I mumbled something. I wasn’t sure myself what it was.

“Dad!” Tammer’s voice was louder, more frantic. “What did you do?!”

“He sold us your inventions.” The Monsantech executive told him calmly. “Plus this wreck of a U-farm.”

“You can’t take them away!” Cried Tammer. “And it won’t do you any good. I issued a patent on them to protect them from vultures like you!”

“We know.” Said the man, nonplussed. “Your father was kind enough to include the patents in the deal as well.”

He crouched next to the boy, his face and tone surprisingly gentle.

“He arranged for a better future for you, boy. That’s what fathers do. And he also profited off your invention. You’ll find out that that’s what people do, too, and it’s a lesson best learned early.”

Tammer looked at me again, and the hurt expression on his face gave me some strength to resist. I glowered at the executive sullenly. “The deal is not signed yet.” I said.

He rose up to his feet again and laughed at me, the gentleness all gone. “Look around you,” he said scornfully. “Your U-farm is failing, miserably. When’s the last time you could pay for a full day of electrical power to activate the robots? There’s a reason you called us and told us about your son’s inventions. You need the money. Think about all the things you could use it for. You could quit working for the rest of your days. You could even send this fine young man to get some proper education in the best universities. The deal is practically sealed – we just need your signature on it.”

I hesitated, then turned away from him to look into Tammer’s eyes.

“We need the money, Son.” I told him. “You don’t get it, but – “

He cut me short.

“I get it, Dad. I really do. But you can’t make a better future by sacrificing what we have right here, right now! Please, dad, just trust me. I know I can make the system work better. It’s going to – “ He hesitated. “It’s going to make things better for everyone, to help so many people!”

His hand touched mine, beseeching. I could feel its heat, full of warmth and life. Full of potential for a better future. Full of an optimism which I no longer possessed. But maybe I could borrow some of it.

I closed my hand around his.

The executive clicked his pen and stepped forward expectantly. I turned to him.

“Get out.” I said curtly. I didn’t give him time to talk back at me. Tammer’s hand pulsed in mine. “Get off my property. It’s still mine, and no deal is being signed today.”

I took a shuddering breath, and went on. “I know I’ve made some pretty bad decisions in my life before, but it ends here.” I was babbling by now, tears in my eyes. “You’re not taking away my son’s future with some promises for eventual big win. Nothing’s going to get better eventually. Right here, right now – “

Tammer squeezed my hand. Neither one of us let go.

“We’re going to change the world.”

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The Activated World: from Solar Power to Food

 

Solar panels are undergoing rapid evolution in the last ten years. I’ve written about this in previous posts in the blog (see for example the forecast that we’ll have flying cars by 2035, which is largely dependent on the sun providing us with an abundance of electricity). The graph below is pretty much saying it all: the cost for producing just one watt of solar energy has gone down to somewhere between 1 percent and 0.5 percent of what it used to be just forty years ago.

At the same time that prices go down, we see more installations of solar panels worldwide, roughly doubling every 2-3 years. Worldwide solar capacity in 2014 has been 53 times higher than in 2005, and global solar photovoltaic installations grew 34% in 2015 according to GTM Research.

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Source: GTM Research

It should come as no surprise that regulators are beginning to take note of the solar trend. Indeed, two small California cities – Lancastar and Sebastopol – passed laws in 2013 requiring new houses to include solar panels on their roofs. And now, finally, San Francisco joins the fray as the first large city in the world to require solar panels on every new building.

San Francisco has a lofty goal: meeting all of its energy demands by 2025, using renewable sources only. The new law seems to be one more step towards that achievement. But more than that, the law is part of a larger principle, which encompasses the Internet of Things as well: the Activation of Everything.

 

The Activation of Everything

To understand the concept of the Activation of Everything, we need to consider another promising legislation that will be introduced soon in San Francisco by Supervisor Scott Wiener. Supervisor Wiener is allowing solar roofs to be replaced with living roofs – roofs that are covered with soil and vegetation. According to a 2005 study, living roofs reduce cooling loads by 50-90 percent, and reduce stormwater waste and runoff to the sewage. They retain much of the rainwater, which later goes back to the atmosphere through evaporation. They enhance biodiversity, sequester carbon and even capture pollution. Of course, not every plant can be grown efficiently on such roofs – particularly not in dry California – but there’s little doubt that optimized living roofs can contribute to the city’s environment.

Supervisor Wiener explains the reasons behind the solar power legislation in the following words –

“This legislation will activate our roofs, which are an under-utilized urban resource, to make our City more sustainable and our air cleaner. In a dense, urban environment, we need to be smart and efficient about how we maximize the use of our space to achieve goals like promoting renewable energy and improving our environment.”

Pay attention to the “activate our roofs” part. Supervisor Wiener is absolutely right in that the roofs are an under-utilized urban resource. Whether you want to use those roofs to harvest solar power or to grow plants and improve the environment, the idea is clear. We need to activate – in any means possible – our resources, so that we maximize their use.

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A living roof in lower Manhattan. Source: Alyson Hurt, Flickr

That is what the Activation of Everything principle means: activate everything, whether by allowing surfaces and items to harvest power or resources, or to have sensing and communication capabilities. In a way, activation can also mean convergence: take two functions or services that were performed separately in the past, and allow them to be performed together. In that way, a roof is no longer just a means to provide shade and protection from the weather, but can also harvest energy and improve the environment.

The Internet of Things is a spectacular example for implementing the Activation of Everything principle. In the Internet of Things world, everything will be connected: every roof, every wall, every bridge and shirt and shoe. Every item will be activated to have added purposes. Our shirts will communicate our respiration rate to our physicians. Bricks in walls will report on their structural integrity to engineers. Bridges will let us know that they’re close to maximum capacity, and so on.

The Internet of Things largely relies on sophisticated electronic technologies, but the Activation of Everything principle is more general than that. The Activation of Everything can also mean creating solar or living roofs, or even creating walls that include limestone-secreting bacteria that can fix cracks as soon as they form.

Where else can we implement the Activation of Everything principle in the future?

 

The Activation of Cars

There have been many ideas to create roads that can harvest energy from cars’ movements. Unfortunately, the Laws of Thermodynamics reveal that such roads will in fact ‘steal’ that energy from passing cars, by making it more difficult for them to travel along the road. Not a good idea. The activation of roofs works well specifically because it has a good ROI (Return on Investment), with a relatively low energetic investment and large returns. Not so with energy-stealing roads.

But there’s another unutilized resource in cars – the roof. We can use the Activation principle to derive insights about the future of car roofs: hybrid cars will be covered with solar panels, which will be used to harvest energy when they’re sitting in the parking lot, and store it for the ride home.

Don’t get the math wrong: cars with solar roofs won’t be able to drive endlessly. In fact, if they rely only on solar power, they’ll barely even crawl. However, they will be able to power the electrical devices in the car, and trucks may even use solar energy on long journeys, to cool the wares they carry. If the cost of solar panel installation continues to go down, these uses could be viable within the decade.

 

The Activation of Farmlands

Farmlands are being activated today in many different ways: from sensors all over the field, and sometimes in every tree trunk, to farmers supplementing their livelihood by deploying solar panels and ‘farming electricity’. Some are combining both solar panels and crop and animal farming by spreading solar panels at a few meters height above the field, and growing plants that can make the most of the limited sunlight that gets to them.

 

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Anna Freund run the Open View Farm. Source: VPR

The Activation of the Air

Even the air around us can be activated. Aerial drones may be considered an initial attempt to activate the sky by filling them with flying sensors, but they are large, cumbersome and interfere with aerial traffic and with the view. However, we’ll be able to activate air in various other ways in the future, such as smart dust – extremely small sensors with limited wireless connectivity that will transmit data about their whereabouts and the conditions there.

 

The Activation of Food

Food is one of the only things that have barely been activated so far. Food today serves only two goals: to please by tasting great, and to nourish the body. According to the principle of Activation, however, food will soon serve several other purposes. Food items could be used to deliver therapeutics or sensors into the body, or possibly be produced with built-in biocompatible electronics and LEDs to make the food look better on the plate.

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Activated food: a banana with an edible food sensor, developed by researchers at Tufts University. Source: factcoexist.com

Conclusions

As human beings, we’ve always searched for ways to optimize efficiency and to make the best use of the limited resources we have. One of those limited resources is space, which is why we try to activate – add functions – to every surface and item today.

It’s fascinating to consider how the Activation of Everything will shape our world in the next few decades. We will have sensors everywhere, solar panels everywhere, batteries and electronics everywhere. It will be a world where nothing is as it seems at first glance anymore. An activated world – a living world indeed.

 

Kitchen of the Future Coming to Your House Soon – Or Only to the Rich?

 

You’re watching MasterChef on TV. The contestants are making their very best dishes and bring them to the judges for tasting. As the judges’ eyes roll back with pleasure, you are left sitting on your couch with your mouth watering at the praises they heap upon the tasty treats.

Well, it doesn’t have to be that way anymore. Meet Moley, the first robotic cook that might actually reach yours household.

Moley is composed mostly of two highly versatile robotic arms that repeat human motions in the kitchen. The arms can basically do anything that a human being can, and in fact receive their ‘training’ by recording highly esteemed chefs at their work. According to the company behind Moley, the robot will come equipped with more than 2,000 digital recipes installed, and will be able to enact each and every one of them with ease.

I could go on describing Moley, but a picture is worth a thousand words, and a video clip is worth around thirty thousand words a second. So take a minute of your time to watch Moley in action. You won’t regret it.

 

 

Moley is projected to get to market in 2017, and should cost around $15,000.

What impact could it have for the future? Here are a few thoughts.

 

Impact on Professional Chefs

Moley is not a chef. It is incapable of thinking up of new dishes on its own. In fact, it is not much more than a ‘monkey’ replicating every movement of the original chef. This description, however, pretty much applies to 99 percent of kitchen workers in restaurants. They spend their work hours doing exactly as the chef tells them to. As a result, they produce dishes that should be close to identical to each other.

As Moley and similar robotic kitchen assistants come into use, we will see a reduced need for cooks and kitchen workers in many restaurants. This trend will be particularly noticeable in large junk food networks like McDonald’s that have the funds to install a similar system in every branch of the network, thereby cutting their costs. And the kitchen workers in those places? Most of them will not be needed anymore.

Professional chefs, though, stand to gain a lot from Moley. In a way, food design could become very similar to creating apps for smartphones. Apps are so hugely successful because everybody has an end device – the smartphone – and can download an app immediately for a small cost. Similarly, when many kitchens make use of Moley, professional chefs can make lots of money by selling new and innovative digital recipes for just one dollar each.

 

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Sushi for all? That is one app I can’t wait for.

 

Are We Becoming a Plutonomy?

In 2005, Citigroup sent a memo to its wealthiest clients, suggesting that the United States is rapidly turning into a plutonomy: a nation in which the wealthy and the prosperous are driving the economy, while everybody else pretty much tags along. In the words of the report –

“There is no such thing as “The U.S. Consumer” or “UK Consumer”, but rich and poor consumers in these countries… The rich are getting richer; they dominate spending. Their trend of getting richer looks unlikely to end anytime soon.”

There is much evidence to support Citigroup’s analysis, and Boston Consulting Group has reached similar conclusions when forecasting the increase in financial wealth of the super-rich in the near future. In short, it would seem that the rich keep getting richer, whereas the rest of us are not enjoying anywhere near the same pace of financial growth. It is therefore hardly surprising to find out that one of the top advices given by Citigroup in its Plutonomy Memo was basically to invest in companies and firms that provide services to the rich and the wealthy. After all, they’re the ones whose wealth keeps on increasing as time moves on. Why should companies cater to the poor and the downtrodden, when they can focus on huge gains from the top 10 percent of the population?

Moley could easily be a demonstration for a service that befits a plutonomy. At $15,000 per robot, Moley could find its place in every millionaire’s house. At the same time, it could kick out of employment many of the low-level, low-earning cooks in kitchens worldwide.

You might say, of course, that those low-level cooks would be able to compete in the new app market as well, and offer their own creations to the public. You would be correct, but consider that any digital market becomes a “winner takes all” market. There is simply no place for plenty of big winners in the app – or digital recipe – market.

Moley, then, is essentially another invention driving us closer to plutonomy.

 

And yet…

New technologies have always cost some people their livelihood, while helping many others. Matt Ridley, in his masterpiece The Rational Optimist, describes how the guilds fought relentlessly against the industrial revolution in England, even though that revolution led in a relatively short period of time to a betterment of the human condition in England. Some people lost their workplace as a result of the industrial revolution, but they found new jobs. In the meantime, everybody suddenly enjoyed from better and cheaper clothes, better products in the stores, and an overall improvement in the economy since England could export its surplus of products.

Moley and similar robots will almost certainly cost some people their workplaces, but in the meantime it has the potential to minimize the cost of food, minimize time spent on making food in the household (I’m spending 45-60 minutes every day making food for my family and me), and elevate the lifestyle quality of the general public – but only if the technology drops in price and can be deployed in many venues, including personal homes.

 

Conclusion

If it’s a forecast you want, then here it is. While we can’t know for sure whether Moley itself will conquer the market, or some other robotic company, it seems likely that as AI continues to develop and drop in prices, robots will become part of many households. I believe that the drop in prices would be significant over a period of twenty years so that almost everybody will enjoy the presence of kitchen robots in their homes.

That said, the pricing and services are not a matter of technological prowess alone, but also a social one: will the robotic companies focus on the wealthy and the rich, or will they find financial models with which to provide services for the poor as well?

This decision could shape our future as we know it, and define whether we’ll keep our headlong dive towards plutonomy.

 

 

 

A Town in North Carolina has Banned Solar Energy – and You Can Thank Greenpeace for That

 

Recently, a town council in North Carolina rejected plans to open a solar farm in its area, after the town people expressed their fears about the new solar technology. As reported in the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, retired science teacher Jane Mann, complained that no one could assure her that solar panels did not cause cancer. Her husband, Bobby Mann, chimed in and warned the council that solar farms would suck up all the energy from the sun. Needless to say, neither of these arguments has any base in reality. The council, however, heard their warnings and voted against establishing a solar farm in the area. Later, the same town council also voted for a moratorium on future solar farms.

This is probably an isolated incident. In fact, the case has been covered widely in the last day, and the couple’s remarks have been met with worldwide ridicule, so some would say that it’s not likely to repeat itself. All the same, I believe similar arguments are bound to arise in other potential locations for solar farms. People will read about the claims associating between solar panels and deaths from cancer, and conspiracy theories will be created out of the blue. In some places, like that North Carolina town, fear will keep the new and clean technology from being deployed and used.

And if that happens, I can’t help but think that Greenpeace will be the ones to blame.

 

Greenpeace’s Feud with Science

A few years ago, I did a podcast episode about genetic engineering in plants. I wanted people to understand the science behind the technique, so I invited two distinguished professors from the academy who were experts in the field. I also invited a professor who was an expert in bioethics, to highlight the dilemmas surrounding genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Finally, I asked a senior member in Greenpeace to come to the show and provide their take on GMOs. I still remember her words, and this is a direct quote –

“If you’re inviting doctors to the show, I’m not coming.”

To say that her words blew me away is an understatement. I used to donate monthly to Greenpeace under the presumption that they’re striving to change the world to the better – but how can they know in which area they should invest their political and public influence, if they’re not guided by science and by experts? And can’t they actually do more harm than good, by supporting the wrong causes?

Since that time, I started following Greenpeace’s agenda and actions and scrutinizing them closely. It was immediately clear that the ‘green’ organization was acting more on blind faith and belief in the healing and wholesome power of nature, than on scientific findings.

Oh, you want examples? Here’s the most famous one, that we experience up to this date: the campaign against Golden Rice in particular, and genetically modified organisms in general.

Greenpeace’s campaign against the Golden Rice, for one, has succeeded in delaying the deliverance of genetically modified rice to farmers in poor countries. “Golden Rice” is golden indeed since it had been genetically altered to produce a precursor of vitamin A, which is a vital nutrient for human consumption. Sadly, vitamin A is lacking in many areas in the developing world. In fact, half a million children who suffer from severe vitamin A deficiency go blind every year, and half of them die soon after. The Golden Rice has been ready for use since the beginning of the 21st century, and yet Greenpeace’s campaign against GMOs in general and Golden Rice in particular has kept it off the market. At the same time, study after study show that GMOs are safe for eating, and in many cases are safer for the environment than ordinary crops.

Unfortunately, the scientific evidence on the issue of GMOs does not matter much to Greenpeace, which keeps on fighting against GMOs and utilizing bad science, funding extremely shoddy studies, and scaremongering all over the world. No wonder that Stephen Tindale, ex-director of Greenpeace, has recently denounced anti-GM food campaigns of the kind Greenpeace is leading still. William Saletan, who has studied the issue extensively, published his results in Slate –

“…the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.”

 

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Greenpeace scaremongering. Image originally from the Genetic Literacy Project.

 

I don’t want this post to become a defense poster for GMOs. You can find solid reviews of the scientific evidence in some of the links above. What’s important to realize, though, is that Greenpeace have deliberately led a tactic that relies on people’s lack of scientific knowledge and their automatic fears of every new technology. This tactic is harmful in two ways: first, it can actually bring harm to environment since our choices do not rely on solid science but on scare tactics; second, it poisons people’s minds against science and scientific evidence, so that they are unwilling to look at new technologies in a calm and rational manner – even if those technologies are much safer for the environment than anything that came before them.

Which is exactly what happened at North Carolina this week, when the public rejected solar energy partly because of irrational and unfounded fears. Ironically, Greenpeace has put a lot of emphasis on solar energy as the preferred direction to solve the world’s energy problems, and their efforts are commendable. However, when they’ve spent the last few decades teaching people to be afraid of conspiracy theories by evil scientists, industry and government, why did they think people would stop there? Why shouldn’t people question the scientific base against solar panels’ safety, when Greenpeace has never bothered to encourage and promote scientific literacy and rational thinking among their followers?

Today, Greenpeace should feel proud of itself – it has primed people precisely for this kind of a response: a knee-jerk rejection of anything that is new and unfamiliar. With Greenpeace’s generous assistance, fear now overrides rational thinking.

 

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I don’t like scare tactics, but when one of them is as beautiful as this one, I just can’t resist the urge to show it here. Image originally from the Inspiration Room, and the campaign was developed by BBDO Moscow.

 

Conclusion

For the last few decades, concerned scientists have watched with consternation as the environmentalist movement – with Greenpeace at its head – took an ugly turn and dived headlong into pseudo-science, mysticism and fear-mongering, while leaving solid science behind. This is particularly troubling since we need a strong environmentalist movement to help save the Earth, but it has to build its demands and strategies on a solid scientific base. Anything less than that, and the environmentalists could actually cause more harm to the environment – and to humanity – than the worst moneygrubbing industry leaders.

Even worse than that, in order to obtain public support for unscientific strategies, Greenpeace and other environmentalist movements have essentially “poisoned the wells” and have turned people’s minds against scientists and scientific studies. Instead of promoting rational thinking, they turned to scaremongering tactics that might actually backfire on them now, as they try to promote solar power technology that’s actually evidence-based.

How can we rectify this situation? The answer is simple: promote scientific literacy and rational thinking. I dare to hope that in the near future, Greenpeace will finally realize that science is not an enemy, but a way to better understand the world, and that its demands must be based on solid science. Anything less than that will lead to eventual harm to the planet.

 

Nano-Technology and Magical Cups

When I first read about the invention of the Right Cup, it seemed to me like magic. You fill the cup with water, raise it to your mouth to take a sip – and immediately discover that the water has turned into orange juice. At least, that’s what your senses tell you, and the Isaac Lavi, Right Cup’s inventor, seems to be a master at fooling the senses.

Lavi got the idea for the Right Cup some years ago, when he was diagnoses with diabetes at the age of 30. His new condition meant that he had to let go of all sugary beverages, and was forced to drink only plain water. As an expert in the field of scent marketing, however, Lavi thought up of a new solution to the problem: adding scent molecules to the cup itself, which will trick your nose and brain into thinking that you’re actually drinking fruit-flavored water instead of plain water. This new invention can now be purchased on Indiegogo, and hopefully it even works.

 

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The Right Cup – fooling you into thinking that plain water tastes like fruit.

 

“My two diabetic parents are drinking from this cup for the last year and a half.” Lavi told me in an e-meeting we had last week, “and I saw that in taste testing in preschool, kids drank from these cups and then asked for more ‘orange juice’. And I told myself that – Wow, it works!”

What does the Right Cup mean for the future?

A Future of Nano-technology

First and foremost, the Right Cup is one result of all the massive investments in nano-technology research made in the last fifteen years.

“Between 2001 and 2013, the U.S. federal government funneled nearly $18 billion into nanotechnology research… [and] The Obama administration requested an additional $1.7 billion for 2014.” Writes Martin Ford in his 2015 book Rise of the Robots. These billions of dollars produced, among other results, new understandings about the release of micro- and nano-particles from polymers, and the ways in which molecules in general react with the receptors in our noses. In short, they enabled the creation of the Right Cup.

There’s a good lesson to be learned here. When our leaders justified their investments in nano-technology, they talked to us about the eradication of cancer via drug delivery mechanisms, or about bridges held by cobwebs of carbon nanotubes. Some of these ideas will be fulfilled, for sure, but before that happens we might all find ourselves enjoying the more mundane benefits of drinking Illusory orange-flavored water. We can never tell exactly where the future will lead us: we can invest in the technology, but eventually innovators and entrepreneurs will take those innovations and put them to unexpected uses.

All the same, if I had to guess I would imagine many other uses for similar ‘Right Cups’. Kids in Africa could use cups or even straws which deliver tastes, smells and even more importantly – therapeutics – directly to their lungs. Consider, for example, a ‘vaccination cup’ that delivers certain antigens to the lungs and thereby creates an immune reaction that could last for years. This idea brings back to mind the Lucky Iron Fish we discussed in a previous post, and shows how small inventions like this one can make a big difference in people’s lives and health.

 

A Future of Self-Reliance

It is already clear that we are rushing headlong into a future of rapid manufacturing, in which people can enjoy services and production processes in their households that were reserved for large factories and offices in the past. We can all make copies of documents today with our printer/scanner instead of going to the store, and can print pictures instead of waiting for them to be developed at a specialized venue. In short, technology is helping us be more geographically self-reliant – we don’t have to travel anymore to enjoy many services, as long as we are connected to the digital world through the internet. The internet provides information, and end-user devices produce the physical result. This trend will only progress further as 3D printers become more widespread in households.

The Right Cup is another example for a future of self-reliance. Instead of going to the supermarket and purchasing orange juice, you can buy the cup just once and it will provide you with flavored water for the next 6-9 months. But why stop here?

Take the Right Cup of a few years ahead and connect it to the internet, and you have the new big product: a programmable cup. This cup will have a cartridge of dozens of scent molecules, each of which can be released at different paces, and in combination with the other scents. You don’t like orange-flavored water? No problem. Just connect the cup to the World Wide Web and download the new set of instructions that will cause the cup to release a different combination of scents so that your water now tastes like cinnamon flavored apple cider, or any other combinations of tastes you can think of – including some that don’t exist today.

 

A Future of Disruption?

As with any innovation and product proposed on crowdfunding platforms, it’s difficult to know whether the Right Cup will stand up to its hype. As of now the project has received more than $100,000 – more than 200% of the goal they put up. Should the Right Cup prove itself taste-wise, it could become an alternative to many light beverages – particularly if it’s cheap and long-lasting enough.

Personally, I don’t see Coca-Cola, Pepsi and orchard owners going into panic anytime soon, and neither does Lavi, who believes that the beverage industry is “much too large and has too many advertising resources for us to compete with them in the initial stages.” All the same, if the stars align just right, our children may opt to drink from their Right Cups instead of buying a bottle of orange juice at the cafeteria. Then we’ll see some panicked executives scrambling around at those beverages giants.

 

Conclusion

It’s still early to divine the full impact the Right Cup could have on our lives, or even whether the product is even working as well as promised. For now, we would do well to focus only on previously identified mega-trends which the product fulfills: the idea of using nano-technology to remake everyday products and imbue them with added properties, and the principle of self-reliance. In the next decade we will see more and more products based on these principles. I daresay that our children are going to be living in a pretty exciting world.

 

Disclaimer: I received no monetary or product compensation for writing this post.

 

Meat and Cancer: Is Meat Going to Disappear from our Diet?

Two days ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement that’s probably still causing the meat industry leaders to quiver in their star-studded boots. The agency has convened together a working group of 22 experts, who reviewed more than 800 studies on the association between cancer and red and processed meat. The final results were phrased unequivocally: eating just 50 grams of processed meat every day makes one 18% more likely to develop colorectal (bowel) cancer.

The obvious question that rises now deals with the future of meat eating. Are we about to see the demise of hamburger joints? Is McDonald’s about to go down in flames, along with its beef patties?

Probably not, at least in the short term, for a few reasons.

Reasons for Meat to Stay

I divide the reasons that meat will remain in culture into two different categories, each coming from a different audience: the reactions in the public, and the innovations coming from start-ups.

The Public

Will the public forego meat? That is one possible outcome, but it seems extremely radical in the short term. Even now, articles in journals and magazines bring sense and nuances into the WHO’s declaration: they explain that while an 18% increased chance to develop cancer sounds frightening, the actual numbers are much more nuanced. When Cancer Research UK crunched the numbers, it found out that –

“…out of every 1000 people in the UK, about 61 will develop bowel cancer at some point in their lives. Those who eat the lowest amount of processed meat are likely to have a lower lifetime risk than the rest of the population (about 56 cases per 1000 low meat-eaters).”

Now, that sounds much less scary, doesn’t it?

The articles also explain the rationale behind the WHO’s five categories of potential cancer-inducing agents and chemicals. In Group 1 you can find the agents that the experts are certain of their potential to cause cancer, but there is no distinction between the different levels of harm caused by each substance! That means that tobacco and processed meat exist side by side in Group 1, even though smoking kills more than one million people every year, whereas processed meat kills ‘only’ 34,000 people every year. And guess what? People are still smoking, with 17.8% of all U.S. adults smoking cigarettes!

And that leads us to another matter: people are willing to do things that are harmful to them in the long run. We go out to the sun, even though the sun’s radiation is also in the Group 1. Women take contraceptives to make sure they do not get pregnant – despite the known increased risk of cancer. And of course, 51.9% of all Americans aged 12 or older consume alcohol, even though the ethanol in the drink has also been shown to cause cancer. So you’ll pardon me if I don’t stop investing in meat production anytime soon (figuratively, since I don’t invest in the stock market; I’m a wary futurist).

All of the above does not mean that we won’t let go of meat eventually, in the long term. But at least in the short term, much more needs to happen in order to make people radically change their dietary habits. Culture, as you may remember from a previous post about pace-layer analysis, is very slow indeed to change.

The New Meat Start-Ups

Whenever human beings run into a wall that stands in the way of their desires, they either break it down or find ways to go around it. The most obvious solution in this case would be to develop new kinds of cooking and preservation methods for meat that do not involve the dangerous chemicals highlighted by the WHO. We can expect to see hamburger joints coming up with hamburgers made from unprocessed meat, possibly with an emphasis on freshness. And since it seems that barbecuing the meat can also cause cancer, other types of dishes like goulash might gain popularity in place of steaks.

While I don’t know what innovations will come up in the meat industry, I feel confident that they will arrive. Where there is great need, there is also great money – and innovators go where the money is.

Conclusion

Even in the face of the WHO’s declaration, there doesn’t seem to be much of a chance that people will stop eating meat anytime soon. Note the emphasis on “soon”. It is entirely possible that a movement will rise out of this declaration, and urge people to let go of meat altogether. Such a movement will probably base itself on panic-mongering, distorting the evidence to lead people to the belief that all meat is bad for them. But even this kind of a movement will take time to develop and gather political and social power, which means the meat industry probably still has at least one generation’s lifetime – twenty years – to survive. Whether you like this assessment or not depends on your previous beliefs.

I would like to draw attention to one last issue at steak (pardon the pun). The WHO’s committee reported that – “The most influential evidence came from large prospective cohort studies conducted over the past 20 years.” This innocent comment reveals once again the importance of conducting research and collecting data long into the future. Most research today only lasts as long as it takes the student obtain his or her graduate degree, which makes it very difficult to collect data over time.

This is a topic for another post, really, so for now I’ll just end by saying that there is a very real need to support and fund lengthier research. Research that lasts decades provides the best evidence about the impact of nutrition and lifestyle over our lives, and it should be encouraged in the scientific community.