At a time when Europe's economy is bouncing along the bottom it is easy to take a dim view of the future, and any pessimism is amply reinforced when considering the list of seismic challenges facing society in the coming years.
A recent talk delivered by Chris Barnatt, associate professor of computing and future studies at Nottingham University Business School in the UK, painted a frankly bleak picture of prospects for humankind as - in his words - the “age of plenty” is coming to an end amid dwindling supplies of oil, water, food, raw materials and the ravaging impact of climate change.
Halfway through the lecture it would have been tempting to give up hope for the world, but in the latter part Barnatt swept aside the doom and gloom with a fascinating look at new technologies which could bring us back from the brink.
First the alarming stuff. Top of the list of problems highlighted by Barnatt is our oil-dependent civilisation, and the small amount of time to wean ourselves off the stuff. BP is estimating oil will only last another 47 years, but long before that major disruption will occur. Once a situation known as 'peak oil' is reached - when demand starts to outstrip supply by as little as 5 per cent - there will be serious effects on the global economy, as oil is used not only in fuel but also to make a wide range of industrial products, including pharmaceuticals.
… oil is used not only in fuel but in a wide range of products, including pharmaceuticals
The big question is when peak oil will occur. Mathematical estimates - which proved pretty reliable when forecasting when peak oil was reached in the US in the 1970s - range from 2015 to 2030, which is uncomfortably close by any standard. Regardless of the timing “everyone agrees that the price of oil will go up dramatically by the end of the decade”, said Barnatt.
Climate change is admittedly controversial, but if current estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of 1 to 6 degrees of warning this century are correct there is major cause for concern. A 2 degree increase - which could occur in 20-30 years - would reduce global food supplies by about 10 per cent, flood the land that is home to 1 in 20 people and kill about 40 per cent of species on the planet.
“The science is probably right, but even if it isn't climate is a political and legislative reality and therefore will affect us all,” said Barnatt.
Next up is - somewhat surprisingly given our blue planet - the concept of peak water. The human race currently taps around 50 per cent of all available fresh water, a nine-fold increase compared to 100 years ago. The United Nations estimates that by 2025 1.8bn people will face 'absolute water scarcity', in other words not enough to drink, while two-thirds of the world's population will face restricted supplies that will impact agriculture and industrial production.
...the US healthcare system alone could save $8bn a year by using big data to make better use of resources ...
China, for example, whose growth is expected to help the global economy get back on its feet, is seeing groundwater recede by 3-6 metres a year. “There's never been a civilisation in history that built itself without a water supply, yet we're expecting massive economic growth from China,” noted Barnatt.
Food shortages are a clear consequence of the 'perfect storm' of peak oil, peak water and climate change, and developed countries must start to question - ethically and logistically - how long food can be imported from water-deprived areas. Every calorie eaten in a developed nation uses around 10 calories of oil to produce and transport to the table, he pointed out. There is not enough land on the planet to feed the world's population on a meat-rich western diet and turning to fish is not a solution, given that a global survey of marine stocks in 2010 found that 90 per cent are in decline and predicted there will be no commercial fishing anywhere on earth by 2050.
The final nail in the coffin of our civilisation's current model is resource depletion. A 2011 UN analysis of global resource usage - metals, minerals, biomass etc - was around 50bn tonnes in 2010 and at current trends would reach 150bn tonnes by 2050. Unfortunately, that level of natural resource simply isn't available, so something will have to give.
Technology to the rescue?
Against that backdrop of woe, what can be done? Barnatt went on to explore how industry can adapt to a scenario where fewer (and new) natural resources are stretched ever further, pointing to five emerging technologies that could be employed to help that objective.
The first is 3D printing or additive manufacturing, a technology covered a few months back in this column. This allows localised production of goods, “rather than spending one in seven sales dollars on logistics and transport”, said Barnatt. It also uses less material; Rolls Royce is starting a project looking at the use of 3D printing to make civil aircraft engines by 2016, which is expected to reduce the amount of metal used per 1 tonne engine from 6.5 tonnes - most of it ending up on the workshop floor - to just over a tonne.
“This is no longer just for prototyping,” according to Barnatt, who noted that 3D-printed commercial products range from spectacles, prosthetic limbs, furniture and automotive components. In its extreme form, 3D printing could also be used for living tissue, using cells for a range of healthcare applications.
... 3D printing could be used for living tissue, using cells for a range of healthcare applications
Number two on his list is nanotechnology, which could open up a whole new frontier in manufacturing by allowing us to produce items never before thought possible. Barnatt described preliminary work on nanobots that could be used to assemble new products at the nanoscale, using new materials that are superior to what we use today, and other applications such as repairing damage and targeting disease at the cellular level.
Nanomaterials are already starting to have an impact on large-scale production processes, appearing in items as diverse as tougher plasma screens, improved car paints, more effective sun creams, and OLED displays and longer-lasting batteries for mobile phones, he said.
The big frontier in the coming decades will be biological, though, and genetic modification is likely to be a tricky topic for society to handle, particularly when used to improve food supplies. There are almost no GM foods available in Europe, but they are widespread in the US and the first GM animal - a salmon that grows quicker and consumes less feed in its lifetime - is due to reach the market there later this year.
GM is already here, but the next stage is likely to be synthetic biology, which involves using biological building blocks to create new forms of life. The first-ever synthetic bacterium was created in 2010 by the Craig Venter Institute in the US, and this type of technology could be used to make organisms that in turn supply us with locally-produced raw materials, such as plastics, biofuels and other new materials.
Food supply could also be enhanced by the recent movement into vertical farming, according to Barnatt. Farms outside cities require lots of oil to move food around, so why not put them where the food is consumed and make them grow upwards? Skyscraper-style production units, making use of technologies such as aeroponics, could save water and fuel and avoid the 10 per cent wastage caused during food transportation. It has been estimated each farm could feed around 50,000 people, he added.
... nanobots could be used for repairing damage and targeting diseases at the cellular level
Once again this is already a reality, with vertical farms already in operation in Chicago, South Korea, Singapore and Sweden to test the commercial feasibility of the technology.
Finally, society needs to make better use of advances in computing. One key development is the use of big data; basically making use of the vast amount of information generated in existing networks that is currently ignored. McKinsey & Co said recently that the US healthcare system alone could save $8bn a year by using big data to make better use of resources, while it also estimated that $100bn could be saved across Europe if all government data was handled in this way.
The higher-level computing power that this would require could be provided by quantum computers using the quantum-mechanical states of sub-atomic particles to move beyond the limitations of current computers, which is based on binary processing.
The upshot of all this, explained Barnatt, is that there can be convergence of technologies and expertise between industrial sectors, “because doctors, computer scientists and engineers are working with the same types of problems and technologies at the same type of scale”. The technology behind synthetic biology for example was developed by computer scientists, not biologists, he pointed out.
Overall though, technology may be secondary to a more important requirement, which is a shift in humankind's attitudes away from materialism, consumerism and our disposable culture. Barnatt said he believes society and companies are starting to think in this way. Let's hope he is right.