Responsible Innovation in Technology

I would like to open this new season of posts with a series on recent developments in technology development from the perspective of responsible innovation. The idea of responsible innovation (RI) has been around for about 20 years and is easy to understand: Innovation processes can be steered towards certain goals, and the technological products that come to market also.

A Bosch employee controls a deep field robot called “BoniRob” at a field in Renningen near Stuttgart, Germany July 29, 2016. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle – RTSL1NO

Examples are easy to find in our everyday lives. We all have a computer that we cannot upgrade because we can’t get into it. Talk of built in life spans, telephones without changeable batteries, systems that are no longer upgraded leading us to have to spend money and dispose of working machines that are full of hazardous materials.

On the other hand the development of open source software and large scale collaboration by experts in related fields seems to demonstrate a different approach. Sharing of data has helped in developing treatment for Eboli, human genome sequencing and across a host of other fields.

If we take a look at these examples it seems that their development processes were slightly different to those we are used to, and this is where the central idea of responsible innovation comes in. The aim was to arrive at a product or conclusion that would help to resolve a pressing problem, and not only to make a profit.

So the underlying idea is that innovation processes should work towards solving what the European Union call the Grand Societal Challenges. There are many of these, but looking after an ageing population, food security, climate action and smart transport technologies are just a few.

In order to promote this approach the European Union have placed the concept within all of their calls for funding until 2021. This means that anyone applying for funds to conduct research has to address the issue and to run their project within these aims. To give you an idea the last 7 years funding budget was of 80 billion Euros, so there is the possibility of pushing real change via this approach.

Part of the idea involves the open publication of data, and any project that is funded receives money to pay for articles to be placed in paid publications on open access or to be freely distributed. Information is power after all, the power to make a profit, with technology companies across the world fighting to be the first to announce their new developments and carefully safeguarding their data and processes. And this is one of the great sticking points, because this approach is inefficient both in terms of development and positive return for society.

Technology develops faster if everyone working in a particular field shares their data. But in a world based on profit how can this sharing come about without leading to loss of possible profit? There are plenty of examples here too though, ASUS collaborate with gaming company Tencent in order to produce a telephone designed with particular specification that will enable its user to make the most of their games.

So why not in other important fields? Data sharing seems to present a wealth of opportunities and advantages.

Next week I will offer an overview of some of the recent publications within this field.

The Future of Solar Energy

Sol-Term

Travelling Through Morocco

20 years ago my father retired from work, and to celebrate he gave me and my brothers £1000 each. I went to university and sat next to my buddy Sam, and asked her if she fancied going to spend the money on a holiday. I skateboarded to my favourite travel agents and booked flights to Morocco.

6 weeks, a long road trip. We divided the remaining money into daily allowance, $20 US per day. Not really enough. Well enough to eat, or travel, but not eat and travel. So on days that we travelled we only ate once, and on other days we ate twice. Not a lot though.

Anyway we wanted to go and see the sahara. We went from Casablanca via Radat and Meknes, down through Azru and all the way to Merzuga. It’s quite a thing to see. Then to Ouarzazate.

Now the Marocco of 20 years ago is not the country of today. And we were poor. We did not have enough money to take the national bus lines, we took the local buses, no windows, animals on the roof tied into canvas bags, goats inside. Today Ouarzazate is a world leader in solar energy.

Desert Solar Energy

Morocco wants to become a world leader in solar energy production. The development that is underway and newly online will eventually provide 20% of the country’s energy needs. It will be the largest concentrated solar power (CSP) plant in the world. The mirror technology it uses is different from the photovoltaic panels that we see on roofs the world over, but it will have the advantage of being able to continue producing power even after the sun goes down.

The system uses mirrors to heat an oil, known as heat transfer solution (HTF). Each parabolic mirror is 12 metres high and focussed on a steel pipeline carrying HTF that is warmed to 393C. It then goes into a heat transfer plant, is mixed with water that turns into steam and drives turbines.

In order to operate after dark excess heat is used to turn sand molten, the heat being released overnight allowing the plant to function for a few hours longer, and the plan is that in a couple of years time it will be able to operate 24 hours a day.

Distribution

If Morocco becomes self sufficient through solar wind and hydro, they will look towards exporting. There have been several projects involving laying power lines from North Africa into europe (Libia to italy comes to mind) but as far as I know nothing is currently operational.

For more details check out this article in the Guardian.

GM Salmon

salmon

Food Revolution?

The news is out, the revolution has begun. The US Food and drug Administration has passed the first ever GM animal for food consumption, and it is a fish.

This week a company gained a license to sell their new breed of GM salmon. It is modified, although it has genes from a different type of salmon, so not as Frankenstein as some other combinations, but that of course does not mean that this will always be the case. But I don’t want to be a scaremonger, they say it is safe (although that is of course based upon the company’s evidence), and so the choice is yours.

The new food is merely a type of Atlantic salmon injected with a gene from Pacific Chinook salmon to make it grow faster, but critics raise questions about safety, possible cross breeding and whether the general public even wants to eat GM fish. Without being too corny though it does raise questions of floodgates. First a cross salmon, then what comes next?

Oh but we can choose of course whether we want to eat it or not. But that requires information. Will it be labelled as a GM food? Well it won’t in the USA. That is because GM produce is viewed by the administration as being nutritionally equal to non GM, and so does not require labelling. Well to be exact it is voluntary. So if you want to sell it as science, advancement in nutrition, the way forward and futurism, you can label it, but if you want to slide it in unnoticed, then Bob’s the word.

Growth

It is about making it quicker and cheaper. A fish that will grow all year round gets bigger in half the time, so you can eat it earlier. You can farm it in tanks near the city, so it cuts down on various environmental pollutants and practices, but of course creates others.

And where to next? Surely in a few years there will be giant cows that grow to adulthood at twice the speed, and maybe sheep with dreadlocks?

Animal farming for foodstuffs is grizzly enough at is is (was), but now maybe we open another chapter.

I don’t want to put any links in this post, a quick search will find what you need. This is merely a personal opinion post, and I would like to hear others. The photo above is quite telling though, they are supposedly salmon of the same age, but one has been modified. Can you guess which one?