Throughout history, mankind has advanced in fits and spurts as someone came along with an idea, invented it, and propelled humanity forward. Perhaps it solved a problem or improved how something was done. Some inventions were small and improved the quality of life just a little bit, while others enabled mankind to make a quantum leap forward.
Think about the paperclip how it has impacted the manner in which businesses managed their work, all as a result of Samuel Fey over a century ago, who just wanted to avoid poking a hole in his clothing.
Or consider the potato chip; a chef named Greg Crum, in 1853, so the story goes, sliced some potatoes wafer thin and then deep fried and salted them to appease an annoying customer. Now you can get it in dozens of flavors, shapes, and colors, and it is standard fare in many restaurants around the world (“5 Small Inventions That Have Changed the World”, 2017).
Then you have a few that have changed the course of history. The ancient Sumerians are given credit for inventing the wheel around 5000 BC, and its existence is the foundation for modern transportation. The way we work, live and move around, and fight wars, all changed forever.
Try to think of some aspect of your life that doesn’t have a wheel in it somewhere. And who could have contemplated the social, technical, and economic impact of the computer back in the early 19th century when the first mechanical computer was developed (“Top 10 Inventions That Changed the World”, n.d.)?
Here is a list of the things that need to be invented most:
An Anti-Aging Pill
This is a somewhat nebulous invention. Scientists aren’t entirely sure what aging even is, much less what causes it (Wikipedia contributors, 2019). Aging and immortality have been topics of study for millennia. The point of this article is not to discuss the causes of aging but to identify an invention, let’s call it a pill, that will slow down the aging process.
Let’s not get into immortality, although that would simply be an extension to the slowing down process. This invention will simply slow down the natural aging process so that you will live, barring disease and other physical damage to the body, for 150 years, doubling the current expected lifespan of the human being.
Why extend lifespan? I think we need to define this invention a little more before it will become attractive. Let’s add the following properties to this pill:
- You still age, but each stage of development is extended. Puberty doesn’t start until 21, early adulthood doesn’t start until 30, middle age doesn’t start until 100, and old age starts at 140.
- Let’s also posit that you retain your mental faculties until you die.
On a personal level, imagine what you could accomplish. Think of what you could learn. Now you have three, maybe four lifetimes to become an expert in some profession. Think of being treated by a doctor who is in his prime with 80 years of experience under his belt. Or now you have decades to experience the things you’ve always dreamt of. Interestingly, around 70% of people in one study said they would not take a pill that gave them immortality (Landau, 2019).
On the societal and environmental level, the concept of a longer life becomes somewhat daunting, doesn’t it? Or what about the “to honor and love until death do you part”? There would be A LOT of changes.
Scaling up to larger problems, the population on earth is expanding exponentially. There are currently 7.5 billion people alive today, and doubling the lifespan would create an upward spiral in population growth that would quickly outstrip the available resources on the planet. Although there are some social scientists that argue as prosperity around the world increases, families will have less children around the world. This is the same phenomena that has been experienced in developed countries.
There are already shortages all over the world. People are starving, even in the most developed of countries. Clean, fresh water is more valuable than oil in many places on earth. So, is taking the pill a step we delay because an early death is the only thing keeping us from destroying each other? Personally, I look at it as an opportunity. We live longer, we learn to live together, and we solve these problems because now we have the time to do it.
Ready source of energy – Biodiesel
A cheap, readily available source of energy is second on the list. This is something that is desperately needed all over the world. Even where there is power, more is needed, and in those regions of the world where there is no power, the level of poverty and destitution is heart-wrenching.
Energy affects everything we do and everything we have. When we have enough to meet our needs, it’s something we take for granted; we don’t even think about it. But when we run out of gas on the road, or there’s a power outage because of a storm, then it becomes our focus. And I challenge you to step into a villager’s hut in parts of Africa that have never had any power and seek to understand what an available source of power will provide to them.
So, let’s invent a way to provide energy and power to everyone around the world. The process needs to be renewable, distributable and reliable. Yes, there are many forms of energy already, and yes, new ones are being developed as the old ones are consistently being improved.
One form of energy being improved upon is biodiesel. The use of biodiesel has been around since the middle of the 19th century. In the last 50 years, vegetable oil and animal fat have been processed and converted to biodiesel using a process called transesterification. The fat in the oil is essentially converted to diesel fuel and can be used in diesel engines and diesel automobiles as a source of energy.
The problem has been that these feedstocks are limited in terms of the amount of fat (i.e. 5-10%) they contain, so it really hasn’t been practical to consider biodiesel as a source of fuel on a grand scale. In the last few years, however, research has discovered a strain of algae containing approximately 50% fat that can be processed and converted to diesel.
The algae requires heat and nutrients typically found in fresh water. It absorbs carbon dioxide and generates oxygen like any other plant. More research to create efficient strains is required, but researchers have already mastered the process of producing a plant source that can be utilized, economically and efficiently, in the environmentally friendly production of fuel (“The Fat, Fit, Fantastic Green Machine”, 2017).
Unlike fossil fuels produced from the earth, the products of combusting the biodiesel are the same components that help the source of the fuel or algae to grow in a continuous loop. It only needs to be optimized and produced in volumes required to meet the world’s energy needs.
Cure for Cancer
Number three on the list is curing cancer. Some causes for cancer have been identified, but no cure for the disease has been invented. It is not a single disease, but encompasses over 200 forms of affliction. The definition of cancer is “a disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body” (“Cancer”, n.d.). Over 100 million people are currently suffering from some form of the disease.
There will be 439 new diagnoses this year (per 100,000 people), and one out of every six people who die will do so as a result of cancer (“Cancer Statistics”, 2018). It’s projected that almost $150 billion will be spent in 2020 for the treatment of cancer patients worldwide.
The good news is that in the last 25 years the death rate from cancer has fallen by 26%. Research into the causes of cancer and the actual mechanisms that occur inside the body are being identified every day. New treatments are being developed all the time. The newest therapy, gene therapy, shows incredible promise.
“Every week, new genes which regulate the process of cancer are being discovered. We now have an incredible knowledge of cancer-what makes a cancer cell a cancer cell, what cancer cells need to thrive, and what signals cancer cells to self-destruct and die” (Black, 1997).
Scientists and researchers are making huge strides every day. In this case, it’s a matter of when they find the cure, not if. This is an invention that hopefully we’ll see in our lifetimes. Like any invention, it takes the idea, the will to persevere, and the resources.
Sources of fresh water – desalination
Everyone needs it to survive. A man needs about 3.7 liters/day and a woman about 2.7 liters/day according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Without it, the human body will last about 3 days.
Consider the basics of survival. What’s the first question you need to ask when you’re camping out or finding a place to settle? Where’s the supply of water? Look at the maps. Where are the cities located? On the rivers and bays, but all with access to fresh water. It’s been a principal factor in the development of civilization.
Approximately 70% of the earth’s surface is covered with water, but 97% of it is saltwater. Of the remaining 3%, only a third of that is on the surface and readily available for consumption and use. The rest is underground, frozen in glaciers or inaccessible in some way This is what is available to support mankind.
As the population continues to grow, more fresh water is consumed and used for irrigation and to support industry. In many areas, freshwater lakes, rivers, and reservoirs are drying up or simply being used, creating shortages where there were once abundant supplies.
In the United States, there have been contentious discussions about laying a pipeline from the Great Lakes to the southwest region of the country for years. In Africa, it’s not unheard of for villagers to walk 10 miles to find a water supply, finding the only source being used by cattle and other animals as their toilet. There are stories all over the earth about the search for fresh water, especially where there is a shortage.
So why is there a shortage? Access to the water is one issue, but what if there was a process to convert the vast supply of saltwater to fresh water? There is, but it needs to be improved. Desalination technology has been around since the time of Aristotle and is even mentioned in the Bible (“History”, n.d.).
With the advent of steamships, desalination became economical and easy to take advantage of as water was evaporated to form steam and then condensed to form fresh water to be used in the steam cycle. In 1952, the US Congress passed the Saline Water Act of 1952 and desalination processes have been under development and improvement since then.
In 1960, reverse osmosis through a semipermeable membrane was developed and has become the principal method of desalinating water ever since. So why the shortage, if we have a process? The problem is the efficiency of the process and the amount of energy needed to extract salt from the water. Removing salt from water is a chemical reaction that requires energy to be added for the reaction to proceed.
It’s kind of like a car. If you want the car to move forward, you must step on the gas. The problem, then, isn’t technical as much as it is economical. The energy costs money and enough water is still accessible to avoid spending the money needed to make it. It’s true in part, but there are huge regions around the earth that could use a more plentiful supply. Unfortunately, they are some of the poorest regions without the resources to pay for desalination.
So, let’s invent a better desalination process that is cheaper produce more water. Then you wouldn’t pay $1 for a bottle of drinking water and if you wanted, you could go play golf on the course outside of Dubai that they created in the desert there simply by showering it with water desalinated from the Persian Gulf.
Everybody loves to scuba dive and snorkel. Anyone who has scuba dived understands the amount of study and discipline required when it comes to breathing from the tanks. Can you survive under water? The answer is NO. Not unless you have the means to breathe.
But what if you could breathe underwater? I’m not talking about medically modifying your body by adding gills like the hero in the movie Water World. I’m talking about coming up with an apparatus that will extract the oxygen from the water, separate it, make it available to breathe, and somehow discharge the carbon dioxide you produce when you breathe.
This isn’t as simple as it sounds. Air has about 21% oxygen in it. Water contains about 1%. You need to get the same amount of oxygen in the water as you do in the open air. Otherwise, there’s no point in going under. And then, are you going to breathe pure oxygen? It’s not a good idea and can be toxic, so you would need a supply of another gas (i.e. nitrogen) to mix with the extracted oxygen. The process isn’t as simple as breathing.
The US Navy has been looking at this for over 50 years, and several designs are currently being studied by scientists around the world (Furness, 2018). It’s still more in the realm of science fiction than it is science, but imagine what the earth will be like 100 years from now.
Just two years ago, 47% of the earth’s food came from the ocean. By 2030, the World Bank estimates the ocean will account for 62% of the food consumed (Gibbens, 2018). By 2030, there will be an additional 1.2 billion people (up from 7.3 billion) on the planet and by 2100, the United Nations estimates the population will be 11.5 billion human beings on the planet. Where are they going to live? And how will they all be fed?
Technology is providing a glimpse of some of the possibilities of how it could be done. Over time, we will give ourselves a reason for it to get done. On the other hand, perhaps, all it will take is a simple operation to add gills, and then we can explore the other 70% of the earth together.
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