Innovators under thirty-five aim at a "safer and fairer world" - in energy, agriculture, AI/robots, and buildings
Hi-tech innovation isn’t coming along with a magic wand to sort out our range of crises - environment, jobs, health, migration, democracy - but we should always keep an eye on what efficiencies, transformations and connections it can do for us. What kind of civic spaces could we open up that could connect citizens directly to radical innovation - guiding it in their direction, binding it to their well-formulated values and interests? (Can we use our Citizens Action Network to do this?)
Looking at MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35 for 2019 - explicitly selecting “smart people willing to dedicate their lives to the idea that technology can make a safer, fairer world” - you can see some mega-tech trends (artificial intelligence, robotics, genetics, materials science) being inflected by some perennial human asymmetries: poverty, illness, pollution, energy costs, political polarisation.
We’ll select a few that are relevant to our Alternative UK agenda of civic power and local autonomy, grappling with the hard limits of climate crisis, and the no-limits of social automation. What are the game-changing solutions from radical innovation? (But please, explore yourself):
Brandon Sorbom: His high-temperature superconductors could make fusion reactors much cheaper to build
MIT TR: “A fusion reactor that can deliver energy to the grid is more than a decade away at best. But developing such a reactor is a worthy goal because fusion has the potential to offer almost limitless zero-carbon energy, with low radioactive waste and safety risks.
“One puzzle has stumped scientists for decades: how to maintain the 100 million-degree temperatures needed for fusion and do it cheaply enough to profitably produce energy. Powerful magnets can do the job by insulating the fuel at a reactor’s core. But until recently, not even the world’s best electromagnets were good enough.
“So Sorbom and his team designed a better magnet from a superconductor called yttrium barium copper oxide. First as a student at MIT, and now as the chief scientist at startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems, Sorbom used this magnet as part of a fusion reactor design almost 100 times smaller than was previously thought possible. The reactor is so small, in fact, that Commonwealth Fusion is on track to build its first functional concept within the next decade.”
Vivian Chu: Her robots do some of the grunt work so hospital staffers can spend more time with the patients
MIT TR: “Vivian Chu developed the AI software for a hospital robot called Moxi, which has already been tested in four Texas hospitals. During those trials, Moxi worked 22/7—with two hours off a day for charging—picking up supplies such as syringes with its gripper hand and then dexterously moving its arm to drop them into the tray in its base. After that, it would roll down the hallway, taking care not to bump into people, and drop the supplies off in drawers outside patients’ rooms.
“Moxi can also complete other repetitive tasks such as delivering lab samples and removing soiled linen bags, easing the workload of hospital staff and freeing up more time for them to spend with patients.
“Chu’s graduate thesis focused on robots that can combine different kinds of sensory information from their surroundings—visual, auditory, kinetic—to guide their actions when they encounter a new situation. For example, one of her robots automatically adjusts the force it applies when pulling on a drawer handle if it learns that the drawer is already half open.
“Chu hopes to add similar functionality to future versions of Moxi. “It gives you that richness and robustness to be able to learn about the world,” says Chu, the chief technology officer of Diligent Robotics, which she cofounded in 2017.
“Growing up in a three-generation household in the heart of Silicon Valley, she experienced firsthand how her family struggled to take care of her grandparents as they aged, and that’s where Chu wants to use her robotics expertise in the future to make a positive impact. She hopes to give elderly people staying in nursing homes “the tools to be able to age with dignity, age with grace, [and] be more independent for longer.”
MIT TR: “As founder and CEO of SolidEnergy Systems, a startup based in Woburn, Massachusetts, Hu’s come as close as anyone to commercializing rechargeable batteries made of lithium metal. These promise twice the energy density of lithium-ion batteries, the current industry standard for nearly all electronics and electric vehicles.
“Since the development of the lead-acid battery in 1870, there have been only five major breakthroughs in battery technology—with energy density doubling roughly every 30 years. If the pattern holds, the next breakthrough is almost due: lithium-ion batteries, whose anodes are usually made of graphite or silicon, were first commercialized in 1991 by Sony.
“The boost in energy density offered by lithium metal batteries could effectively double the range of an electric vehicle. The problem is that lithium metal is highly reactive. When charging, early prototypes of lithium metal batteries would form needle--like structures known as dendrites, which could short the cells and cause them to catch fire or explode.
“Hu, who was born in China and moved to New York at 12, developed a liquid electrolyte, consisting of a high-concentration solvent in salt, which reduced the formation of dendrites. Building on this solution, SolidEnergy Systems developed a pilot line of lithium metal batteries in 2016 that are now being tested in drones. Later in 2019, it will open the world’s largest manufacturing facility for lithium metal batteries in Shanghai, where Hu hopes to scale up production to tens of thousands of cells per month.”
Isaac Sesi: He created an affordable fix for one of the most vexing problems for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa
MIT TR: “His gadget can tackle one of the biggest risks faced by farmers across Africa: the contamination of grains following harvest.
“Sesi’s product, GrainMate, allows famers and grain purchasers to affordably measure moisture levels of maize, rice, wheat, millet, sorghum, and other staples. It’s designed for a simple yet persistent problem: according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 20% of sub-Saharan Africa’s cereal output is lost or wasted, often because grains aren’t dried sufficiently before they’re stored. Grain stored while moist can develop aflatoxins—contaminants produced by fungi that are harmful to humans and animals.
“In Sesi’s native Ghana, individual farmers often sell their harvests to aggregators or animal feed producers; if one farmer’s crops are too moist they risk spoiling the entire batch. Although imported moisture detection devices are available, few farmers in Ghana can afford the nearly $400 price tag. “That might be half of what a farmer is making from his entire field” per harvest, Sesi says.
“Sesi, who grew up without electricity or running water and often went to school hungry, spent much of his childhood tinkering with electronic devices. He learned by dissecting broken radios and other abandoned gadgets with the help of a book from his school library.
“He long sought a way to apply that passion to a field that could have a social impact—and in 2017, as a recent electrical engineering graduate, he got his chance. A United States Agency for International Development project operating in partnership with his school, the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, had recently designed a grain-moisture meter for the local market. But it wanted to bring the cost down and find a way to produce the device in Ghana.
“Sesi was their man: with the help of a small team, he streamlined the original device, redesigned its circuit board, built an accompanying mobile app, and found five Ghanaian subcontractors to make components that had previously been sourced from China. Sesi’s device sells for $80—less than one-fourth as much as existing alternatives.
“Sesi and his team are now developing a more efficient version of the meter and a second product to help farmers identify ideal soil inputs. They’re also raising funds to expand to the bigger markets in Kenya and Nigeria. Ultimately, Sesi believes he can help farmers across the continent cut wastage, minimize economic losses, and improve the safety of their products.”
Mariana Popescu: She developed a construction process that turns knitted textiles into concrete buildings—saving money, carbon, and time
MIT TR: “Mariana Popescu has developed a process and accompanying computational tools capable of turning knitted textiles into complex molds for concrete buildings. Her innovation makes it possible to build complex custom-made designs faster, with less waste and reduced carbon emissions.
“‘If you really want to make good structures that use less material, you end up having complicated geometries that are very often doubly curved or have other features that are difficult to mold’, says Popescu.
“Traditional construction that uses wood or foam supported by heavy scaffolding to create forms for pouring concrete takes months and limits what shapes are possible. All you have to do is look at a sweater, she says, to see that textile materials are perfect for making a wide array of holes, channels, and other complicated 3D shapes that are sought after in contemporary buildings.
“So Popescu developed algorithms that automatically translate an architectural design into a textile-based mold that can be knitted by industrial machines in mere hours. The resulting mold is lightweight and flexible. Popescu, with the rest of her team, developed a system that uses steel cables to hold the mold in place while concrete is poured over it.
“Popescu’s innovation [her PhD thesis calls it “knitcrete”] is an efficient and ecologically conscious way of building complex structures with a minimal ecological footprint, in record time, and at low cost. It also has the potential to speed up construction of low-cost, sturdy, lightweight structures in settings like refugee camps, war zones, and sites of natural disasters.”