Bands Who Code: Massive Attack’s Mezzanine Now on DNA

1998’s Mezzanine was one of the legendary albums of Massive Attack; its single release Teardrop” became a worldwide hit. To celebrate its twentieth anniversary, the British trip hop band will now have its album archived in DNA for eternity, using technology developed at ETH Zurich. Robert Grass, professor at the Laboratory for Functional Materials Engineering at ETH Zurich, claims this form of data storage enables archiving ‘for centuries or millennia.’

First, Grass and his colleague Reinhard Heckel, a former ETH researcher now at Rice University, translated the digital soundtrack to genetic code: while information is stored on an optical medium or hard drive in a sequence of zeros and ones, biology saves genetic information in a sequence of the four DNA building blocks A, C, G, and T. To make a data set of this size manageable, they compressed the music file to 15MB using Opus technology, a compression method qualitatively superior to, say, popular mp3.

A U.S. company currently manufactures 920,000 short DNA molecules that store all the data of Mezzanine. These molecules are then infused into 5,000 nanometer-sized globuli by Zurich company Turbobeads, an ETH Zurich spin-off.  The nanoparticle beads may be preserved in a small vial as a dispersion in water with virtually unlimited durability.

It is possible to extract the DNA from those beads anytime and read the music file saved on it by means of DNA sequencing in order to play it on a digital device. Although the method for this is rather involved, millions of copies of the information can be made at minimal expense once it is stored.

Grass and Heckel developed the technology three years ago. At that time, ETH scientists immortalized, as a kind of proof of feasibility, the text of the Federal Charter of 1291, a foundational document of the Swiss Confederation, in DNA. Now their method is used commercially as well. The music album by Massive Attack is the second largest file ever stored in DNA. The only larger one in existence is a file collection of more than 200MB that Microsoft has stored on DNA. DNA storage capacity is pegged at 215 petabytes per gram, or some 100 million movies…


Food Innovations in Sustainable Urban Development

Vertical Farming: Agro-Startups from Silicon Wadi Conquer European Urbanism

The concept of urban farming is, of course, not new. With the carbon footprint of essential produce increasingly of concern to urban consumers with purchasing power, agro startups, although only peripherally involved with IT or biotech, are fast becoming hot items. Berlin may not sound like a natural choice for a young Israeli agro-startup, but one of the most promising experiments in advanced urban integration indeed took root there before it spread out to Paris, London and Copenhagen. Infarm is, in a manner of speaking, ‘sprouting out-of-the-box.’ ‘Microgreens,the shoots of salad vegetables such as arugula, celery, beetroot, etc., picked just after the first leaves have developed, contain up to 40 times more vital nutrients than mature plants. Microgreen economics of indoor production contrast remarkably with economics of conventional farming. Microgreens are quick to grow, moving from seed to feed in just one to three weeks depending on plant variety, and with an incredible yield-to-space ratio, offering a perfect solution for urban living with increasingly little room or time for a garden, as they require minimal expense, time and effort for a highly expeditious healthy harvest of organic greens. Functional requirements are very modest: access to good light means no more than a well-lit bench indoors, a tray or other suitable shallow container, water, and a growing medium. This model also offers near-total independence from climate: fresh living greens for salads, sandwiches, soups and garnishes are easy crops to grow year-round.

Infarm, founded 2013 by an Israeli couple from Tel Aviv and one partner’s brother in an Airstream mobile home, laid the foundation for an increasingly fashionable urban gardening scene in metropolitan Europe with a staff that grew to well over 100 to date and includes biologists, engineers, programmers and management talent. Together, they have spawned more than 70 ‘vertical farms’ in Berlin restaurants, warehouses, and supermarkets. Infarm provides and operates under leasehold agreements the vertical farming boxes with sensors that constantly record and monitor data, including pH, temperature, light, density of nutrients, and other factors. The system uses AI to learn and optimize conditions on location. Edeka, Germany’s largest national supermarket chain, has stocked its outlets in Berlin and Hannover with urban farming boxes that enable customers to purchase after work some incomparably freshly harvested greens or other produce for dinner. A 5000 square meter hall at the outskirt of Berlin houses City Hub Farm where farming boxes and their technology are manufactured. In early 2018, the company announced that it had raised from investors €20 million, which is expected to fund also expansion into other metropolitan areas: Paris-Nanterre is expected to feature a 100 square meter indoor farm at a Metro supermarket by end of 2018. By mid-2019, 1,000 indoor farms are expected to be operational across Europe. First imitators, the sincerest form of flattery, have emerged already, proving business model viability and growing demand. Some new vertical farming technologies use no soil and up to 95% less water, although metrics, comparability of data and claims are disputed and critiqued by some.  

Urban Aquaculture

Aquaculture, a fancy term for fish farming, has had its ups and downs over recent decades as reservations against the quality of farmed fish grew steadily – at least among those consumer segments that were not compelled to make purchasing decisions primarily on price. Urban aquaculture includes the farming of aquatic organisms, including fish, mollusks, crustaceans and aquatic plants within the urban environment: rivers, ponds, lakes, canals, but also and especially indoors – the nearer to the consumer, the higher efficiency and the better. Urbanizing aquaculture is not a new concept: oceanic habitats are becoming less hospitable, with water temperatures and acidity rising, dead zones growing, and mass extinction of fish and coral species looming in an uncomfortably near future. Farmed fish, on the other hand, is raised in conditions so dirty that constant antibiotics and other chemicals must be supplied for it to grow to consumable size. Urbanization requires making recirculating aquaculture systems small enough to run anywhere on a municipal water source, putting a vision of jacuzzi-sized tilapia tanks on every roof within very realistic reach. It is a concept not only capable of yielding at least 100 pounds of fish per person per year, but also using fish waste to grow hydroponic plants floating on a foam sheet on the water surface in the same tank, producing lettuce in six weeks.

As an obvious consequence, urban aquaculture will transcend the hobby stage if, and only if, it can be facilitated to transcend a circle of activist enthusiasts by integrating it meaningfully and thoughtfully into advanced urban architectural planning and developing adaptation kits for properties that do not have easily convertible facilities. While urban farming and aquafarming may be capable of relatively practicable integration in urban or suburban sprawl, it is still extremely difficult to show the same for metropolitan living in even moderately sophisticated high-rises and limited apartment sizes dictated by disproportionate real estate costs per square foot. Here, only centralized, communal facilities are realistic – which, in turn, require board approval and involve the possibility of obstruction. Therefore, truly ‘domestic’ fish farming in a metropolitan setting would seem feasible only under exceptional circumstances and especially in townhouses or rare rooftop apartments. But urban-domiciled centralized facilities integrated in supermarkets or specialty stores are nonetheless a promising option that still provides extreme freshness with manageable compliance and quality control procedures. It is probably fair to say that architecture and organizational matters and procedures are more of an obstacle to metropolitan urban aquaculture than technology or safety inspections.

But neither vertical farming nor aquaculture are likely to cover more than a fraction of needed supply, and have to be balanced to coexist with traditional food supplies from conventional sources and locations, thus only gradually reducing sustainability concerns. Nonetheless, small-scale urban aquaculture has a wide range of benefits for the future evolution of urban agglomerations. Legal foundations exist and do not present particular or unfamiliar challenges.


Now That's a First – “World’s Best Island Resort” Shuttered for Environmental Reasons

Philippines close Boracay Island for six-month cleanup

Populist regimes are beginning to discover environmental protection as a fertile signature issue. It is increasingly where the votes are. At least in small baby steps and far from everywhere. While Poland’s logging of Europe’s last remaining (and UNESCO-protected) primeval woodland of Białowieża has incurred a final judgment imposing a €100,000 daily fine by the ECJ, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has discovered that “When nature fights back, it does so with a vengeance.” His government imposed - and surprisingly upheld - a ban on open-pit mining and starts to target polluting steel mills.
Now, popular Boracay Island in the Philippines was closed to visitors for six months due to massive environmental problems. Starting April 26, authorities no longer permitted tourists to land on the island. Some 600 security forces were deployed in total to secure and enforce the visitors ban. Administering the “closure” alone amounts to a logistical nightmare.  
The quarantine period until November is to be used to visit the island to fix the worst issues and perform a clean-up mission. Many hotels, restaurants and shops on Boracay are said to have, inter alia, channeled their sewage including feces for years simply into the sea. President Duterte is said to have personally ordered the closure and to have called Boracay, where vacationing tourists spent 21 million nights in 2017 alone, a “cesspool” - ordering his environmental secretary to “clean the goddamn thing.”
Boracay, about 300 kilometers south of Manila, was voted “best island in the world” by Conde Nast Traveler in 2017. About 40,000 locals live on the island, most of whom earn their livelihood from tourism. Real estate development has been another curse of popularity. The ban is estimated to cost tourism revenues of some $2.75 million as 15% of the country’s 6.5 million tourists visit Boracay. The Philippine government plans to provide emergency financial aid in the amount of some $109 million, although it has not clarified how these funds will be distributed.


Can Serendipitous Discoveries Save Mankind from Itself? The Case of Plastic-Digesting Enzymes and Bacteria

As a further chapter in my occasional highlight of serendipitous discoveries, teams of scientists from the UK and the U.S. discovered and evolved in Japan an enzyme that can degrade plastic by assisting a bacterium with digesting PET plastics. Ongoing further research promises to put a relatively cheap end to worldwide plastic pollution by recycling it sustainably. As it stands today, PET plastics can survive hundreds of years in the environment and have turned into an increasingly serious and mushrooming burden to major countries and large oceanic regions. Researchers from the University of Portsmouth, UK and the Renewable Energy Laboratory at the U.S. Department of Energy have now discovered, and published in PNAS, a potential solution to this blight by studying and tuning the structure of a natural enzyme that developed on its own in a Japanese waste recycling center. Initial research found that the PETase enzyme assists a bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, with breaking down or digesting PET plastics. The enzyme structure was then optimized by bioengineering by adding some amino acids. This optimization process resulted in random changes to PETase’s activities and ultimately indeed an altered enzyme that turned out to be significantly more effective than its natural form. The same team now continues to explore the enzyme further to see if PET plastics can be degraded on an industrial scale, and if so, with what side effects. It is entirely possible, indeed likely, that the next few years will yield industrially viable processes to disassemble PET and possibly other plastics back into their original organic building blocks to set in motion a sustainable chain of recycling. Independent scientists not directly involved in this research consider this biodegradability approach clearly promising despite the obvious concerns that the development of the enzyme as possible solution against pollution is still at too early a stage to render a meaningful assessment possible. And that may well be true, but it is also secondary: enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and capable of being produced in large quantities by microorganisms, and there is great potential for using enzyme technology to solve society's growing waste and landfill problem by degrading at least some of today’s most commonly used plastics. Even as it may still be necessary to await further developments intended to improve the enzyme, this discovery brings sustainable recycling of plastics within striking distance.


Imposing Tariffs on Technology to Save Jobs?

A new study suggests that increased trade with China had more dramatic impact in the U.S. than previously thought. While economists across the board continue to consider unilateral tariffs the wrong approach, U.S. public discourse about the trade conflict between the U.S. and China has turned to more subtle aspects of the pros and cons of globalization. The central question remains: How can people be compensated who lost job and perspective because of free trade? Economists who normally write only for an expert audience turn into permanent guests in the media. Most of them reject an isolationist strategy. Their argument goes like this: if we look at development over time, it was not free trade but automation that has caused the sharp drop of number of U.S. industrial workers. Besides, and despite dramatic warnings from select industries, the problem is far less serious than the political debate suggests: U.S. unemployment at 4.1 percent is much lower than widely accepted – in fact, it is extremely low.
And even if there are job retention problems, tariffs will not relieve them. But there are shades of gray in the debate: Kerwin Charles, Erik Hurst and Mariel Schwartz, all from the University of Chicago, have been part of a recently published research paper making an interesting objection to the debate. Although the authors do not favor isolationists policies, their arguments suggest that a serious consideration of the pros and cons of a liberal trade policy is more complex than it appears at first sight. Competitive pressure from China is indeed a factor – potentially the key factor – in the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs. But this happens through a mechanism not as simple as mere wage differentials. In their paper Transformation of Manufacturing and the Decline in US Employment, Charles, Hurst and Schwartz show just how dramatic the decline of U.S. industry had been. Since 2010, 5.5 million net jobs were lost. One third of all manufacturing jobs disappeared. Like other research, Charles and his colleagues show that job losses were heavier in industries where Chinese competition had particularly increased. However, the China factor explains only about a third of job losses. A bigger part was played by the increased level of automation. Machines play a far more important role in processes today than they did 20 years ago, and owing to technology, U.S. industry produces far more with less than it did 20 years ago.
At first glance, this argument seems to prove right those who say that the development was not caused by trade but by automation. But Charles, Hurst and Schwartz take their analysis one step further: they show that the degree of automation rose more sharply in those industries that had come under competitive pressure from China.

Therefore, free trade appears to accelerate automation, because it increases competitive pressure. Automation and free trade are perceived by many economists as two different developments that only happen at the same time. But these results of Charles, Hurst and Schwartz suggest a strong connection: wherever lower-cost producers show up, U.S. employers are forced (or, rather, strongly incentivized) to replace humans with machines. Thus, negative consequences of trade would be stronger than expected. Peter Navarro, Director of Trade and Industrial Policy, argues similarly: if technology alone would explain elimination of jobs, there could not be many more manufacturing workers on a per-capita basis in Germany and Japan than there are in the U.S. – but there are.
Other economists have held that protectionism accelerates automation. This is not an either-or conundrum: let’s just agree that technology accelerates automation – because it’s there, because it improves quality and reduces cost and thus creates competitive advantage, and because machines don’t strike and don’t talk back. Contrary to human workers, they also become cheaper to buy with time. A world without work, for many or most?

Economic theory held for a long time that countries always benefit from free trade because the exchange of goods and services allows them to specialize. If everyone produces what he does well, everyone wins. So long as prosperity increases overall, people who lose their job as a result of globalized free trade can get employment elsewhere. Industrial workers simply become IT specialists. This has been the standard model for some decades, but recent research shows that this is precisely what did not happen: many former steel workers in the Midwest, for example, do not get other jobs in emerging industries for which they could be retrained in theory, but they instead remain unemployed.

The Chicago study now shows the dramatic effects this has had. For example, substance abuse rose most sharply in recent years where industrial job losses were heaviest. They prove this by numbers showing prescriptions of painkillers by doctors and by the development of drug deaths. Substance abuse is today the leading cause of death among Americans less than 50 years old. The U.S. experiences the worst drug crisis in history. Addicts typically do not look for employment – and so they drop out of statistics.

When economists talk about pros and cons of trade, they typically do not include the cost of a drug pandemic in their tally. But regardless of accounting estimates, tariffs will not bring lost jobs back. They may improve U.S. steel output manufactured by robots, yes, but this only benefits the shareholders of steel mills – it does not restore jobs for human workers.

Negative cost of trade is difficult to measure. But that also applies to its benefits. Nobody can say exactly what kind of economic utility results from universal access to ownership of cheap iPhones and Galaxies from China - in many ways, gadgets are just gimmicks. Besides, the real and thus far underestimated danger lay in the fallout from progressive escalation of trade conflicts: China and others respond to U.S. steel tariffs with countermeasures, which the White House considers excessive, and in response to that, economic advisors recommend additional punitive measures.
Now, if one shifts focus from China to Schumpeter’s creative destruction by entrepreneurial technology, one can take the Chicago study to its logical consequence for policy purposes: universal basic income (UBI), an idea supported by some household names in technology like Elon Musk, Ray Kurzweil, Sam Altman, but also Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson, although the idea dates back to Milton Friedman (negative income tax), Bertrand Russell, Thomas Paine, Sir Thomas Moore and Pericles. I plan to write about its pros and cons one of these days, as the idea gains attention again after two or three millennia of being kicked around by some prominent thinkers.


Luddites lost, hopelessly: Artificial Intelligence now helps recruit staff and detects depression

More and more German companies rely on artificial intelligence when it comes to personnel selection. Insurer Talanx has stated that it conducts executive search with software that creates within minutes extensive personality analyses of applicants based on language tests. According to Talanx, the software produces a 90 percent approximation of the results obtained by psychologists after days of work at assessment centers. Talanx relegates assessment to an algorithm for good reason: a large part of its management will retire by 2025. Other companies using the same software, Precire, include Frankfurt Airport’s operator Fraport and Ranstadt HR agency. The algorithm test of Precire was created by an Aachen startup of the same name. The developer currently works on integrating a medical speech analysis program for early detection of depression. To date, Precire is able to reveal first signs of depression at a very early stage.

Artificial intelligence development is considered a multi-billion-dollar market in Europe, and the situation in the U.S. is very similar. AI technologies could soon make impact on other sectors, but platforms such as Precire are both highly promising and alarming at the same time, as cheap and increasingly accurate technology is bound to spread quickly.

Alas, practical concerns reach far beyond EU’s GDPR: who will ensure that this easily recorded deep psychological language analysis will be used only with valid consent and for certain purposes but not for others, and not by potential anonymous actors? More immediately, who will incur the risk of hiring an individual with symptoms, or even likelihood of future onset of depression? What else besides depression will be revealed by additional modules and additions to such a platform? What are the consequences for Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights? Do individuals retain a reasonable expectation of any privacy if physical characteristics such as voice and images are increasingly available from plenty of uncontrollable recordings, such as millions of CCTV cameras, public and private webcams, and voice-operated AI systems? Will banks start to rely for credit decisions also on customer profiles based on voice commands given to automated navigation systems? How about individuals considering relationships with new acquaintances? Has anyone ever seen a genie retreat into its bottle?

Multiple elections in Western countries since 2016 were about “the forgotten men and women,” the losers of globalization and victims of automation. It is safe to say that their numbers are bound to grow while neo-Luddite resistance may destabilize purportedly open societies from inside more than migration has to date. As the potential for abuse by further dilution of traditional concepts such as “informed consent” and “reasonable expectation of privacy” proliferates, will resistance to technology, even at great sacrifices of convenience and price, remain even theoretically possible?