Category Archives: Nature

Updates from Georgia Tech

Smart Communities Address Transportation, Housing, Flooding Challenges
By John Tibbetts – Four Georgia communities are exploring innovative technologies and collaborating with local partners and Georgia Institute of Technology research teams to help drive the state’s smart development.

Georgia Tech leads the pilot Georgia Smart Communities Challenge, which supports one-year projects to develop and implement smart design solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing the state.

The four selected localities were chosen from a pool of applicants statewide.The cities of Albany and Chamblee and the counties of Chatham and Gwinnett are focusing on pilot projects to improve local housing investments, address traffic and transportation challenges, and develop more targeted flooding forecasts of storms and sea level rise along Georgia’s coast.

A local government coordinates each project. But community and neighborhood groups, industry, and others are crucial collaborators. A Georgia Tech researcher conducts studies and provides guidance in pursuit of each project’s goals, supported by graduate and undergraduate students.

Each community has received $50,000 in grants and $25,000 from Georgia Tech in research support. Communities also raised matched funds. Georgia Power is the lead sponsor, with additional financial support from the Atlanta Regional Commission. The work began in September 2018 and will continue through September 2019.

Students are engaged through the research projects but also through two additional summer programs. The Georgia Smart Community Corps is a full-time, paid summer fellowship for Georgia Tech students to become part of the project team. It is a joint collaboration with the Strategic Energy Institute, Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain, Center for Career Discovery and Development, and the Student Government Association. more>

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Why the US bears the most responsibility for climate change, in one chart

By Umair Irfan – Humans are pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an accelerating rate. But climate change is a cumulative problem, a function of the total amount of greenhouse gases that have accumulated in the sky. Some of the heat-trapping gases in the air right now date back to the Industrial Revolution. And since that time, some countries have pumped out vastly more carbon dioxide than others.

The wonderful folks at Carbon Brief have put together a great visual of how different countries have contributed to climate change since 1750. The animation shows the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions of the top emitters and how they’ve changed over time.

What’s abundantly clear is that the United States of America is the all-time biggest, baddest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet.

That’s true, despite recent gains in energy efficiency and cuts in emissions. These relatively small steps now cannot offset more than a century of reckless emissions that have built up in the atmosphere. Much more drastic steps are now needed to slow climate change. And as the top cumulative emitter, the US bears a greater imperative for curbing its carbon dioxide output and a greater moral responsibility for the impacts of global warming.

Yet the United States is now the only country aiming to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. more>

All the ways recycling is broken—and how to fix them

You may throw a plastic container in the recycling bin and assume it’s going to easily become a new item. But every step of our recycling system—from product design to collection to sorting—has major flaws. Fortunately, promising technology is starting to come online that could revolutionize the process.
By Adele Peters – You may have read that there’s a recycling crisis in the U.S. After years of accepting our used plastic and cardboard, China now won’t take it, which often means there is no place for it to go. Some city recycling programs—unable to find other buyers—have quietly started sending recyclables to incinerators or landfills, news that could make anyone question the point of separating your trash at all.

Each year, by one estimate, Americans throw out around 22 million tons of products that could have been recycled. Tens of millions of homes don’t have access to recycling; for those that do, everything from broken blenders to old clothing still ends up in the trash. If you drop an empty package in a recycling bin and it’s trucked off to a sorting facility, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee it will be recycled. You might have unwittingly tossed something that your local recycling service doesn’t accept, or the package might have been designed in a way that makes it unrecyclable.

Some parts of the system do work. The aluminum in a beer can, for example, can easily be made into new beer cans, over and over again. But a plastic package might be chopped up, melted, mixed with other types of plastic, and “downcycled” into a lower-quality material that can only be used for certain products, like park benches or black plastic planters.

When the U.S. was sending much of its paper and plastic trash to China, for more than two decades, the bales were often so poorly sorted that they contained garbage. The system never extracted the full value from those materials.

When a truck picks up recyclables from curbside bins, they take them to sorting facilities. Inside these centers, called “MRFs” or materials recycling facilities, people work with automated equipment to sort through the detritus of everyday life. Trucks dump mixed materials into the facility, where it’s loaded onto a conveyor belt; typically, in a first step, people standing next to the machine quickly pull out trash and materials like plastic bags that can jam equipment.

As materials move through a facility, the system uses gravity, screens, filters, and other techniques to separate out paper, metal, glass, and plastics; optical sorting equipment identifies each type of plastic. more>

Updates from Siemens

Simulation & Test for Process Industry Applications
Siemens – Operational excellence and innovation are critical requirements to lead and succeed in today’s chemical and petrochemical processing industries. Our integrated simulation solutions for multi-physics and test will enable your engineering teams to predict process performance, optimize for energy and process efficiency, reduce byproducts and waste, and troubleshoot sub-optimal processes.

To outperform in today’s competitive process industry, engineers need tools that enable them to develop the most complete understanding of the complex physical and chemical processes occurring in the equipment they design and troubleshoot; levels of understanding far beyond those provided by experiments or basic engineering principles. more>

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Moral technology

Self-driving cars don’t drink and medical AIs are never overtired. Given our obvious flaws, what can humans still do best?
By Paula Boddington – Artificial intelligence (AI) might have the potential to change how we approach tasks, and what we value. If we are using AI to do our thinking for us, employing AI might atrophy our thinking skills.

The AI we have at the moment is narrow AI – it can perform only selected, specific tasks. And even when an AI can perform as well as, or better than, humans at certain tasks, it does not necessarily achieve these results in the same way that humans do. One thing that AI is very good at is sifting through masses of data at great speed.

Using machine learning, an AI that’s been trained with thousands of images can develop the capacity to recognize a photograph of a cat (an important achievement, given the predominance of pictures of cats on the internet). But humans do this very differently. A small child can often recognize a cat after just one example.

Because AI might ‘think’ differently to how humans think, and because of the general tendency to get swept up in its allure, its use could well change how we approach tasks and make decisions. The seductive allure that tends to surround AI in fact represents one of its dangers. Those working in the field despair that almost every article about AI hypes its powers, and even those about banal uses of AI are illustrated with killer robots.

It’s important to remember that AI can take many forms, and be applied in many different ways, so none of this is to argue that using AI will be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. In some cases, AI might nudge us to improve our approach. But in others, it could reduce or atrophy our approach to important issues. It might even skew how we think about values.

We can get used to technology very swiftly. Change-blindness and fast adaptation to technology can mean we’re not fully aware of such cultural and value shifts. more>

To end poverty, think like a spy

By Paul M. Bisca – For anyone working to end poverty, fragile states call for the ultimate juggling act. Countries in conflict seldom control their territories, and even when most areas are at peace, others may still be engulfed by violence for decades to come.

The intensity of civil wars can ebb and flow, while forcibly displaced people cross borders in search of shelter. Politicians and warlords can shift alliances abruptly and neighboring states often interfere militarily to prop up local proteges.

When geopolitics is not at play, internal disputes over land, water, or other scarce resources can ignite fighting between local populations. To make sense of all these moving parts, even the most knowledgeable experts must look for new ways to comprehend the world.

What can be done?

To better manage the unknown, development professionals might want to take a leaf from the intelligence community book and draw inspiration from how spies try to predict the future. Reduced to its simplest terms, the CIA defines intelligence as “knowledge and foreknowledge of the world around us—the prelude to decisions by policymakers.”

Other definitions emphasize the collection, processing, integration, analysis, and interpretation of available information from closed and open sources.

Development practitioners are not spies, nor should they aspire to be. Further, the idea that project managers and economists should behave like spies is bound to raise eyebrows for professionals driven by the quest for sustainability and equity.

Yet, the methodology of intelligence is well-suited to paint in our minds the interplay of actions, information, and analysis needed to navigate the complex, uncertain, and downright dangerous environments where extreme poverty stubbornly persists.

This approach is not about acting like James Bond, but rather about thinking like him. more>

Updates from Georgia Tech

Signals from Distant Lightning Could Help Secure Electric Substations
By John Toon – Side channel signals and bolts of lightning from distant storms could one day help prevent hackers from sabotaging electric power substations and other critical infrastructure, a new study suggests.

By analyzing electromagnetic signals emitted by substation components using an independent monitoring system, security personnel could tell if switches and transformers were being tampered with in remote equipment. Background lightning signals from thousands of miles away would authenticate those signals, preventing malicious actors from injecting fake monitoring information into the system.

The research, done by engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has been tested at substations with two different electric utilities, and by extensive modeling and simulation. Known as radio frequency-based distributed intrusion detection system (RFDIDS), the technique was described February 26 at the 2019 Network and Distributed System Security Symposium (NDSS) in San Diego.

“We should be able to remotely detect any attack that is modifying the magnetic field around substation components,” said Raheem Beyah, Motorola Foundation Professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and co-founder of Fortiphyd Logic, Inc. “We are using a physical phenomenon to determine whether a certain action at a substation has occurred or not.”

Opening substation breakers to cause a blackout is one potential power grid attack, and in December 2015, that technique was used to shut off power to 230,000 persons in the Ukraine. Attackers opened breakers in 30 substations and hacked into monitoring systems to convince power grid operators that the grid was operating normally. Topping that off, they also attacked call centers to prevent customers from telling operators what was happening. more>

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Why We Stink at Tackling Climate Change

By David P. Barash – What’s wrong with us? Not us Democrats, Republicans, or Americans. Rather, what’s wrong with our species, Homo sapiens?

If human beings are as Hamlet suggested, “noble in reason, infinite in faculty,” then why are we facing so many problems?

In many ways, people are better off than ever before: reduced infant mortality, longer lifespans, less poverty, fewer epidemic diseases, even fewer deaths per capita due to violence.

And yet global threats abound and by nearly all measures they are getting worse: environmental destruction and wildlife extinction, ethnic and religious hatred, the specter of nuclear war, and above all, the disaster of global climate change.

For some religious believers, the primary culprit is original sin. For ideologues of left, right, and otherwise, it’s ill-functioning political structures.

From my biological perspective, it’s the deep-seated disconnect between our slow-moving, inexorable biological evolution and its fast-moving cultural counterpart—and the troublesome fact we are subject to both, simultaneously.

It seems inevitable that as these cultural skills developed and provided leverage over the material and natural world—not to mention over other human beings, less adroit at these things—natural selection favored those individuals most able to take advantage of such traits. Up to a point, our biological and cultural evolution would have been mutually reinforcing. We are now past that point.

There is no reason for our biological and cultural evolution to proceed in lockstep, and many reasons for them to have become disconnected. more>

When the monsoon goes away

By Sunil Amrith – More than 70 per cent of total rainfall in South Asia occurs during just three months each year, between June and September. Within that period, rainfall is not consistent: it is compressed into a total of just 100 hours of torrential rain, spread across the summer months. Despite advances in irrigation, 60 per cent of Indian agriculture remains rain-fed, and agriculture employs around 60 per cent of India’s population. No comparable number of human beings anywhere in the world depend on such seasonal rainfall.

Both before and after independence, the imperious power of the monsoon troubled India’s rulers. In the first decade of the 20th century, the finance minister in the imperial government declared that ‘every budget is a gamble on the rains’ – a statement that is still quoted regularly in the Indian media.

In the late 1960s, India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi said: ‘For us in India, scarcity is only a missed monsoon away.’ The foreboding remains.

The scale of the monsoon system exists far beyond human intervention. If technology could intervene, it was on the landscape, in the form of infrastructure. By the early 20th century, engineers around the world were confident that they could neutralize the risk of climatic variability by constructing dams that would fuse water storage, flood control, irrigation and power generation. India was no exception. more>

As the Climate Changes, Are We All Boiling Frogs?

New research finds that we normalize rising temperatures remarkably quickly.
By Tom Jacobs – Climate change is significantly increasing the chances of more unsettling weather in the years to come, including longer and more severe heat waves. But if you’re hoping the strange conditions will inspire people to realize that something profoundly dangerous is occurring—and will prod politicians into acting—new research suggests you’re likely to be disappointed.

An analysis of more than two million Twitter posts finds that people do indeed take note of abnormal temperatures. But it also reports that our definition of “normal” is based on recent history—roughly, the past two to eight years.

These findings suggest that, in less than a decade, climate change-induced conditions cease to seem all that unusual. That lack of historical perspective may make it hard to grasp the enormity of the changes that are already underway, and which promise to accelerate.

“This data provides empirical evidence of the ‘boiling frog’ effect with respect to the human experience of climate change,” writes a research team led by Fran Moore of the University of California–Davis. As with the imaginary amphibian who fails to jump out of a pot of water as the temperature slowly rises, “the negative effects of a gradually changing environment become normalized, so that corrective measures are never adopted.” more>