Elon Musk, The Biofuel Future, and a Universal Income Trial Run | Vol. 3 / No. 31

Photo: Heisenberg Media (2013) CC BY 2.0

Elon Musk

If you were breathing and checking the internet this week, there’s a good chance you heard something about Elon Musk. Like how he plans to go to space himself sometime in the next four or five years, how he plans to send people to mars by 2025, or how he thinks the universe might be some hyper-advanced civilization’s simulation. That’s because Musk, the man who has made a habit of making international news with a single tweet, gave an extended interview at the Recode Code Conference this week. In order, I can with a great deal of confidence say “yeah, he probably will,” “it’ll probably take longer than that (most of his plans do), but still yeah, he probably will eventually,” and finally, “it’s not crazier than believing in an all-powerful deity who still needed us to kill his son (who was also him) in order to save all of us from a fate he condemned us to in the first place” (in that order). But (if you ask me) the really interesting Elon Musk news isn’t from the interview, but from another source entirely. It looks as though Musk has hired an outspoken Canadian battery researcher to advance their battery technologies at Tesla. Right now the company uses two types of lithium-ion batteries — NCA and NMC — and Dahn did pioneering work into the latter, seemingly reaffirming the company’s commitment to keeping its options open even as the Gigafactory is slated to open July 29. Only time will tell what pans out and what doesn’t, but if the past few years are anything to go by, one thing is for sure: Elon Musk will continue to be newsworthy.

The Biofuel Future

Daniel Nocera speaking at Pop!Tech 2009 | Photo: PopTech, CC BY-SA 2.0
Daniel Nocera speaking at Pop!Tech 2009 | Photo: PopTech, CC BY-SA 2.0

While it’s not likely to make a dent in global CO2 levels anytime soon (or ever), new research announced this week in a lecture by Harvard Professor Daniel Nocera suggests that at the very least we could stop adding to them. His latest creation is a bacterium that consumes atmospheric CO2 and hydrogen and produces fuel-grade alcohols and burnable biomass, at relatively high efficiencies — 6% and 10.6%, respectively, the latter of which is remarkable given that (according to phys.org) plants only produce biomass at an efficiency of roughly 1%. The invention isn’t so much designed to curb global warming (though if put into widespread use, it would at the least replace non-carbon neutral combustibles with carbon neutral ones), but instead to provide an energy source for rural parts of India where electrification is far from fully implemented.  The paper can be found at AAS Science.

Universal Income

Photo: Paul Miller, CC BY 2.0
Photo: Paul Miller, CC BY 2.0

The “no-jobs future,” where robots really are cheaper to pay for an maintain than human workers, may really be around the corner. McDonalds franchises in Europe have already replaced front-of-house staff with vending machine-like interfaces, kitchen staff seem like they’re going to be on the block next, Amazon’s looking into replacing its warehouse staff with robots who don’t complain about, well, genuinely terrible working conditions — but it does for one to ask, what will the people who used to do those jobs do for cash? The answer may be “share and share alike.” The Universal Income (or the Universal Basic Income) would essentially pay people not to engage in activities that would otherwise cost the state more: homelessness, starvation, and concomitant illness. In theory, everyone would get enough to scrape by — have a roof over their heads, eat more than once a day — such that they wouldn’t get sick, lose their houses, or fall into desperate circumstances that end up costing more in the form of government housing, emergency medical care, or social assistance. Students would, in theory, drop out less, be more able to live on part-time employment, take care of their children without relying on daycare centers, volunteer their time for social good, and more. But right now we don’t have enough data to determine whether it could or would work. Enter Venture Capitalist firm (slash think tank, slash headline maker) Y Combinator, which has announced plans to run a five-year, universal basic income pilot program in Oakland. The plan is to test it out and see what happens — will healthcare costs really decline? Will education rates rise? Will volunteerism rates rise? Will people lose the will to work, or work less “because they can”? Maybe in five years we’ll actually know. TechCrunch has more on the story.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.