Terraforming, as a theoretical concept, usually remains in the domain of speculative fiction and video games. Cue Exhibit A: the entire generation of gamers who fondly recall tweaking Sim City 2000’s terrain modifier to create the most optimal geographical map for a decent city (i.e. “I should make lots of waterfalls, for cheap, clean hydropower!” or something to that effect). There’s something godlike about controlling the aesthetics of an entire world, especially a virtual one that doesn’t actually consume terrestrial resources, and this is a risk-free service that video games and simulators do especially well. Terraforming also involves modifying atmospheres, whole ecologies, topographies, and other crucial details in order to make a celestial body inhabitable by humans. Of course, we don’t have massive planetwide terraformers a la Kryptonian world engines but inching forward with nanotechnology, we’re already making micro-changes to earth’s ecology and laying the foundation for new design paradigms drawn from biotech and the natural world. short, we’re living in an era of post-natural ecologies.
Now, a good question would be, “why would we need to make earth more earth-like?” and the answer is easy: human development decided to go nuts, and now we need band-aids to fix the tedious logistical problems that come hand in hand with progress. For instance, China used cloud-seeding technology to clear the air before the 2008 Olympics, and created artificial rain and snow to help drought-ridden parts of the country. As we continue to shit where we eat with impunity, we’re inadvertently forcing science into creative desperation to combat our own hubris. If we stick to our current trajectory (Moore’s law: check; rising sea levels, check; throwaway culture, check; global warming, check) these are a few things that will save the planet, or make us a new one.
PROGRAMMABLE WATER DROPLETS
The fact that Venice is sinking into its own lagoon isn’t new news, but rising sea levels are certainly exacerbating its inevitable descent into the ocean. Last year, the city started its 50-billion euro Mose project, which involves a series of robotic floodgates to keep the flooding in check. But a more versatile long-term solution lies in Bütschli droplets, which are programmable water and oil droplets that are created using similar processes to making soap. Co-inventor Rachel Armstrong explains that they’re protocells, or “simple, lifelike chemistries” that can replicate and build structures upon each other, and “follow directions” to fortify the city’s foundations. In Armstrong’s words, these droplets would act like bio-concrete and help build a reef under the city. Sounds like promising tech for impending marine disasters, especially since Australia just authorized mining companies to use the world’s most famous coral growth – the Great Barrier Reef – as a dump. On a less dire note, a refined future version of this tech could be used in our ongoing human expansion into the ocean.
Living underwater seems like a double-edged sword as a solution to overcrowding and screwing up the planet; on one hand, if we conquer the basics of submerged life, there’s an untapped wealth of space and weirdness down there. Technologically, we’re on the right path – for instance, marine biologist Lloyd Godson built his own underwater living simulator called the BioSUB and stayed in it for twelve days. Combine Godson’s idea – sustainable underwater habitats – with this new chip that filters salt out of saltwater. And we get an idea of the basic technological foundations needed for sustainable undersea architecture and plumbing logistics. On the other hand, the ocean is a delicate creature, and an en-masse human exodus into the waves, much less toying with ocean salinity, could be catastrophic for sensitive marine ecologies. At the moment, Florida’s Aquarius Reef Base is the only underwater research base still going; one of its old bases, La Chalupa Research Lab, has been a low-key underwater lodge for the past three decades. Naturally, there are a slew of psychological issues that come with moving into a restricted (oh, and completely lethal) new habitat for long periods of time, but isn’t that where drugs come into play?
REZONING DESERTS INTO FERTILE LAND
On the complete flipside of new water systems, Boeing has an interested eye firmly trained on the biofuels industry, probably to enhance its mutually beneficial and often symbiotic relationship. For the past four years, the company has co-financed a research institute in Abu Dhabi, where a team has discovered a class of salt-water plant with “superb biomass potential.” The plant’s potential, combined with the ongoing ‘smart’ evolution of sustainable technology, offers a wealth of potential for life on the fringes of modern civilization. The idea of transforming deserts into agricultural land (fueled by salt water, no less) seems extraordinary, but deserts perform crucial ecological functions, and (somewhat ironically) are home to ideal test subjects for extreme living experiments. Say if we decided to conquer space or some other completely inhospitable terrain, desert flora and fauna would be ideal research subjects to see how something can survive with extremely limited, irregular resources. This raises all sorts of “I know we can do it, but should we?” about conducting sweeping irrigational experiments in a harsh, rural environment, but perhaps the game-changing aspect of sustaining life with salt water is worth the risk.
POWER FROM THE CORE
The average kneejerk reaction to “hey, a geothermal boring drill struck magma just 2,100 meters below surface, which is abnormally waaaaaay too close to us,” would probably be to panic, which is understandable: that’s basically saying that there is a giant seething molten disaster at 1000 degrees Celsius, just a little over 2km beneath our feet. This recently happened to the Iceland Deep Drilling Project, whose IDDP-1 borehole struck a “pocket of magma” as part of a project to examine the country’s geothermal resources. This is an extremely rare occurrence, and also a fascinating (or potentially fatal, but totally worth it) opportunity to study how much electricity we can generate from the steam and magma, since geothermal energy is technically inexhaustible. The holes produced by this sort of drilling can act as high-pressure geysers that spew superheated steam for months at a time. Way across the globe, Nevis, a tiny island in the Caribbean, is already preparing to harness this exact form of power by developing a facility over Nevis Peak, an extinct volcano (fun fact: Nevis is also apparently a celebrity vacation destination for Beyonce and Oprah).
AN INTERNET OF PLANTS
Plants have always been our unwitting guinea pigs as biological sensors, so really, our inexcusably long delay in capitalizing on this natural feature has been a little weird. So it’s about time that tech heralds are forecasting the Internet of Plants, in which half-borg plants can alert us (us being their toxic fleshy persecutors) to sickness, death, and pollution levels. Imagine a plant connected to Arduino so they can monitor itself, and to a certain degree, regulate its own health. Combine this with technology that allows endless robot harvesting which would displace thousands of farm workers and change the topography of the world’s agricultural breadbaskets. What would this mean for plant symbiotes and their complicated web of relationships? Not only will our physical environment become quantitatively intelligent – here I mean that plants will essentially become capable of communicating with us – but networked plant systems, plus a learning AI to run them, would fulfill dozens of sci-fi wet dreams around the world.
If we’re going by size and microfunctions that keep the planet running, the first step toward engineering a smarter earth should be the development quasi-sentient plants, but logical fauna is already sort-of here. We’ve heard of the vile but equally irresistible drone cockroach, and now we can pay more hyperbolic attention to the “self-powered” cockroach. Japanese scientists have developed a fuel cell powered by the cockroach’s trealahose (i.e. cockroach juice). Since we all know that cockroaches are immortal demigods doomed to roam the earth forever, valiantly defying death at all corners, this means that we could harness the power of a cityful of the creatures to create a wireless sensor network – that’s just one example of outsourcing energy production to insects that aren’t going to die any time soon.
In the fine theoretical art of terraforming, there’s also gravity to consider. Boeing is indeed a busy bee – they also recently fessed up to dabbling in experimental anti-gravity work. Nick Cook, a British aerospace researcher, recently wrote about Boeing’s Phantom Works department, which is allegedly “trying to solicit the services of a Russian scientist who claims he has developed anti-gravity devices in Russia and Finland.” The scientist, Dr. Evgeny Podkletnov, is working on something called Gravity Research for Adult Propulsion or GRASP, which can allegedly be (of course) weaponized into a crazy energy beam that could theoretically vaporize moving objects.
CORPORTATE-OWNED, ARTIFICALLY-PRODUCED RESOURCES
Apple is getting into sapphires. And by that, they’re not mining it – starting this February they’ll be cranking sapphire out in a manufacturing plant in Arizona, supposedly for some unspecified critical product component. Who knows what a company with Apple’s reach and clout could do – and if this sets a precedent for a(nother) feckless corporate monopoly on a naturally-occurring mineral. If we mine precious minerals dry, perhaps they will only exist as synthetic products, or even worse, synthetic trademarked goods. Imagine: diamonds™. These Sapphires™ will be grown in the facility and ostensibly be used in Apple’s wearables; right now sapphire crystal is used in their camera lenses and its Touch ID sensor. Although sapphire still has drawbacks compared to stuff like Gorilla Glass, the precedent set here could trigger a slippery slope of future debate over resource ownership, murky patent law (and boy, isn’t that a fun area to watch devolve right now), environmental issues, geopolitical jurisdiction, and other delightful related topics.
TRAVELLING WITHOUT MOVING
Being able to teleport energy from one place to another sounds like something out of a Roald Dahl book or a Star Trek episode – the latter is actually offered up as an anecdotal example in this article about theoretical energy teleportation research in Japan. The research team has found a way to take advantage of “squeezed light” or vacuum states to transport information about energy across unspecified “long distances.” In their work, the scientists operate along a loose definition of “teleportation,” which is when two entangled, seemingly unconnected particles are conjoined despite improbable circumstances. If it possible to instantaneously transport energy from one side of the planet to the other, we’d cut down on the need for manmade transport structures and channels – ships, ports, major seaways, oil rigs, refueling stations, airports, and so on – and possibly create a solid infrastructure for a global energy system that powers all countries across the planet using said technology. So much of our world has been molded to fit the needs of expanding civilization, that the introduction of teleportative possibilities would create the need for new ideas about living and working. Of course, quantum energy is still a wildly unknown creature, but a perfect example of the science behind smart future cities that could regulate their own energy usage on a massive scale.
WHEN IN DOUBT, SCREW UP OTHER PLANETS
Right, so the moon isn’t quite a planet, but the sentiment is there: if we ruin earth, there’s always Mars or the moon (insert some other unwitting celestial body here). NASA just announced plans to drill for water on the moon, perhaps indicating concern that we’re running out of potable water here on earth; if successful, moon-water could eventually birth an entirely new industry since it’s gravitationally easier to “mine” water on the moon than on earth. It would also change the face of a physical body and symbolic icon that we’ve stared and worshiped for thousands of years in human culture. Besides, if we mess it up, it’s not like anyone lives up there…yet.
Follow Alexis Ong on Twitter here @steppinlazer