Thursday, March 31, 2016

Killbots ahoy!

Science fiction often goes way beyond where science is at any given moment. But science has a way of catching up.

There’s been huge controversy over the use of remote-controlled drones to kill terrorist and other enemy targets from the air, but at least those devices have a human being sitting behind the trigger. Going the extra step and putting a computer in charge is a hotly discussed ethical topic, with many saying it just shouldn’t happen.

The same issue is emerging in what you might think are very innocuous applications of the concept. For the last few years, Queensland University of Technology has been trialling a submersible robot that can hunt, identify and inject Crown of Thorns starfish with a bile salt solution that quickly and efficiently kills this pest. Trials show the COTSbot is 99.9 per cent accurate, and has the functionality to be turned over to full autonomous operation. But it hasn’t happened yet, nor will it if the UN passes a resolution to ban killbots.

I can see arguments for both sides. Any machine can be weaponised, so why stop technological developments because of what ‘might’ happen? But the existence of such a weaponised machine presents a clear threat to individuals and humanity alike. Science fiction is full of autonomous killing machines, from Fred Saberhagen’s Berserkers to James Cameron’s Terminators. Equally, humans and machines often fight side by side in stories. Who wouldn’t want R2D2 or Bishop from Aliens in their corner?

The UN can legislate all it wants, but the genie may already be out of the bottle. The age of the killbot is almost upon us.

This article originally appeared in the 'Launch Pad' section of Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here -

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Science v Politics - Real Carbon Capture

With the news that new land-clearing in Queensland and other states will wipe out Australian Government Direct Action carbon ‘savings’ (which we’ve already paid $670 million for) in just three years [Guardian Australia, 29 February 2016], it’s time we considered carbon-reducing activities that actually work.

At the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, everyone agreed to cap global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial averages. Most scientists believe we’re well on the way to smashing through that limit in the next few decades. But if we can wind things back to below that level by the end of the century, we may be able to avoid the worst effects of the rise.

CO2 was at 280 parts per million (ppm) before the Industrial Revolution. It’s currently at 400 ppm and global temperatures for 2015 showed a 1 degree average rise. To keep things to a 1.5 degrees increase, we need to stay below 430 ppm, which seems hopeless given recent approvals in Australia alone for new coal mines and oil and coal seam gas installations.

To have any hope of dropping back below 430 ppm, the world needs to be carbon neutral by 2050. That means changing the way we do things, including transitioning our entire carbon-hungry transportation industry to renewable energy. But how do we capture the carbon Catpthat’s already in our atmosphere? Planting trees isn’t enough. For a start they take up too much of the land we need to be turned over to food production for our burgeoning population.

One elegant solution is to create vast floating microalgae farms in the ocean. Trials are currently taking place off the Australian coast, and it’s estimated that a 50 million hectare expanse of ocean surface could suck in up to 25 gigatonnes of CO2 every year while producing feed for livestock. On its own that wouldn’t be enough to capture all the carbon necessary to meet our target, but it’s a start.

It’s this type of innovative thinking the Australian Government should be pouring money into, rather than the recently announced National Energy Resources Australia (NERA) Centre, which aims to drive development in – you guessed it – coal, oil, gas and uranium. Like Direct Action, that’s just throwing good money after bad.

Science: one | Politics: nil

This article originally appeared in the 'Science v Politics' section of Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here -