World’s first commercial-scale air scrubbing plant launched in Switzerland

The world’s first commercial plant to capture atmospheric CO₂, which simultaneously boosts air quality and captures the gas for resale, has been launched in Switzerland

The direct air capture (DAC) plant, located near Zurich, filters 900 tonnes of CO₂ annually from the atmosphere to supply to a local greenhouse, where it will be used to grow vegetables, replacing fossil industrial CO₂.

The first of its kind, the air-scrubbing technology used in the plant has been deemed crucial to the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global temperature rises to 2°C.

The plant, developed by Climeworks, makes use of patented technology to filter CO₂ from ambient air. The filter captures atmospheric carbon using mainly low-grade heat as an energy source, with this first DAC system installed on the roof of a waste recovery factory, where it can use the factory’s waste heat as power.

As the first commercial-scale air scrubber to begin operations, the plant could be the first example of a whole new approach to combating climate change.

“Highly scalable negative emission technologies are crucial if we are to stay below the two-degree target of the international community,” said Christoph Gebald, co-founder and managing director of Climeworks. “The DAC-technology provides distinct advantages to achieve this aim and is perfectly suitable to be combined with underground storage.

“We’re working hard to reach the goal of filtering one per cent of global CO₂ emissions by 2025. To achieve this, we estimate around 250,000 DAC-plants like the one in Hinwil are necessary.”

The capture process sees CO₂ chemically deposited on the surface of the filter which, once saturated, then isolates CO₂ at a temperature of about 100°C. The captured gas can then be sold onto markets such as the energy sector, commercial agriculture, the automotive industry and food and beverage industries.

At present, the important customer is the aforementioned greenhouse, with Climeworks providing a continuous supply of CO₂ to assist with growing vegetables. By securing this agreement, Climeworks have made their operation the first direct air capture plant with a commercial customer.

Operating as a three-year demonstration project in co-operation with the partners Gebrüder Meier (operators of the greenhouse) and KEZO (operators of the factory), it is hoped that this will serve as the first step to far broader commercialisation.

The newly installed air scrubber. Images courtesy of Climeworks / Julia Dunlop

With such a strong case for commercialisation, Climeworks has set its sights on expansion. Compared to other carbon capture technologies, the Climeworks DAC’s modular design can be employed almost anywhere.

The company is planning to use this initial success to launch additional pilot projects in other markets, and plans to test the technology’s potential in combination with underground storage.

“With the energy and economic data from the plant we can make reliable calculations for other, larger projects and draw on the practical experience we have gained,” said Jan Wurzbacher, Climeworks co-founder and managing director.

If the company continues to improve on its success, and expands its operational capability, it is possible that such technology could play a lead role in combating. In particular, with Climeworks’ easy deployment, we could soon see direct air capture broadly utilised, from factory to city.

XPRIZE launches contest to build remote-controlled robot avatars

Prize fund XPRIZE and All Nippon Airways are offering $10 million reward to research teas who develop tech that eliminates the need to physically travel. The initial idea is that instead of plane travel, people could use goggles, ear phones and haptic tech to control a humanoid robot and experience different locations.

Source: Tech Crunch

NASA reveals plans for huge spacecraft to blow up asteroids

NASA has revealed plans for a huge nuclear spacecraft capable of shunting or blowing up an asteroid if it was on course to wipe out life on Earth. The agency published details of its Hammer deterrent, which is an eight tonne spaceship capable of deflecting a giant space rock.

Source: The Telegraph

Sierra Leone hosts the world’s first blockchain-powered elections

Sierra Leone recorded votes in its recent election to a blockchain. The tech, anonymously stored votes in an immutable ledger, thereby offering instant access to the election results. “This is the first time a government election is using blockchain technology,” said Leonardo Gammar of Agora, the company behind the technology.

Source: Quartz

AI-powered robot shoots perfect free throws

Japanese news agency Asahi Shimbun has reported on a AI-powered robot that shoots perfect free throws in a game of basketball. The robot was training by repeating shots, up to 12 feet from the hoop, 200,000 times, and its developers said it can hit these close shots with almost perfect accuracy.

Source: Motherboard

Russia accused of engineering cyberattacks by the US

Russia has been accused of engineering a series of cyberattacks that targeted critical infrastructure in America and Europe, which could have sabotaged or shut down power plants. US officials and private security firms claim the attacks are a signal by Russia that it could disrupt the West’s critical facilities.

Google founder Larry Page unveils self-flying air taxi

A firm funded by Google founder Larry Page has unveiled an electric, self-flying air taxi that can travel at up to 180 km/h (110mph). The taxi takes off and lands vertically, and can do 100 km on a single charge. It will eventually be available to customers as a service "similar to an airline or a rideshare".

Source: BBC

World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 22, doctors predicted he would live just a few more years. But in the ensuing 54 years he married, kept working and inspired millions of people around the world. In his last few years, Hawking was outspoken of the subject of AI, and Factor got the chance to hear him speak on the subject at Web Summit 2017…

Stephen Hawking was often described as being a vocal critic of AI. Headlines were filled with predictions of doom by from scientist, but the reality was more complex.

Hawking was not convinced that AI was to become the harbinger of the end of humanity, but instead was balanced about its risks and rewards, and at a compelling talk broadcast at Web Summit, he outlined his perspectives and what the tech world can do to ensure the end results are positive.

Stephen Hawking on the potential challenges and opportunities of AI

Beginning with the potential of artificial intelligence, Hawking highlighted the potential level of sophistication that the technology could reach.

“There are many challenges and opportunities facing us at this moment, and I believe that one of the biggest of these is the advent and impact of AI for humanity,” said Hawking in the talk. “As most of you may know, I am on record as saying that I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.

“Of course, there is unlimited potential for what the human mind can learn and develop. So if my reasoning is correct, it also follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it.”

Moving onto the potential impact, he began with an optimistic tone, identifying the technology as a possible tool for health, the environment and beyond.

“We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one: industrialisation,” he said.

“We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty; every aspect of our lives will be transformed.”

However, he also acknowledged the negatives of the technology, from warfare to economic destruction.

“In short, success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation, or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined or conceivably destroyed by it,” he said.

“Unless we learn how to prepare for – and avoid – the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.

“Already we have concerns that clever machines will be increasingly capable of undertaking work currently done by humans, and swiftly destroy millions of jobs. AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.

“In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”

In the vanguard of AI development

In 2014, Hawking and several other scientists and experts called for increased levels of research to be undertaken in the field of AI, which he acknowledged has begun to happen.

“I am very glad that someone was listening to me,” he said.

However, he argued that there is there is much to be done if we are to ensure the technology doesn’t pose a significant threat.

“To control AI and make it work for us and eliminate – as far as possible – its very real dangers, we need to employ best practice and effective management in all areas of its development,” he said. “That goes without saying, of course, that this is what every sector of the economy should incorporate into its ethos and vision, but with artificial intelligence this is vital.”

Addressing a thousands-strong crowd of tech-savvy attendees at the event, he urged them to think beyond the immediate business potential of the technology.

“Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit”

“Everyone here today is in the vanguard of AI development. We are the scientists. We develop an idea. But you are also the influencers: you need to make it work. Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit,” he said. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity.”

In particular he raised the importance of working across different fields.

“Interdisciplinary research can be a way forward, ranging from economics and law to computer security, formal methods and, of course, various branches of AI itself,” he said.

“Such considerations motivated the American Association for Artificial Intelligence Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures, which up until recently had focused largely on techniques that are neutral with respect to purpose.”

He also gave the example of calls at the start of 2017 by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) the introduction of liability rules around AI and robotics.

“MEPs called for more comprehensive robot rules in a new draft report concerning the rules on robotics, and citing the development of AI as one of the most prominent technological trends of our century,” he summarised.

“The report calls for a set of core fundamental values, an urgent regulation on the recent developments to govern the use and creation of robots and AI. [It] acknowledges the possibility that within the space of a few decades, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity and challenge the human-robot relationship.

“Finally, the report calls for the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI that can provide technical, ethical and regulatory expertise. If MEPs vote in favour of legislation, the report will go to the European Commission, which will decide what legislative steps it will take.”

Creating artificial intelligence for the world

No one can say for certain whether AI will truly be a force for positive or negative change, but – despite the headlines – Hawking was positive about the future.

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the world that can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance,” he said. “Perhaps some of you listening today will already have solutions or answers to the many questions AI poses.”

You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big

However, he stressed that everyone has a part to play in ensuring AI is ultimately a benefit to humanity.

“We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity but the determination to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfill our potential and create a better world for the whole human race,” he said.

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be. You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big.

“We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting – if precarious – place to be and you are the pioneers. I wish you well.”