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Determining what is considered “natural” is important in solving many ethical dilemmas we face today, namely those surrounding urbanization and technology. We constantly hear talk of how unnatural and cancerous human civilization is, or that we as humans need to “return to nature.” New techniques in medical and biological sciences, like with genetic engineering, commonly illicit negative responses from people claiming them to go against nature. Likewise, urbanization is slowly eradicating forest land via deforestation and city expansion; wild animals are seen roaming urban landscapes as they try adapting to new homes. Industry lays concrete over green fields and carves out mountains for the purpose of resource gathering. Some may wonder if one day the entire planet will be covered in concrete and metal, like the fictional world of Trantor in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Humans also tend to engineer synthetic chemicals that will sometimes pollute our air and poison our drinking water.
Despite these seemingly unnatural tendencies however, current trends suggest that technological advancement is actually returning us to nature. With better understanding garnered from various scientific disciplines, and with careful guidance, we may actually be able to make technology synergistic with nature. And before that, we may need to also redefine what we consider natural in the first place. Are human actions really going against nature in the long run? Technology is something that is permitted to exist within the fundamental constraints of the universe, so shouldn’t that mean that it is inherently natural?
Technology seems to have gotten its bad reputation during the industrial era when advanced technology was in its infancy. During those times massive buildings and vehicles belched out large amounts of toxic chemicals without any consideration of whether or not we were harming the environment. I look around my city today and everything still seems mildly primitive. Cars still use the combustion engine standard and emit harsh gases out of soot-covered exhaust pipes. Both human and energy waste are carelessly deposited in various places around the city. Most materials are still produced without nature in mind.
But there is hope.
Technology seems to be shifting towards more environmental friendliness. The “green initiative” is invading politics, business, design, and consumerism alike. Innovators are constantly looking for ways to improve on existing infrastructure. Energy efficiency seems to be the biggest motivation, but the green initiative will also create smarter buildings, a stable climate, and better overall health for citizens. Between biotechnology, clean energy, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality, we will soon see how technology resembles what we consider a “natural process” today. In his book, What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, argues that technology should be seen as an additional kingdom of life alongside the traditional kingdoms (animalia, plantae, fungi, etc). He calls this kingdom the “technium” and proposes that this unique kingdom behaves a lot like other biological organisms. He argues that technology is something inherent of nature and is something that other organisms nurture into existence, adolescence, and eventually maturity. Technology can be seen as a symbiosis between animal and tool. Evidence shows that humans are not the only organisms capable of using tools. Technology is simply an extension of an organism and in some cases can act and evolve independently of its host. In what ways are various technologies evolving from crude, industrial-era forms to something more conducive to environmental stability?
Biotechnology to me seems the most obvious representation of technology’s synthesis with nature. Synthetic biology is a specific type of biotech that holds much promise in cleaning up the environment. It essentially combines methods of genetic engineering and computer programming. In the same way that a computer programmer uses a computing language to engineer a program, a synthetic biologist is using the language of DNA to engineer unique metabolic pathways for organisms to perform novel functions. For example, some scientists are using synthetic biology to engineer bacteria and algae that can produce biofuels to combat climate change. Craig Venter was one of the first scientists to produce a fully synthetic organism in 2010 and now his company is partnering with ExxonMobil to produce these clean biofuels. Clean biofuels basically take in waste and convert it into usable energy, thus making it a renewable source. This is a good way to clean up the environment, inhibit climate change, and cater to the increasingly high energy demands of modern society. But this only scratches the surface. Synthetic bio and genetic engineering in general will impact everything from the manufacturing of more environmentally friendly materials, to cosmetics, more efficient medicine, to bioelectric devices, and perhaps even more radical, human augmentation. In the future we may be able to use genetic engineering to imbue our skin with photosynthetic cells that will allow us to cultivate sunlight. We would be able to produce our own food and water through internal processes. This would greatly reduce the environmental impact of humans by reducing the amount of food and water that we’d need to produce and consume otherwise. For more information on the various applications of synthetic biology, click here.
As cities expand into metropolises there will be an imperative to improve on their underlying infrastructure, such as waste removal and resource distribution. Design will heavily influence the way buildings interact with their environment. Soon, buildings will be designed to function more like plants by filtering the air in the outside environment in addition to inside. Buildings will functionally resemble large trees. Architects are already looking for ways to make buildings “breath” for instance. Pollution released by what few non-electric vehicles will remain can be offset by placing towers containing genetically enhanced algae on rooftops. Buildings can be covered in a layer of photovoltaic material which could produce much of their energy, and they will also be connected to the city’s smart-grid which will supply the rest of the needed energy through renewable sources. Buildings may also be able to derive energy from intense natural events like monsoons or earthquakes. Earthquakes for instance are packed with massive amounts of energy. If buildings in earthquake prone areas were designed to harness that energy instead of crumbling under the sheer force, that energy could be stored and fed into the grid for later use. Cities near tsunami prone areas can also capture wave energy by installing wave capture technology near the bottoms of their buildings. Another important aspect of modern cities is green space, which includes any area in an urban city dedicated to vegetation (i.e. city parks, wetlands, residential vegetation). Green space has been proven to increase the overall well-being of residents and as a result, green space is also an economy-booster. Deeply integrating green space into major cities will ensure aesthetic, psychological, and economic prosperity. Poverty-stricken communities can benefit greatly from clean, green environments along with being connected to the smart grid. Many large companies are looking for ways to implement indoor green spaces into their office buildings as a way for employees to relieve stress. Amazon is one such company. One day, the “concrete jungle” will better suit its name.
Humans are smart; the human brain is currently the pinnacle of cosmological evolution. But I think we could use some help with planning and monitoring. Artificial Intelligence will help us to create a more sustainable civilization that is cooperative with the Earth’s biosphere. A.I. can map out the most efficient ways to manage the grid, allowing for optimal energy usage and savings. Google recently implemented their DeepMind A.I. into their own data center and was able to cut energy costs by 40 percent! Artificial intelligence has the capacity to solve humanity’s biggest problems. With the large amounts of data we’re funneling through our various sensory instruments we’ll be able to map out detailed weather, economic, and energy usage patterns using A.I. to crunch the numbers and produce simulations. We’ll be able to distribute food all over the world in the most optimal way and ensure that no nation is left hungry. We will also be able to track the effects various organisms have on the ecosystem at global and local scales. The interactions between plants and animals are extremely important in maintaining ecological balances; A.I. will help us to preserve these interactions by letting us see the patterns. Essentially, A.I. will act as a huge enhancement to what scientists are already doing.
At first thought, augmented reality is not a technology seemingly indicative of technology’s movement towards environmental-friendliness, but I think it will enhance our environmental imperatives the same way A.I. will. Aside from the incredibly fun games created using AR, we haven’t quite witnessed its more utilitarian benefits. When wearable technologies like Google Glasses, or something more intimate like electronic contact lenses become commercially available (and fashionable), people will have access to information about reality beyond what they can see with their naked eyes. Imagine putting on your AR glasses, walking outside, looking at an object, and being able to see metadata floating next to the object with useful information about its properties. Look up at the sky with your AR glasses and you can see enhanced visualizations of weather patterns like wind velocity or air currents and their temperatures. Imagine walking into a forest, looking at a tree and being able to see visual information about what internal processes are taking place, what interactions that tree might be having with other plants and objects in the vicinity. Move your gaze over the soil and you can identify the weird looking fungi growing from the ground. If these AR interactions were to be gamified in some way it would open the door for proactive environmental action. Perhaps if someone were to pick up a piece of trash from the ground and throw it away they could earn experience points that could later be redeemed for tangible rewards or money. Or maybe successfully planting seeds in areas marked as “in need” could earn someone points. People could earn points and “level up” for identifying plant species within a forest. The educational value of AR has yet to be tapped into. What augmented reality will also give people is perspective. People will receive a better visual idea of how interconnected the biosphere is from the macroscopic level down to the microscopic level. When people understand the intricate relationship between ecological factors they will gain a better idea of what they can and cannot do for the sake of environmental preservation.
Like mentioned before, achieving a synergy between technology and nature will require careful guidance. While the technologies and ideas discussed here may seem utopian, they could just as easily become troublesome if not approached carefully. I understand that humans and society are complex. Most of these ideas are big picture and speculative; they ignore the chaotic way in which society actually progresses. What I hope to convey however is that technology may not be as unnatural as we presume, and may in fact be morphing into something indistinguishable from nature itself.