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3 ways quantum computing can help us fight climate change
There's a lot we can do with current technology to help stem the tide of climate change, but future technology may help even more.
- Part of what makes fighting climate change so hard is that solutions take years or even decades to develop.
- Meanwhile, the amount of CO2 already in the atmosphere means that climate change has momentum on its side, and its effects are already being felt.
- However, quantum computing would represent a breakthrough that could cut down on the time needed to research and develop solutions exponentially, turning the work of decades into years or less.
Without a doubt, climate change is the most pressing and complicated challenge that humanity collectively faces. Dealing with it appropriately will require a lot—we'll need to change our lifestyles to put less stress on the planet, consume more conscientiously, and more diligently preserve species diversity. But we may be able to innovate our way out of this terrific mess we've found ourselves in. One way to do that would be to make scalable, efficient quantum computers.
Developing quantum computing capacities at a scale similar to modern computers or even supercomputers could enable us to solve many of the intractable problems that climate change poses to us. Here's how.
What is quantum computing?
At the fundamental level, classical computers use bits to operate, simple pieces of binary information that can have two values: 0 or 1. Quantum computers take advantage of quantum particles' weird ability to exist in several states simultaneously. Rather than represent a 0 or 1, a "qubit" can exist as both simultaneously.
Imagine you have four bits. Together, those four bits can have one of 16 possible combinations, such as 1011. Four qubits, however, can be in all 16 combinations at once. As more qubits get involved, these potential values grow exponentially, meaning that our computing power grows exponentially as well.
There's quite a bit more involved, but the important thing to know is that quantum computers absolutely smoke classical computers when solving complicated problems. Some problems exist that would take a classical computer literally millions of years to solve that a quantum computer could solve in days or less. Solving these problems are the ones that are going to help us address climate change.
1. Deploying better CO2-scrubbing compounds
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated that cutting CO2 emissions isn't enough to stop climate change; we'll need to remove the CO2 that's already in the atmosphere. To a large extent, we can accomplish this by planting more trees, but this isn't a perfect solution. Trees take a long time to grow (and sequester carbon in so doing), can be prone to fires (which will become more common as the Earth warms), and are tempting targets for logging (which emits CO2).
Using chemical catalysts to capture CO2 for storage or to convert it into useful products is one way to overcome this. But existing catalysts tend to be made of expensive materials or are difficult to deploy. It'd be a huge step if we could identify cheaper, easier-to-make compounds that can scrub CO2 from the atmosphere more effectively.
But here, we run into a problem. Accurately simulating chemical compounds takes a lot of processing power. Every atom added to a compound makes simulation exponentially more difficult, requiring us to use our best guesses in a tedious trial and error process instead. Currently, quantum computers can simulate simple compounds with a few dozen qubits. Experts claim that if we could scale that up to around a million qubits, we would likely be able to simulate the compounds that are likely to be more effective at capturing CO2.
2. Developing better batteries
IBM's Q System One quantum computer.
Misha Friedman/Getty Images
Almost every aspect of renewable energy technology is mature enough to replace traditional fossil fuels right now, save for one major stumbling block: battery technology. Fossil fuels function as a stable store by themselves, ready to undergo combustion to release the energy stored in gasoline or coal. But the pure electricity generated from solar energy or the turning of wind turbines needs to be stored somewhere, especially since the wind isn't always blowing and the sun isn't always shining.
Current batteries, however, are too expensive to implement at the scale needed to store the world's energy needs, and they don't store energy long enough. Like CO2-scrubbing catalysts, advances in battery technology are made through physical prototyping and testing. Using a quantum computer to simulate the complicated chemistry that hypothetically better batteries would employ would make this process many, many times faster.
This approach has attracted significant attention since batteries are such a widely used commodity. One notable example of first-movers in this arena is Mercedes-Benz, who has partnered with IBM's quantum computing program in order to build better batteries for electric cars.
3. Modeling the Earth's climate
The Earth's climate is an enormously complicated system with numerous sensitive components that interact with one another. Our current understanding of climate change is the result of decades of modeling work from thousands of researchers, and thanks to that work, we know what components of the Earth's climate system pose the greatest risk, what we need to focus on, and when we need to act.
Understanding the climate informs our strategy and enables us to make better forecasts. At 2018's SXSW conference, tech entrepreneur William Hurley suggested that quantum computing's exponentially superior computing power could be used to model the many, many variables that go into the Earth's climate system.
There are many more known applications of quantum computing that could benefit us in our fight against climate change. Odds are, there's even more unknown applications that we'll only discover once we begin playing around with this new technology.
It's the ultimate technologist's dream — a quantum leap that suddenly renders seemingly insurmountable challenges negligible. It's important to remember, however, that we can't put all our eggs in one basket. We can't rest easy on the gamble that quantum computers will both mature quick enough and work effectively enough to solve every climate problem we've made for ourselves.
Addressing real-world challenges requires a mix innovation and adaptation. We need to develop better tools, faster computers, and more effective solutions as well as learn how to live with what has been allotted to us, to treat our environment more gently, and preserve the only planet we've got.
- Quantum computing is on the way - Big Think ›
- Google to Achieve "Supremacy" in Quantum Computing by the End ... ›
A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A simple trick allowed marine biologists to prove a long-held suspicion.
- It's long been suspected that sharks navigate the oceans using Earth's magnetic field.
- Sharks are, however, difficult to experiment with.
- Using magnetism, marine biologists figured out a clever way to fool sharks into thinking they're somewhere that they're not.
For some time, scientists have suspected that sharks belong among the growing number of animals known to navigate using Earth's magnetic field. Testing anything with a shark, though, requires some care.
The key was selecting the right candidate. Keller and his colleagues chose the bonnethead shark, Sphyrna tiburo, a small critter that summers at Turkey Point Shoal off the coast of the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory with which Keller is affiliated.
Bonnetheads elsewhere have been known to complete 620-mile roundtrip migrations. As the lab's Dean Grubbs puts it, "That's not bad for a shark that is only two to three feet long. The question is how do they find their way back to that same estuary year after year." There's a report of a great white shark migrating between two locations, one in South Africa and another in Australia, year after year.
The research is published in Current Biology.
Keller and his team rounded up 20 local juvenile bonnetheads and transported them into a holding tank at the marine lab. For the tests, the researchers simulated three real-world magnetic fields. As the various magnetic fields were activated, the sharks' movements were captured by GoPro cameras and their average swimming orientations calculated by software.
The first simulation, serving as a control, mimicked the magnetic field of the nearby shoal from which the sharks had been captured. When this field was activated, the sharks essentially acted like they were "home," just swimming around as they do.
A second field was the magnetic equivalent of a location 600 kilometers south of the lab within the Gulf of Mexico. When this field was activated, the sharks, apparently mistaking themselves for being far south in the Gulf, began swimming northward toward the shoal.
The opposite occurred with a field standing in for a location in continental North America 600 km north of their home shoal — the sharks began swimming southward.
"For 50 years," says Keller, "scientists have hypothesized that sharks use the magnetic field as a navigational aid. This theory has been so popular because sharks, skates, and rays have been shown to be very sensitive to magnetic fields. They have also been trained to react to unique geomagnetic signatures, so we know they are capable of detecting and reacting to variation in the magnetic field."
His team's experiments confirm what's long been suspected, Keller says: "Sharks use map-like information from the geomagnetic field as a navigational aid. This ability is useful for navigation and possibly maintaining population structure."
A machine learning system lets visitors at a Kandinsky exhibition hear the artwork.
Have you ever heard colors?
As part of a new exhibition, the worlds of culture and technology collide, bringing sound to the colors of abstract art pioneer Wassily Kandinsky.
Kandinsky had synesthesia, where looking at colors and shapes causes some with the condition to hear associated sounds. With the help of machine learning, virtual visitors to the Sounds Like Kandinsky exhibition, a partnership project by Centre Pompidou in Paris and Google Arts & Culture, can have an aural experience of his art.
An eye for music
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his painting. Seeing yellow summoned up trumpets, evoking emotions like cheekiness; reds produced violins portraying restlessness; while organs representing heavenliness he associated with blues, according to the exhibition notes.
Virtual visitors are invited to take part in an experiment called Play a Kandinsky, which allows them to see and hear the world through the artist's eyes.
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his 1925 painting Yellow, Red, Blue.Image: Guillaume Piolle/Wikimedia Commons
In 1925, the artist's masterpiece, "Yellow, Red, Blue", broke new ground in the world of abstract art, guiding the viewer from left to right with shifting shapes and shades. Almost a century after it was painted, Google's interactive tool lets visitors click different parts of the artwork to journey through the artist's description of the colors, associated sounds and moods that inspired the work.
But Google's new toy is not the only tool developed to enhance the artistic experience.
Artist Neil Harbisson has developed an artificial way to emulate Kandinsky by turning colors into sounds. He has a rare form of color blindness and sees the world in greyscale. But a smart antenna attached to his head translates dominant colors into musical notes, creating a real-world soundtrack of what's in front of him. The invention could open up a new world for people who are color blind.
A new study suggests that private prisons hold prisoners for a longer period of time, wasting the cost savings that private prisons are supposed to provide over public ones.