Monday, April 23, 2012

The future of WHF

The bad news is that I lost momentum over time and wrote very little near the end of the 60 days. It's hard to maintain yet another blog while juggling everything else including my original blog.

The good news is that I received some very positive feedback and enjoyed writing outside the box sorts of posts. Readers encouraged me to continue writing.

Where does that leave Western Hemisphere Futures?

I have to suspend this blog for now. I have too much going on over the next few weeks to pretend I can continue at the rate that I'd like to. That said, I hope to relaunch at some point in the future. 

I created a Western Hemisphere Futures Page on Google+. The goal is to talk about future issues like those discussed on this blog and share articles. It may take off or it may sit in silence. Part of that depends on me and part of it depends on the community of those interested in the topic.

Thanks to everyone for reading over the last 60 days and for all the feedback.

Abundance vs Scarcity

Much of what's been written on this blog over the past 60 days has dealt with two visions of the future. In one, there is abundance with new sources of energy, food and clean water. In the other, there is scarcity creating competition for a dwindling supply of resources. 

The abundance vs scarcity question is a fairly common issue when looking at future scenarios and many others have written on it. What I would like to stress is that the hemisphere shouldn't view either vision as being imposed on it by some outside force. It should be investing in science, technology and education to try to build that future of abundance. It should be looking at government policies and private sector investments that can help eliminate problems of scarcity. We should plan for the worse of the two scenarios. I wouldn't want to avoid planning for potential scarcity in the future. But we should be working and investing to build the better of the two, because if we have a choice, it's certainly the better future to live in.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Nanotech diplomacy

The building blocks for cooperation between the US and Latin America on nanotechnology are being put in place.

From the US-Brazil meeting fact sheets:
Representatives from the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation; Brazilian National Institute of Metrology, Quality and Technology; and the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative met on March 30, 2012, to discuss national strategies, research programs, and shared access to user facilities. Significant opportunities for collaboration, including undergraduate and graduate student exchanges, were identified between the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers and the Brazilian Nanotechnology Centers. The two countries have launched workshops on Converging Technologies, with the first held in São Paulo in October 2011 and a second to be held in Arlington, Virginia, in June 2012. 
Also, the recent North American leaders meeting promised "aligning principles of our regulatory approaches to nanomaterials."

The US appears to be positioning itself on this issue before most people even notice the discussion is occurring.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Water sanitation innovation

Last year, Ugarte’s team partnered with Alfredo Zolezzi, Chief Innovation Officer of Chile Advanced Innovation Center, to test a revolutionary pint-sized Plasma Water Sanitation System that his company was developing. This can purify 35 liters of water in five minutes using only the power required to light a 100 watt bulb. If the system can be mass produced for less than $100, as Zolezzi believes, and the output passes the lab tests to which it is being subjected, it has the potential to provide clean, safe water to billions in the developing world. 
There are several projects similar to this being tested right now around the world. Once cheap enough, they have the potential to be a game changing technology to help improve the health of people around the hemisphere.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Teachers need to adapt to computers

The Economist reports on the apparent failure of One Laptop Per Child in Peru, not the first media outlet to notice the problem. In spite of a large investment in laptops, children's test scores have not improved, nor have other measures like attendance and participation.

The article says that Peru has failed to invest in educating teachers and improving curriculum to best utilize the new technologies. It makes some sense.

I don't believe children have not gotten any benefits from the new laptops. There must be some advantages to kids having these new tools and learning how to use them. But if the basic reading and math scores are not improving, there is only so far they can go.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Decentralize access to robots

This very cool project from MIT will allow for customized robots to be designed and printed within a matter of hours. With designs and raw materials, Latin American citizens (and governments, companies, NGOs, criminals) will have access to robotics technology without the need for large local factories or importation of finished products.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Build some batteries

Well over a majority of the world's known lithium reserves are in South America, centered in Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. If the future of batteries is lithium, then those countries are sitting on a big pile of money. If the future of batteries goes in another direction, then few are going to invest in the process of extracting it and it's going to get a low price.

Understanding the lithium extraction can be a difficult and expensive process, it's still disappointing that none of these countries has decided to build the battery technology on their own. Waiting for outside firms to enter the market simply continues the cycle of dependency that exists in much of the region. This is a rare opportunity to build an industry in the region that uses local resources to manufacture a well developed product to world markets.

Bolivia has tried to find a middle route, insisting that any outside firm investing in local lithium must build a battery plant in the country and transfer the technological knowledge. It's a reasonable condition, but it's still waiting on someone else to help.

Take the risk, spend government R&D funds, build some batteries, create the domestic industry now rather than wait on some other country or corporation to come create it and profit from it. Outside firms should be allowed to invest in the industry, but waiting on them to do so shows a lack of initiative.

Let's be honest, the first batteries are likely to be bad. It's unlikely Chile or Argentina or Bolivia is going to match current technology in their first attempt. It's going to take years of developing the science and technology skills to bring the batteries to a level that they can be exported. However, it will be a worthwhile process to create the skills in the country. The risk is that the country will lose financially if they cannot pull it off. The potential gains are quite high if they do manage it.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Nature moving borders

Last year, as Costa Rica and Nicaragua fought over a small piece of land, one of the issues was over how the Rio San Juan has moved over the past 100-150 years. If the river moves, does the border move too?

Rivers move a great deal over the course of decades, more than most other natural boundaries (like mountains). When boundaries are set by natural geography at a certain moment in time, the risk is that they will move in the future.

The river moving in Central America was one factor setting off a dispute. Are there other border disputes that could arise over similar natural events in the coming century?

While I don't think many mountains will be moving much (the Chile/Argentine border is defined by mountain peaks), it may be maritime boundaries are the big issue. Rising sea levels are likely to change shape of borders as they hit the sea, which can affect rights on fishing and deepsea oil drilling.

Criminal innovation

Over at my other blog, I ask whether the region's criminals are being out-innovated by the Chinese. There are Chinese companies manufacturing complex counterfeit electronic parts, something not done in this region.

That said, we shouldn't look down on the criminal innovation in this region. They build submarines, from scratch, in the jungle! That's pretty impressive. It's worth asking whether it's possible to turn that technical knowledge into a more legitimate and yet still profitable business.

Innovation is often done in a grey market with a hacking and DIY mentality. It's the sort of thing that should be encouraged in Latin America, if only it could be directed away from groups that illegally traffic, kidnap and extort. Experts want to see more innovation in the region? Part of it is happening in the black market. They should be thinking about how to legalize criminal innovations so they become a benefit for the region instead of a drawback.


Throughout Latin America, infrastructure is aging in a way that billions must be spent in the coming decade just to maintain or replace what is there, never mind upgrading. Roads, bridges, dams and ports in nearly every country require significant repairs just to keep running.

If you're looking for things that may hold the region back, this is one of them. There are a number of brand new infrastructure projects from the Baluarte Bicentennial Bridge in Mexico to Brazil's transcontinental highways that capture the imagination, but keeping up with repairs on some of the more mundane bridges and highways that are decades old is going to drain public resources and hold back new projects.

We should be looking for ways to turn this negative into a positive. What innovation, either materials or techniques, can be brought by paving a road? What smart technology can be included while we're working on the old infrastructure? How do we make the decisions whether to repair or to tear down and build new?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Vigilantism, bounties and super-empowered individuals

What if one of Latin America's billionaires offered a $10,000 reward to any person or organization who could provide proof (defined specifically) that a politician, government official or police officer is corrupt.

It would create a rush of private investigators trying to find evidence to win the money. It would put fear in some government officials. At its best, it would be pressure for transparency. At its worst, it would be a sort of vigilantism that unfairly hounded the many officials trying to do good work.

It's worth debating whether it's a good or bad idea. It's also worth thinking about the fact that few laws would prevent a super-empowered rich individual from offering such a set of prizes and starting this cycle.

30 days left

30 days down and 30 to go with stage one of this experiment. How do I think it's going?

  • I appreciate all the feedback, much of it positive.
  • I've liked having a place to think and write about topics that seem to fall outside my usual blogging.
  • I've written less than I've wanted to. Time to write is always a challenge and I've spent more time on my usual blogging than here.
  • That countdown clock looms over me every day. Whatever direction I take this, I need to write more.
  • I've enjoyed the freeform write about anything, but I may need to give this blog a bit more direction if I hope to get some useful longer essays out of it in the end.
So, it's not going quite as well as I had thought at my most optimistic, but I'm still finding it to be useful and entertaining.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Biotech to fight dengue

La Prensa:

During the event, it was reported that the British firm Oxitec plans to release thousands of mosquitoes that have been genetically modified to fight dengue in Panama and Costa Rica, as well as in the Florida Keys.

I think this is probably a good thing, but it's amazing that it's being done almost completely without government regulation. It's another example where Latin America and its political leaders need to catch up to modern technology or risk having things happen in the region without any debate. Where are the politicians in the region who are interested in regulating and encouraging/discouraging biotechnology and genetically modified insects to combat disease?

Bringing biotechnology to mining

A few days ago, I offered brief speculation on robotics being used in Latin American mining projects. The BBC highlights a potentially different trend with a Chilean firm using bacteria to extract copper. The microbes break down the various minerals in the rocks until only copper remains. It concludes:
If it works, one day it might be possible to get mine for copper without digging huge pit mines. Instead, miners would simply drill two holes to introduce a solution full or with microbes, and then collect it once it contains copper.
It sounds like the technology may be closer in some ways than the robotics.

Drones to fight deforestation

Conversationists are building drones that can monitor deforestation rates and capture evidence of illegal logging (Mashable, Tree Hugger). It moves the problem of deforestation from one of too little information (we used to have no idea what occurred in the remote regions of the Amazon) to one where people almost have too much information. How do they track all of the videos and info that they will collect?