How the Chernobyl nuclear disaster led this woman to catch a wave

Inna Braverman

With wave power, it all seems pretty straightforward.

Waves come from the wind. Wind power is already a big-time clean-energy source (producing about 2.5 percent of the world’s electricity and growing). Water is 784 times denser than air, providing a lot more energy per cubic meter. Plus, people tend to live near coasts where the waves are: in the United States, for example, more than half the population lives within 50 miles of the ocean and all that potential energy.

It’s not straightforward. Complexities abound, ranging from where to site wave power installations (Offshore? Underwater? Free-floating or anchored?) to how to transmit the power they generate. And while not trivial, that’s the easy part. The hard part has to do with actually harnessing those wind-driven waves.

Wind blows in one direction, a relatively consistent, unidirectional power source, at least in the span of a few seconds. Waves are up and down and back and forth by nature. You can’t just miniaturize a wind turbine, sink it in the drink and fire up a toaster with water-born electrons.

So when Inna Braverman tells you that the company she co-founded — Tel Aviv, Israel-based Eco Wave Power — has come up with a really good way to harness those waves and fire up those toasters, know that it’s a big deal. [more]

This man wants to be the Steve Jobs of robotics

Tomotaka Takahashi and one of his robot creations

Take a close look at your smartphone for a moment.

Unless you’re among the rare Blackberry holdovers or a true clamshell-toting troglodyte, it’s a slab of glass and plastic and/or metal, a plug or two, a couple of camera apertures and a couple of buttons. From the perspectives of design and user interface, your phone is basically the same thing it was years ago.

Considering the gigantic scale of smartphone business, the tight product cycles and the hordes of creative people and engineers working to make the latest and greatest, conventional wisdom says there’s nowhere else to go with smartphone, design-wise. Tomotaka Takahashi would beg to differ. [more]

That moment when sci-fi becomes reality and all chocolate is 3D-printed and nobody owns a car

Visualizing a home improvement project in a Lowe’s Holoroom

Visualizing a home improvement project in a Lowe’s Holoroom

Scenario planning has been around for a half century. Royal Dutch Shell used it to foresee and react to the oil crisis of the early 1970s — and still uses it. Futurist Brian David Johnson added science fiction to the scenario-planning formula, helping Intel predict future applications of its microprocessors in the 2000s.

But it wasn’t until 2012, when Ari Popper opened the doors of his Burbank, California consultancy SciFutures, that science fiction emerged as a mainstream organizational visioning, strategy development and even prototyping tool.

History has shown that, with sci-fi, art presages life: think iPad, IBM’s Watson, the smartphone and much more. Directed energy weapons have made less-than-killer-moon-scale versions of the Death Star a reality. Arthur C. Clarke imagined communication satellites more than a decade before Sputnik. Even those old pre-Jetson’s mainstays, flying cars, are on the cusp of commercialization.

In that spirit, Popper and his SciFutures team created for The Hershey Co., a graphic novel about a future sated with 3D-printed food. For Ford, they imagined a future without car ownership (subscription transportation services and sharing among the alternatives). For the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, they envisioned the future of warfare. Most famously, SciFutures worked with Lowe’s to create the Star Trek holodeck-inspired Holoroom, a 20-by-20-foot space in which shoppers can see how Lowe’s products might look in their own homes. Customers pick out products on a tablet, then use a virtual reality headset to see those products placed in context in the home. [more at]


Regs not the problem for oil business


The incoming Trump administration and the oil and gas industry like to talk about the burdens of environmental red tape. But in Deloitte’s “reality check” of the top six issues facing the oil and gas industry in 2015, regulatory burden is absent. These are mostly big companies for whom compliance is a part of doing business and a manageable cost of operations. The entrepreneurs running wildcat operations aren’t strangers to this side of the ledger, either. And keep in mind that these companies, averaged over time (it’s a cyclical business, the world’s largest industry) make money hand over fist and can afford to do their part in minimizing the environmental impacts. For every Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL, there are hundreds of projects that go forward unhindered.

Industry-bought statements by the likes of the American Petroleum Institute in the wake of the joint U.S.-Canadian protection of thousands of square miles of seas from offshore drilling that talk about the importance of these places for energy security – they’re a joke. Arctic offshore today accounts for about 0.025 percent of U.S. crude production. The Gulf of Mexico offshore produces 23 percent of all U.S. crude and basically all of the offshore production.

We won’t need it long-term, either. Electrification of the vehicle fleet will drive down domestic demand, meaning less oil will satisfy it over time, obviating the need to drill sensitive areas that threaten tourism and the environment (not even getting into global warming here).

Shell abandoned its drilling plans in the Arctic, where an oil spill would be catastrophic: imaging trying to clean up after a Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, but in 40 mph winds at minus-20, with no local fishing fleets or anyone else to help out (caribou being notoriously lazy). The industry would have to self-fund the entire cleanup infrastructure, even if they found a bonanza of oil, which Shell at least didn’t.

Exxon Mobil had a “rough” year in 2016, its net incoming falling by about half – still, it made $16 billion on $260 billion in sales. God knows what their regulatory costs were, showing up in various accounting buckets all over the world. But this company’s – and most oil companies’ – profits hinge not on the relatively minor costs of doing their part in keeping the planet more livable, but on the whims of global oil production and demand.

Brain Bar Budapest via blog posts

Brain Bar Budapest cover logo

An old friend of mine touched base a couple of months back, wondering if I’d like to do some writing for Brain Bar Budapest. My first question was: for Brain-what?

As freelancers tend to do, I said yes. They were looking for blog posts about the festival’s speakers – quick hits, mostly: some background, an interview, and (ideally) interesting copy.

I didn’t get to go to Brain Bar Budapest in early June, but they put on a great show, looks like. And I got to talk with (or email with), and then write a bit about, some fascinating and diverse people.

Among the posts included: writer and political analyst Virginia Postrel, on the essence and importance of glamour; the transhumanist presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan; Johns Hopkins University scientist Alex Szalay, whose work in big data (and astrophysics) is helping usher in the fourth paradigm of science; Gabriel Hallevy, a legal scholar on the potential dark side of the rise of robots; “Undercover Economist” Tim Harford; propaganda-and-science-fiction scholar Etienne Augé; Harvard machine learning PhD candidate Victoria Krakovna on the existential risk artificial intelligence may pose; Austrian ceramicist and humanity-archivist Martin Kunze; Malaysian-born entrepreneur Cheryl Yeoh; and MinecraftEdu cofounder Santeri Koivisto, among others.