Short Change: Artificial Visionaries

Researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland are investigating the possibility of partially restoring sight to the blind by using a device known as an optic nerve implant (ONI). The device works by bypassing the eyeball and sending electrical signals directly to the optic nerve, the pathway through which visual information reaches the brain.

First published in UCD College Tribune

Researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland are investigating the possibility of partially restoring sight to the blind by using a device known as an optic nerve implant (ONI). The vision created by these ‘bionic eyes’ is known as artificial vision. The device works by bypassing the eyeball and sending electrical signals directly to the optic nerve, the pathway through which visual information reaches the brain. 

For cases in which this pathway is itself damaged, a device can be implanted directly into the visual cortex. One such implant, known as ‘Orion’, was recently used with great success to restore partial vision to 6 people who had been completely blind for a number of years. However, this surgery is quite risky. ONIs allow people with damaged eyes to recover sight without the need for invasive brain surgery. Macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa are examples of ocular afflictions that can be treated in this way.

The researchers at EPFL have shown that ONIs can produce specific and unique responses in the brain. This means that the artificial vision produced by the implant can theoretically inform the user about things like the location and movement of objects. When you close your eyes and put pressure on your eyelids, the flash of light that you see is known as a ‘phosphene’. In other words, phosphenes are the sensation of seeing light without any light actually entering the eye. This is roughly what artificial vision looks like, so people must undergo training in order to interpret what they are seeing. 

The WHO estimate that around 2.2 billion people worldwide suffer from some sort of vision impairment or blindness. That’s about 1 in every 3 and a half people on earth. It is easy to see how this technology could have a truly positive impact on the lives of countless real people. EPFL’s Diego Ghezzi has recently said that “from a purely technological perspective, we could do clinical trials tomorrow”. 

Money for Nothing: The Advantages of Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income (UBI) means that each person is paid (by the government) enough money that they can afford food, shelter and even a carefully budgeted social life without the need for work. The extremely poor would be paid exactly the same weekly wage as the extremely rich. Where would this money come from? A tax on the obscenely rich of course.

The idea that we could pay everyone enough money to live on with no strings attached has been around for hundreds of years. With income inequality and job automation on the rise in recent years, however, the idea has started to make more and more sense.

UBI and Income Inequality

Universal Basic Income (UBI) means that each person is paid (by the government) enough money that they can afford food, shelter and even a carefully budgeted social life without the need for work. The extremely poor would be paid exactly the same weekly wage as the extremely rich. Where would this money come from? A tax on the obscenely rich of course. A 40% tax on Jeff Bezos’ wealth would yield around 61 billion USD, leaving him with a measly $91 billion for himself. The $61 billion that comes from taxing one man could be used to pay someone else $500 dollars a week for 2 million, 346 thousand, 153 years. That’s nearly 12 times longer than our species (homo sapiens) have existed.

Bezos himself would be left with more money than it is possible to spend in a lifetime, even living the most extravagant of lives. What’s more, he would continue to generate huge quantities of wealth through both the profits of Amazon and the monumental interest which accrues when one has $91 billion in one’s pocket. This is not necessarily how UBI would work in practice. Rather than a wealth tax, the money could instead come from taxing the income of the extremely rich. This avoids the problem of trying to tax assets like property and warehouse robots, but the drawback is that it is easier for billionaires to hide their income than it is for them to hide their robots.

Incidentally, working 24/7 with no breaks at the US minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, it would take 2 million, 393 thousand, 324 years to make as much money as Jeff Bezos currently owns. That is also roughly 12 times as long as sapiens have been around (aren’t numbers fun?). The question these figures pose for me is this: What could Jeff Bezos possibly have done in his life that is of equal value to 2 and a half million years of minimum wage work?

The way the system is currently set up necessitates that the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. People working on minimum wage make just enough to get by, leaving them with basically no possibility of saving or investing in education. The super-rich, on the other hand, are actually paid just for being rich (in the form of interest). People who are struggling to make ends meet may be forced to borrow money from the very rich. These loans accrue interest, meaning that the net effect is that money is taken away from the economically disadvantaged people who need the loan and funneled upwards into the bank accounts of the people who could afford to give the loan. These factors, along with automation of jobs and a few others, are why income inequality has been rising and rising and showing no sign of slowing down. Taxing the rich and using the money for UBI would go a long way towards closing that gap.

Many researchers have drawn a negative correlation between income inequality and self-reported happiness. This makes sense in terms of both the numbers and the philosophy. Of course people in more equal societies are happier. Every country has a finite amount of resources, and how fairly those resources are distributed determines how many people are struggling to put food on the table and how many people can comfortably provide for themselves and those who depend on them. Given the link between happiness and inequality, it follows that a system such as UBI which dramatically decreases inequality would also lead to a dramatic increase in happiness.

UBI and Employment

These days, when someone is called a ‘Luddite’, it is typically used to mean that they are opposed to the progress of technology. An example would be someone who refuses to buy a smartphone. However, the word originally referred to a revolutionary group who were active more than 200 years ago. The Luddites were weavers who were famous for smashing spinning jennies, machines that threatened to put them out of work, but they were not necessarily opposed to technology as many people believe. Instead, they were opposed to the obscenely rich upper class who owned the spinning jennies, from which the workers reaped no benefit. Spinning Jennies were not new technology, in fact they were invented 50 years before the first Luddite ever smashed one.

The problem was that when something was woven by hand, the weaver could receive the majority of the profits, whereas if it was woven by a spinning jenny, the majority of the profits would go to whichever wealthy man owned the machine. The Luddites were early trade union activists who protested unfair wages by destroying their employer’s revenue-generating property. This problem has only gotten worse since the protests began in 1811. Many people, like fast food workers or cashiers, make a living by operating machines which belong to extremely rich CEOs who have very little indeed to do with the actual production process. Amazon currently have 45,000 robots operating in its warehouses, generating revenue but paying no tax. A barely related but nonetheless interesting side note is that Amazon’s warehouse robots have accidentally opened multiple cannisters of bear repellent in the last few years, leading to the hospitalisation of dozens of employees.  

About 50% of workers are predicted to lose their jobs to machines by 2050. The number of jobs that are beyond the reach of automation has been shrinking ever since the Luddites banjaxed their first jenny, and the rate at which they are disappearing has become more and more rapid with the passing of time. Before anyone thought to use a dummy, the job of scarecrow was carried out by children, who were paid one penny and a swede for their troubles. For me, it makes perfect sense that jobs like this were lost to time. That is why we build technology; to reduce the amount of work we need to do ourselves. Often the jobs that are taken by machines are ones that we only do because we need the money, not because we find them fulfilling or meaningful. With UBI, we could leave those jobs to technology and focus instead on projects which make the world a better place.

The main issue here, for me, is not that jobs are lost to technology. New jobs are constantly being created to meet new demands. While human scarecrows have gone the way of the dodo, uber drivers and dogwalkers have popped up in their stead. That’s evolution baby. The priority should not be to desperately cling to jobs that we no longer need or want (like coal mining or weapons manufacturing) but rather to provide adequate training to the people doing these jobs so that they may transition to ones which are more useful to society (like building renewable energy infrastructure or vertical farming).

People do not do jobs which harm society because they want to. They do them because it is necessary to put food on the table. By providing food and shelter to everyone, we mitigate the external pressure to work jobs which harm society and encourage people to focus their attention instead on what gives their lives meaning or makes them happy. What they choose to do will be more likely to be in the best interest of society than what they are currently forced to do to survive in a broken system.

Another way that UBI could benefit society is by massively streamlining the welfare process. Right now, huge numbers of people are employed to sign people up to welfare, make sure that people are looking for work and carry out the administration and bureaucracy involved in a system which requires people to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they are starving before it will give them something to eat. These administration jobs could largely be done away with under UBI, since welfare would be replaced by the very simple process of giving everyone exactly the same amount of money regardless of their situation. The money we pay to welfare officers and administrators could be used to help fund UBI, and the people who are doing these jobs would be freed up to pursue more fulfilling goals. Hell, one of them may be the next Jimi Hendrix but they never had the time or resources to pick up a guitar before.

What about the claim that if everyone is paid to do nothing, then no one will do anything? This, in my view, is simply false. People have an innate drive to make something of themselves. I doubt you would last more than a week doing absolutely nothing before you decided to get up out of bed and make your name mean something. In addition, UBI does not mean that there is no reason to get a paying job. Your weekly wage as an unemployed person would be enough to live on, yes, but it would not be enough for a particularly comfortable life. Most people would still work a few days a week to make money for holidays, luxury items and projects which enrich their lives. This idea is supported by preliminary evidence from the most complete pilot study ever carried out in relation to UBI.

From 2017-2018, 2,000 people were randomly selected in Finland to receive €560 per month with no strings attached. Researchers then compared those who participated in the study to a control group of 173,000 people with respect to several factors including employment rates and life satisfaction. For all of 2017, the test group earned, on average, just €21 less than the control group from employment. This extremely small difference tentatively suggests that UBI will not lead to a significant reduction in employment, if any. The difference in trust and life satisfaction between the two groups, however, was far more significant. Basic income recipients reported much higher levels of trust in other people, the legal system and politicians. They also reported much higher confidence in their future, financial situation and ability to influence societal matters. In addition, 54.8% of basic income recipients self-assessed their health as being ‘good’ or ‘very good’, compared to just 46.2% of the control group. The study only ended in December of 2018, so the full report has not yet been released, but the preliminary evidence suggests that under a UBI system, employment rates would stay about the same, whereas happiness, trust and health would benefit hugely. The full report is scheduled for release at the end of 2019.

UBI and Society

To say that UBI is unrealistic because the rich will not allow it to happen is to succumb to a form of brainwashing. There, I said it. There are more of us than there are of them, and yet somehow they have convinced us that they will always have all the money and we will always have none. The most important tool in their arsenal is your belief that they are too powerful to oppose. By arguing that they will not allow it to happen and therefore we should not even try, you are playing right into their hands. If you think that UBI would be good for society (as I do) then you should fight to make it happen. I am not saying that we will not come up against any resistance from the financial elite. We very much will. What I am saying is that one of the ways in which they have resisted change already is by convincing you that they are so firmly in control that nothing can be done.

UBI would give us the freedom to do what we want to do with our lives. It would provide the foundation for an equal society, in which those who were born with nothing can make something of themselves and those who were born with everything get a smaller slice of the global pie. The Luddites thought that it was unfair that people who had inherited enough money to buy spinning jennies were taking all the profits while the people working their fingers to the bone operating those machines were making a pittance. I wholeheartedly agree. The private ownership of revenue-generating technology like tills, deep-fat-fryers and warehouse robots has been a significant factor in the long-term trend toward a top-heavy and unjust society in which some people have mansions to themselves while others share tiny flats or worse, sleep on cold and unforgiving streets.

Automation, inheritance, interest, loans, tax loopholes and unfair wages have created a society in which some people have everything and everyone else has nothing. There are things we can do to alleviate this problem like raising the minimum wage or corporate tax, but none do more to solve the problem than UBI. The disadvantaged majority have always fought for equality and the advantaged minority have always resisted to maintain their advantage. Enough is enough. We are more connected now than ever before in human history, making it easier than ever before to organise ourselves against those in power. We need to elect people who are not afraid to push back against corporations and sign into law measures that will help the 99% and hurt the 1%. For too long the discourse has been controlled by people who benefit from things staying exactly as they are. The new generation has shown time and time again that we want change and it is only a matter of time before that wish is granted. Do not believe for one second that they have all the power. If we do that, they have won. We have the power. We can force change.

Shock Wave: Electricity From The Ocean

Some renewable technologies harness the vast mechanical power available from a planet that is in constant motion. Wave power generators (WPGs) are a possible energy source of the future, but how do they compare with their rivals?

First published in UCD College Tribune

Even in this futuristic world of ours, all our electricity is generated by simply spinning a turbine. The fossil fuels which are bringing us ever closer to a complete climate catastrophe are not just used to power our cars, but also to create steam which generates the electricity needed for everything from phones to lightbulbs. This is exactly the same principle employed by nuclear power plants. In both cases, fuel is used to create heat, which is used to generate electricity. There are ways, however, to generate electricity which do not require heat at all. Some renewable technologies harness the vast mechanical power available from a planet that is in constant motion. Wave power generators (WPGs) are a possible energy source of the future, but how do they compare with their rivals?

It is worth quickly comparing ocean energy and wind energy since the two are similar in a number of ways. This is why underwater turbines closely resemble those of wind farms. A major difference between the two is the potential energy contained within. Water is nearly 800 times denser than air, meaning that the same volume, travelling at the same speed, contains much more power. What this means on the practical side is that much smaller devices can produce the same yield of energy.

A major difference between WPGs and tidal power is the source of energy. Tides result from the gravitational pull of the moon dragging water up and down our shores as it passes by above us. WPGs, alternatively, find their energy source in the sun. Solar radiation does not heat the earth evenly. The air in places which receive more heat rises upwards, allowing colder air to rush in to take its place. That rushing of air is what we call wind. Since wind is the driving force behind waves, any energy that we harvest from waves comes indirectly from the heat of the sun. It is for this reason that WPGs are considered a renewable technology.

Tidal power is perhaps the most reliable source of energy on earth. Twice a day like clockwork, unimaginably vast quantities of water rush in and out of our coasts. Globally, there is as much power available from tides alone as there would be from nearly 5 and a half billion coal-burning plants. One of the problems, however, is that only a very small fraction of this energy could actually be harvested. There are only 40 or so places in the world where the difference between low and high tide is great enough to produce a worthwhile amount of power. One way that the power of the tides can be harnessed in such places is by building tidal ‘barrages’. These consist of huge dams which trap water from the rising tide, then release it slowly when the tide is low. As the water passes through the dam back into the sea, it spins a series of turbines to generate electricity.

WPGs come in a variety of forms. One very cool design that was deployed in the ocean as far back as 2004 resembles a giant sea-snake. Each segment of the snake is attached to the next by hinge joints which are connected to hydraulic rams. As the sections of the snake move back and forth over the waves, the hydraulic rams drive a series of electrical generators.

Another simple yet ingenious way of harnessing the power of waves is by using a device known as an oscillating water column (OWC). These machines consist of a hollow cylinder containing a turbine which is attached to a buoy. As the waves pass by underneath, air is forced up through the cylinder, spinning a turbine. What makes these devices truly remarkable is the special kind of turbine contained within. The so-called ‘Well’s Turbine’ is shaped in such a way that it can generate electricity regardless of which way the air is flowing. This means that power can be harnessed when the device is rising to the crest of a wave and also when it is falling to a trough, doubling the overall efficiency.

The final method for generating electricity from the ocean is called ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC). This is another way we can indirectly generate solar energy using the ocean as a middle man. The way OTEC works is that a liquid with a low boiling point (like ammonia) is evaporated by the warm surface water of the ocean and expands, spinning a turbine. The ammonia vapour is then condensed using cold seawater and returned to the evaporation chamber to start the process over again.  The technology required for this method is simple and rapidly improving, meaning that OTEC is very much one to watch out for in the coming years.

So, which is better, WPGs or tidal barrages? WPGs hold greater promise in my view, largely because tidal barrages can be devastating to already strained marine ecosystems. Think about it; much of the ocean’s life is concentrated close to the shore. As the tide rises, both water and marine life can pass freely through the dam. Once that waterway is shut, however, the only way back to the sea is through a series of rotating blades. Many barrages are built on estuaries where rivers meet the sea. By preventing free movement through these estuaries, barrages can also seriously disrupt the spawning patterns of fish like salmon. WPGs, floating on the surface in open water, are much easier to build in a way that’s hospitable to marine life.

This is of vital importance; through plastic pollution, overfishing and ghost fishing, we have already utterly decimated almost all marine life. With plastic pollution and ocean acidification set to get much worse, we simply cannot afford to do any more harm to the beautiful animals that reside beneath the waves. If a plan is to be truly environmentally friendly, it must consider not only the CO2 it will emit, but also the effects it will have on our fellow animals. It is this major issue, coupled with the location problem mentioned earlier, which means that WPGs hold more promise than tidal barrages. In any case, it is clear that as both the financial and environmental costs of fossil fuels rise in the coming decades, blue power will assume an increasingly important position in the global energy industry.