Book review: ‘Artificial Communication’ by Elena Esposito

When it comes to the algorithms that work with deep learning and big data there’s a strange paradox emerging, says Elena Esposito in ‘Artificial Communication’ (The MIT Press, £22.50, ISBN 9780262046664). The better they become at driving cars, composing music and scanning books, the more our discomfort increases. You only have to type an email or peck at a text to find that the untrustworthy predictive text of yesteryear has given way to a spookily accurate set of suggestions about what your next word might be in your linear narrative. Or even how to complete your sentence. This eerie feeling of machines or software behaving in a way that’s too similar to our own human thought processes has given rise to the expression ‘uncanny valley’.

Esposito, who is a professor of sociology working in the field of social systems theory, argues that when we think along these lines – how does my smartphone know what my favourite songs are? – we are drawn into wondering if machines have simply become too intelligent. But in her latest book, subtitled ‘How algorithms produce social intelligence’, she argues that this sort of comparison is misleading.

To get a clearer picture of what’s going on, we need to turn the telescope around: if machines contribute to social intelligence, it will be not because they have learned to think like us, but because we have learned to communicate with them. The strength of this idea lies in the proposition that to understand our interaction with machines we need to stop thinking so much in terms of artificial intelligence by shifting the emphasis to artificial communication. After all, the possibility that we may not be talking to a human when we book flights, buy tickets and pay bills online has rapidly shifted into the area of probability, if not certainty.

The way we look at this interaction is flawed, says Esposito. When we interact with a ‘smart’ program we start to wonder if it might be intelligent, if only in a different way to humans. The wisdom of following this train of thought, she argues, is questionable: after all, communication is something that has always evolved, while what defines human intelligence remains something of a ‘mystery’. Meanwhile, the “information generated autonomously by algorithms is not random at all and is completely controlled, but not by the processes of the human mind.” The real challenge in machine learning and big data today, she says, is getting a steer on how to ‘control this control’, how to manage their impact in a global society in which uncertainly is for humans a way of life.

It’s a huge subject that Esposito examines by analysing the use of algorithms in different areas of social life, where machines are not the enemy pitting their superior wits against mere humans. It’s just that algorithms for don’t think like us. Thought-provoking and profoundly relevant.

UK plans £1bn insulation scheme for low-income homes

The UK government is reportedly working on a project to help low-income households insulate their homes, in order to protect them from the cost of living crisis.

The plans would require the government to remove £1bn in funding from other initiatives in order to expand the Energy Company Obligation scheme, which helps fuel-poor customers insulate their homes. The expansion is expected to allow middle-income households to access the programme.

According to The Times, the funds necessary for the project might be taken out of the Public Sector Decarbonisation scheme, which aims to increase the energy efficiency of schools, hospitals and other public buildings.

“The fastest and simplest way to tackle the cost-of-living crisis is to invest in insulation which has the potential to save £150-£400 off energy bills – an investment to permanently bring down bills year after year,” said Chris Skidmore, a Tory MP and founder of the Net Zero support group. 

The UK is currently facing a cost-of-living crisis, with inflation hitting historic levels. The rising prices of energy bills – prompted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine – is the main catalyst of this situation, which could leave as many as 40 per cent of British families facing fuel poverty in the winter.

After energy regulator Ofgem announced an expected rise in the energy price cap in October 2022  “in the region of £2,800”, companies pleaded for the government to invest in making homes in the UK more energy efficient. 

Michael Lewis, E-on's CEO, said the country needs “a massive ramp-up” in insulation and other energy-efficiency projects, in order to help slash bills and carbon.

“Our plea to the government has always been to push hard on energy efficiency, because that’s the proven way, the only silver bullet, for this crisis," he told MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee. “It will reduce prices, reduce energy consumption and contribute to net-zero on a sustainable basis."

Currently, the UK has the leakiest housing stock in Europe, with as many as 19 million homes requiring better insulation. Insulating all these homes is expected to save the equivalent of six nuclear power plants' worth of energy, according to Lewis.

“We have to start now," he said. "And importantly we have to send a signal to the supply chain that it’s worth training up the people, it’s worth investing in the workforce and the skills and all that entails.

Lewis also called for a bigger scheme that can help provide the funding up front for those who can afford to pay for their own upgrades. This could be done by attaching the costs to mortgages or the money would be clawed back over time as homeowners save on their bills.

Scientists link stablecoin to electricity

Through the combination of statistical mechanics and information theory, scientists have been able to design a class of stablecoin that is linked to electricity, known as the Electricity Stablecoin (E-Stablecoin).

According to the research published in Cryptoeconomic Systems, the E-Stablecoin would be minted through the input of one kilowatt-hour of electricity, plus a fee. This new blockchain concept would allow electricity to be transmitted between users who are spread around the world, without the need for interconnecting wires or a grid-based transmission system.

E-Stablecoin could therefore be the first fully collateralised stablecoin, as its value would be pegged to a physical asset – electricity – that is dependent on its utility. 

Due to its nature, this stablecoin could solve many of the challenges cryptocurrencies currently face, mostly related to their market volatility. These extreme price fluctuations magnify risks and discourage consumer transactions, long-term smart contracts and other applications built on the blockchain. Instead, the value of E-Stablecoins would be secured by the price and demand for electricity.

Like other digital currencies, E-Stablecoin could be used for transactions in the same way as any stablecoin, or the energy could be extracted by burning it, also for a fee. The entire process would be controlled by smart contracts with a decentralised data storage cloud.

"Any anonymous party can mint an E-Stablecoin token with the input of roughly one kilowatt-hour of electricity,” explained Maxwell Murialdo, one of the paper’s authors.

“They can then transact with the digital token like any other cryptocurrency, or even turn it back into usable electricity—all without the need for electrical power companies, electrical transmission lines, permissions or authorities. It is a trustless system from top to bottom."

Because of its design, E-Stablecoins could be mined using sustainable electricity, and investors would be able to mint the currency in regions where electricity prices are low and burn the tokens where electricity is more expensive.

In the future, the researchers hope to use E-Stablecoin to help to distribute electricity to remote locations that are not connected by an electrical grid system, or combat climate change by enabling intermittent, renewable energy to be transmitted to the places where it is needed most for efficiency.

"Through thermodynamic reversibility – to the extent that it is allowed by a modern understanding of statistical mechanics – we envision a future blockchain that is not only rooted in real-life assets like energy usage, but also is a more responsible steward of our natural resources in support of the economy," said co-author Jon Belof.

Despite the promising calculations, made using advanced mathematics, Murialdo and Belof described their work as a proof of concept. To make a working E-Stablecoin, “further advances that increase the speed, transfer entropy, and scalability of information engines will likely be required,” according to the scientists.

Digital twin boosts railway station’s energy performance

The Berkshire station is one of the busiest rail hubs in Britain, used by nearly 20 million passengers a year, of whom nearly four million change trains there.

Sensors are set to be installed across the site to capture live, real-time data on energy use, which will be fed into a ‘digital twin’ of the station that has been developed on a specialist computer-modelling platform. Using historical data and modelling, a number of opportunities have been identified that are predicted could result in around a 20 per cent improvement on the station’s carbon emissions and energy performance.

Network Rail has teamed up with engineering and design consultancy Atkins, and Cardiff University to develop a ‘digital twin’ of Reading station, utilising Cardiff University’s Computational Urban Sustainability Platform (CUSP).

Using the sensor data and computer modelling to create baselines, CUSP has been employed to map out ways of improving the station’s performance through energy efficiency measures and to explore the impact of further possible changes.

Low-cost solutions that have been identified include improved lighting controls such as dimming when an area of the station is not in use, and turning off machinery such as escalators when not in use or overnight.

In addition to the data being collected by the sensors at the station, passenger numbers and research into passenger and station-user behaviour will also be recorded to understand how identified energy savings might impact their safety and experience.

Adam De Benedictis, Network Rail’s regional energy and carbon manager, said: “We’re delighted to be working with Atkins on this innovative project which will help us gain a better understanding of complex assets such as Reading station and their predicted performance, allowing us to confidently identify and deliver energy efficiency measures and ultimately manage our assets effectively.”

Nick Tune, technical and technology director at Atkins, added: “This is an important milestone as we look to harness data and technology to improve delivery at every stage of an asset’s life. Digital twins are the centrepiece of this shift which is giving us the information needed to not only identify opportunities to improve an asset’s energy performance but to interrogate future scenarios, explore further recommendations and tell us how those interventions will work with an unprecedented degree of certainty.”

UK launches first licensing round for carbon storage projects

The UK has opened its first licensing round of large-scale carbon capture projects in the North Sea. It could be the first of many, as estimates suggest up to 100 carbon dioxide (CO2) stores could be needed if the UK is to meet its target of reaching net-zero by 2050.

Operated by the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), the licensing round is inviting bids for projects in 13 areas within the North Sea, specifically in locations off the coast of Aberdeen, Teesside, Liverpool and Lincolnshire.

The chosen 13 areas are “a mixture of saline aquifers and depleted oil and gas field storage opportunities”, the NSTA said, adding that it has “fully considered issues including co-location with offshore wind… environmental issues and potential overlaps with existing or future [oil and gas] licences”.

The carbon capture and storage (CCS) schemes this could enable would see CO2 emissions from industry transported – either by ships or in pipelines – before being stored offshore, deep underground in geological formations.

It is expected that there will be strong competition to win the licences, which are set to be awarded in early 2023 – with the possibility of some schemes coming online within six years of the licence being granted. Applicants will also need to secure a lease from The Crown Estate or Crown Estate Scotland, as they would if they were applying to host offshore wind.

“In addition to the huge environmental benefits of significantly reducing carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, the facilities will provide opportunities for many thousands of highly-skilled jobs,” said Andy Samuel, the chief executive of the NSTA.

“Carbon storage is going to be needed across the world. There is growing investor appetite and we are keen to accelerate the development of the carbon storage sector so that the UK is well-positioned to be a global leader.

Policymakers have emphasised the importance of public-private collaboration in commercialising CCS technologies and scaling them up rapidly, to the point of describing CCC as a “non-optional” component of the UK’s transition to net-zero.

As part of this goal, the government's Ten-Point Plan specifically targets the capture of at least 20 million tonnes of CO2 annually by 2030. According to estimates by the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, achieving this aim will require at least £1.2bn of funding.

UK energy minister Greg Hands said the government was determined to “make the UK a world leader in carbon capture”, adding that this “will be crucial in helping us reduce emissions and protect the viability and competitiveness of British industry”.

To date, the UK Government has only issued six licences to carbon storage projects in the North Sea. It first began issuing licenses in 2010, under the Energy Act of 2008.

China to build solar a power plant in space in 2028

The first launch for the construction of China's solar power project in space has been scheduled for 2028 – two years earlier than originally planned – when a trial satellite orbiting at a distance of around 400km will test the technology used to transmit energy from the power plant to Earth.

This satellite will "convert solar energy to microwaves or lasers and then direct the energy beams to various targets, including fixed locations on Earth and moving satellites" according to the South China Morning Post. It would have a 10kW power output.

The Chinese government's updated plans reportedly include the building of the power station in four stages. Two years after the initial launch, the programme will send a more powerful satellite to conduct further tests. The extended power plant would be able to distribute 10MW to "certain military and civilian users" by 2035.

By 2050, the Asian nation hopes to be able to send enough commercially affordable power from the space station to be comparable to that of a current nuclear plant. 

The technology, detailed in a paper published in the journal Chinese Space Science and Technology, involves the transformation of solar energy into microwave radiation that can be transmitted to receivers located on Earth. Doing so will, however, require maintaining an antenna hundreds or thousands of metres long — amid threats of solar wind turbulence and asteroid strikes. 

This is not the first time that this technology has been proposed, but it will be the first to be put into practice. 

A similar energy project had been proposed by Nasa more than two decades ago but was never developed. In addition, the UK has also commissioned independent research supporting a £16bn British version of a solar power station in orbit by 2035.

Satellites in geosynchronous orbit receive sunlight for more than 99 per cent of the time - and at a much greater intensity than solar panels on Earth, making them a much more efficient source of energy, according to the research commissioned for the UK project.

Orbiting solar power plants would also be able to deliver energy 24 hours a day, at any time of year and regardless of the weather.

Concrete industry seeks collaboration with governments on net-zero targets

It has been widely acknowledged that concrete accounts for at least 7 per cent of total global CO2 emissions. Last year, the Global Cement and Concrete Association (GCCA) issued its 'Roadmap to Net Zero 2050' as the industry seeks to reduce its environmental impact. That roadmap committed GCCA members to fully decarbonise by 2050, aligning with the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

This year, the GCCA's annual gathering of company CEOs – the first such face-to-face meeting of industry leaders since the pandemic began – brought together key policymakers, industry leaders and sustainability representatives from the industry’s leading companies to discuss the future of concrete and the industry's next steps on its roadmap to net zero.

The two-day gathering in Atlanta was titled ‘Concrete Future: Net Zero Delivery – From Commitment to Action’. The event included high-level discussions on how to address roadblocks, find shared solutions and collaborate with wider societal stakeholders to secure the sector’s net-zero pathway.

The industry is also seeking to work more effectively with governments and increase investment for the deployment of Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) – a key part of the industry’s own roadmap. The future role of the built environment in delivering a more sustainable and resilient world is also a key topic under discussion among delegates.

Thomas Guillot, chief executive of the GCCA, said: “To achieve net zero and enable the delivery of the sustainable built environment of the future, there needs to be ongoing engagement and deeper collaboration between our industry and government in the years ahead. Targeted government policy will be vital to removing barriers and to expediting our industry’s decarbonisation plans.

“Cement and concrete will play a vital role in delivering a net-zero world. In 2021, our industry made a breakthrough in pledging to reach net zero by 2050. This year in March, we launched the first of a series of 'Net Zero Accelerator' initiatives to help national cement and concrete industries ensure net-zero targets are met.”

Notable speakers at the net-zero gathering were Selwin Hart, United Nations (UN) special adviser and assistant secretary-general for the Climate Action Team; Brad Crabtree, assistant secretary for fossil energy and carbon management in the US Department of Energy; Diane Hoskins, co-CEO of Gensler, the world’s largest architecture firm; Bjorn Otto, chair of Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI)’s executive committee; and Dr Gernot Wagner, climate economist and author.

The UN's Hart said: “We need [the concrete industry] to be champions of net-zero credibility by bringing your entire industry and supply chains on board with clear, specific plans on how you will all reach net zero, and what immediate steps you’ll take to cut emissions significantly during this critical decade.

“Concrete and cement are some of the most carbon-intensive materials in our built environment. Today – on behalf of the Secretary-General – I am calling on you to switch from fossil fuels starting with existing coal and doing so as soon as possible. I also ask you to invest in the necessary technologies and upgrades to get to net zero, including investing in the ingredients and mixes that could help emit less carbon.

“Your industry has the power to change the course of human history for the better and it starts with a smart and speedy exit from coal and shift to renewables.”

A survey conducted in advance of the gathering found that decarbonisation ranked as the highest priority area among cement and concrete industry leaders. The survey also showed overwhelming confidence among industry leaders that their industry will continue to prosper as society transitions to a net-zero future.

Crabtree, representing the US Department of Energy, said: “The cement and concrete industry has a crucial role to play in an industrial transformation, which is essential to achieving our net-zero goals.

“They are leading efforts to further expand and accelerate emission reductions, both globally and at the national level. But industry can’t do it alone. Government has a critical role to play and we welcome the opportunity to partner with the cement and concrete industry to reduce emissions and decarbonise a critical economic sector.”

Following the launch of the GCAA's net-zero roadmap, a 'Net Zero Accelerator Programme' was launched this year to help national cement and concrete industries in developing nations such as Thailand and Egypt decarbonise, with local action a key pillar of the roadmap. In April, GCCA announced its first-ever ‘Open Challenge’, led by its innovation network ‘Innovandi’, which involved leading cement companies supporting innovative start-ups develop sustainable technologies for the industry.

GCCA membership represents approximately 80 per cent of the global cement industry volume outside of China, with some key Chinese manufacturers also included, such as CNBM.

E&T explored the issues around concrete and cement in a recent special issue devoted to these crucial building materials.

The challenges of addressing concrete’s carbon footprint are immense, given that the industry continues to pour around 14 billion cubic metres every year. Accordingly, the quest for smarter, and greener, cement will increasingly be the focus for industry researchers.

Bioengineering may have a part to play such that one day it may be possible to 'grow' concrete and other building materials. Meanwhile, designers are finding innovative ways of working with concrete to build homes, decorate them, and help the environment.

Looking back at concrete's past, we review the Pantheon in Rome – still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. Looking ahead, what building materials will astronauts use on the Moon and Mars? It is likely that the techniques of mixing concrete will still be in play on other worlds, albeit with different elements.

Energy firms provided ‘unacceptable service’ during Storm Arwen, Ofgem finds

It found that while companies worked hard “in challenging circumstances” to get customers reconnected, nearly 4,000 homes had to cope without power in appalling weather conditions for over a week.

The six-month review focused on whether the power outages could have been prevented and whether power was restored quickly enough.

While companies initiated their emergency plans before the storm hit, the plans were not deemed “sufficient to deal with the scale of damage” that resulted from Storm Arwen.

Northern Powergrid, whose customers were affected by the storm, failed to directly contact vulnerable customers enrolled on its Priority Services Register (PSR) prior to Storm Arwen, a process which should have been carried out as part of its planned winter preparedness campaign.

Limited remote monitoring on the lower voltage networks also hindered energy firms from understanding the full scale and complexity of faults, impacting the number of resources they initially deployed to undertake repairs, restore power and support customers.

Most network faults during Storm Arwen were caused by strong winds or trees and branches falling onto power lines, although Ofgem also found some correlation between poles that were damaged and their age.

Three firms, Northern Powergrid, Electricity North West and SSEN, paid nearly £30m in direct compensation to affected customers after the storms.

They also agreed to pay a further £10.3m in voluntary redress payments to the affected communities through contributions to community funds and in donations to vulnerability support charities.

Jonathan Brearley, chief executive of Ofgem, said: “Distribution network companies faced challenging conditions in the aftermath of Storm Arwen, and I pay tribute to the many colleagues in those companies who supported customers and worked to get them back on power as quickly as possible.

“However, it was unacceptable that nearly 4,000 homes in parts of England and Scotland were off power for over a week, often without accurate information as to when power would be restored.

“Network companies need to do better, not just to prevent power disruptions, but to ensure that when power is off, they work smarter to get people back on power quicker, and keep customers informed with accurate and timely information. This is the very least customers should be able to expect.

“The frequency of extreme weather events is only set to increase so it is really important that industry, and those involved more widely, learn from Storm Arwen to better respond in future.” 

Artificial leaf devices can produce clean hydrogen from water

A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London has created devices that can mimic the natural photosynthesis process but produce fuels like hydrogen instead of sugars.

These artificial leaf devices were made from bismuth oxyiodide (BiOI) and other sustainable materials, harvesting sunlight to produce O2, H2 and CO. The discovery could help overcome some of the key challenges in solar fuel production.

Currently, most Earth-abundant light-absorbing materials have limited performance or stability. Initially, BiOI was also rejected as a solution for solar fuel applications due to its poor stability in water. However, the study published in Nature Materials states that this non-toxic semiconductor alternative could be key to the production of green hydrogen.

“A few years ago, we demonstrated that BiOI solar cells are more stable than those using state-of-the-art perovskite light absorbers,” said Dr Robert Hoye, a lecturer at Imperial College London. “We wanted to see if we can translate that stability to green hydrogen production.”

The researchers were able to increase the stability of these artificial leaf devices by inserting BiOI between two oxide layers. The robust oxide-based device structure was coated with a water-repellent graphite paste, which prevented moisture infiltration, prolonging the stability of the bismuth oxyiodide light-absorbing pixels from minutes to a couple of months.

Through the use of these leaf devices, BiOI can become a viable light harvester for stable green hydrogen production.

"We have been working on this material for some time, due to its wide-ranging potential applications, as well as its simplicity of fabrication, low toxicity and good stability,” said Judith Driscoll, a professor at the University of Cambridge.

The team also found that, when the devices comprised multiple light-harvesting areas (called ‘pixels’), they demonstrated a higher performance than conventional devices with a single larger pixel of the same total size. This finding could make the scale-up of novel light harvesters much easier and faster for sustainable fuel production.

Hydrogen production has been deemed a fundamental field of research in the UK’s journey towards net-zero. Although most hydrogen is currently supplied from fossil fuels, researchers are now working to find ways to generate hydrogen more sustainably, such as by harvesting sunlight and splitting water to produce green hydrogen.

The new ways of making BiOI artificial leaf devices more stable can now be translated to other novel systems, helping to bring them towards commercialisation.

“This is an exciting development! At the moment, few solar fuel systems show stabilities which are compatible to real-world applications. With this work, we make a step forward towards establishing a circular fuel economy”, said Professor Erwin Reisner, one of the corresponding authors.

Biden takes emergency route to boost US solar energy production

The United States is committed to becoming a solar energy superpower as its president, Joe Biden, looks at ways to jumpstart progress toward his climate change-fighting goals.

In order to boost the country's renewable energy production, Biden has announced his intention to use his executive powers to accelerate the domestic manufacturing of solar panels and issue a 24-month tariff exemption on imports of the products from several Asian countries. Advancements in the manufacturing of this technology froze last March, after the Commerce Department launched an inquiry into possible trade violations involving Chinese products.

The investigation halted the flow of solar panels that make up more than half of US supplies and 80 per cent of imports.

The Commerce Department is still scrutinising imports of solar panels from Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia, concerned that products from those countries are circumventing the tariffs imposed on goods made in China. The investigation could take at least three more months to complete. 

The White House said Biden will invoke the Defense Production Act (DPA) to allow the Department of Energy to "rapidly expand" US manufacturing of solar panel parts, power grid infrastructure such as transformers, heat pumps, building insulation and other equipment, despite the probe.

“President Biden has invoked the Defense Production Act so that the US can take ownership of its clean energy independence,” energy secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement. “For too long the nation’s clean energy supply chain has been over-reliant on foreign sources and adversarial nations."

Clean energy leaders have long warned that the Commerce Department investigation — which could result in retroactive tariffs of up to 240 per cent — would severely hinder the US solar industry, leading to thousands of layoffs. Such a measure would have also significantly jeopardised one of Biden's top clean-energy goals and run counter to his administration's push for renewable energy.

The announcement has caused solar energy companies to gain ground on Wall Street, as concerns regarding the risk of being forced to hold billions of dollars in reserves to pay potential tariffs have been assuaged.

"The president's announcement will rejuvenate the construction and domestic manufacturing of solar power by restoring predictability and business certainty that the Department of Commerce's flawed inquiry has disrupted," Heather Zichal, CEO of the American Clean Power Association said.

Other officials called the decision a needed "bridge measure" that can be used while other efforts increase domestic solar power production, denying concerns that it might be perceived as a "gift to China." 

The Biden administration has reassured the public of its commitment towards ensuring that US trade laws are followed and its support for the Commerce Department investigation.

"The president's emergency declaration ensures America's families have access to reliable and clean electricity while also ensuring we have the ability to hold our trading partners accountable to their commitments," said Commerce Department secretary Gina Raimondo. Last May, she stressed that the solar inquiry is following a process that doesn't allow consideration of climate change, supply chains or other factors.

"Today's actions protect existing solar jobs, will lead to increased employment in the solar industry and foster a robust solar manufacturing base here at home," said Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

But not everyone in the industry was supportive.

"The administration cannot stick a Band-Aid on the issue and hope that it goes away," said Samantha Sloan, vice-president of policy for solar panel manufacturer First Solar. The company considers using the DPA as a measure that "falls short of a durable solar industrial policy."

The use of executive action comes as the Biden administration's clean energy tax cuts, and other major proposals meant to encourage domestic green energy production, have stalled in Congress.

The DPA is a tool that allows the federal government direct manufacturing production, which has often been used by different administration to palliate crises. The Trump administration made use of it to produce medical equipment during the coronavirus pandemic and Biden has previously invoked it to tackle the shortage of infant formula, ramp up domestic output of key minerals for electric vehicle batteries, and boost COVID-19 tests and vaccine production.