New technology cuts down on risk around us
More emphasis will be placed on other key aspects of liability
Jeff Pearce on March 18, 2016
There will always be those buzzkills who listen to an idea about a fabulous new technology, screw up their faces and say, “Ugh, that’s science fiction stuff.” To which I frequently respond, “Hey, you see your phone on the table? It takes photos. It can download information from around the world and includes GPS. Want to think it through again?”
So to kick off the new year, we’re bringing you cultural upheavals that will hit hard and very soon. Tomorrow’s world will have much reduced risk in certain areas while more emphasis will sometimes be placed on other key aspects of liability. So here are a few sectors that are changing in amazing ways. Are you ready?
Running rings around you
The name for the tech already sounds like science fiction: Hyperloop. It’s not just high-speed rail—you’re better off calling it the highest-speed-possible rail.
Entrepreneur Elon Musk famously touted the idea a couple of years ago, sparking a “race for the rails” by several companies working on competing designs. The core idea is this: a pod [riding on an air cushion] carrying cargo or people hurtles through a fully enclosed, pressure- reduced tube at speeds of more than 1,100 kilometres an hour. Need to get from San Francisco to Los Angeles? It’ll take about 35 minutes. The real beauty of the concept is that the pod can go above ground, underground, underwater, take your pick. It also promises to be far more environmentally friendly than its chugging, wheezing ancestors and possibly even the magnetic levitation and electric bullet trains whipping through Asia and Europe.
Such a system, says Rob Lloyd, CEO of Hyperloop Tech, “will use linear synchronous drives to propel the pod very, very rapidly, and then because you now have no friction from levitation and no resistance from air, you actually only need that in a portion of the tube. You only need to shoot it forward and it could glide for 100 kilometres… So you end up almost gliding for a large portion of the journey…” Even in a low pressure environment, explains Lloyd, you still get a build-up of air. “So you remove that air from the front of the pod—which will be moving very quickly—with a compressor, much like the front of a jet engine.”
It fits that Rob Lloyd is leading a team designing a futuristic form of train travel, because his enthusiasm seems to come out in a rush. A transplanted Canadian who used to run Cisco, he went from managing 25,000 to 45 people—and you get the idea that he couldn’t care less about that (the team is now up to 70). After all, Hyperloop’s co-founder Shervin Pishevar lured him over with a text message that read, “Come change the world with me.”
Lloyd is talking to us on the phone as he strolls through the company’s three-acre campus in downtown L.A., recalling how “every time I came back here, every week or two as I visited and came back and spent more time preparing to commence my role as CEO [in September 2015], the progress was astounding.”
The company’s engineers “get to not only design a technology, but go into our fabrication offices here and build it.” When he was hosting some visitors recently, they couldn’t believe the company was only a year old. “And that is… what’s interesting:… risk assessment of new technologies that are applied in the old world would assume that it would take years for a new transformative technology in transportation to prove itself out.
“And actually because the model is not to develop theories and then get theory after theory after theory and then try to build a full scale, it’s very much a different model, which allows us to—in my opinion—move much more quickly from a design and test phase to an implementation phase, because we learn every day by building and testing.”
The company’s now trying to raise its next funding benchmark of $80 million that will be used to build a three-kilometre test track. And with successful testing, it’s pushing to have what it calls its “Kitty Hawk moment, the time when we first take flight,” which the team hopes will happen by the end of this year. “When that happens then I think we’ll see governments, I think we’ll see developers, I think we’ll see private industry believe that we can fundamentally change how cities are designed, how transportation networks are thought of, and how we think of ports and how we think of airports.”
The tech is not without criticisms, the most famous of which is that Hyperloop may turn out to be a “vomit comet” for passengers. Lloyd, however, insists they “absolutely can design the pod for people in a way that is in the comfortable range of G force, both on acceleration and deceleration and in cornering, because there will be corners.” He also points out reasonably that a plane goes 500 miles an hour, and outside of turbulence, you don’t feel that.
No derailments, no snow or leaves on the line, no chance of collisions. Risk becomes all about potential power failures, terrorism, union squabbles. Even if there were a breach in the tube, “unlike an an oil pipeline where oil spills out, air flows in. And if air flows into the tube… it slows down the speed of the pod. It gets an environment where all of us can breathe, if there was any kind of accident, and we would have natural escape and safety procedures that are well known in any tunneled environment. So it conjures these incredible emotional reactions, but the engineering side of this is actually very pragmatic.”
Apps for ailments
In his new book, The Patient Will See You Now, Dr. Eric Topol—an unapologetic medical futurist—tells how a couple of years ago, a design firm called NXT led a project to create the hospital of the future. With the prototype’s fancy sensors, touch screens and mood lighting, it got a lot of media attention, with one critic suggesting, “The only thing missing… is an automatically triggered laser beam to kill fresh flowers brought by unwelcome visitors.” Topol argues such a design “misses something major—the lack of need for hospitals!”
That’s because what you most need might be in your pocket. Topol himself once used his handy cell phone’s electrocardiogram to diagnose a fellow airline passenger’s heart attack, prompting an emergency landing. So with apps and remote monitoring always on the increase, he suggests that your room on the ward will be your own bedroom instead.
He told Top Broker that in the last 20 years or so, “there was this tremendous shift of hospital work from inpatient to outpatient, and the same thing’s going to occur over the next decade: outpatient to home. We just don’t need hospital rooms in the future, and… usually it counts for 60, 70, 80 percent of almost every hospital.”
Which raises some interesting questions for the impact of this trend on business. When Topol was interviewed by Stephen Colbert, he described how a nanosensor might be embedded in the bloodstream to detect heart attacks. Colbert asked if insurance companies might sell patient information, which could lead to ringtones that inquire: “Would you like 20 percent off caskets?”
Our question for Topol was if this might lead to employers strong-arming their workers into having the sensors—and then perhaps penalizing those with less favourable results. “Well, every employer has to have a firewall third party, right? They can’t have direct communication of the medical data from their employee. The third party—and that could be Aetna, United, Blue Cross, whatever—they could be the ones that provide the independent input for the person. No one should be forced to do anything. It should be opting in, but they have to get objective, independent guidance, not from an employer that wants reduce their cost, but rather from a trusted entity that wants to give that person the best care.”
Very sealed-in freshness
There’s no drought. There’s no flooding. There’s no chance of frost. No need for pesticides to drive away insects. Your great-granddaddy farmer out in the sticks couldn’t imagine what Green Sense Farms can do in its 20,000-square-foot warehouse in Indiana on the eastern side of Lake Michigan and less than an hour from downtown Chicago. It’s called “vertical farming,” and you better get used to it, because it’s how you’re going to get much of your food in the future.
Ten varieties of what CEO Robert Colangelo calls micro-greens—baby bok choy, kale, arugula, watercress—as well as herbs and a variety of lettuces are grown hydroponically in four-by-eight-foot tubs in racks about 25 feet high. Computers monitor room temperature and how much light the plants get from LEDs and when to give the plants their nutrient-rich water.
If vertical farming sounds appropriate for the space age, that’s because it is. “Matter of fact, our advisor, Dr. Gene Giacomelli, who runs a controlled environment agricultural centre at the University of Arizona Tucson, is working on a NASA grant to build a lunar and a Mars module to grow [micro-greens] in space. So a lot of the technologies we develop are compatible with what’s being done up in space.”
The process of evapotranspiration helps things along. “Water comes into the atmosphere in the grow room through the leaves and the evaporation from the water in the [planting] tub,” explains Colangelo. “… Moisture in our system runs through a condenser, because we treat the room for temperature and humidity, and it pulls that humidity out so we can recycle that water, and they do the same up in space. I mean, especially in space, you want to conserve everything…”
The goal, he says, is to achieve zero waste. Even the air in the warehouse is purified so that growing conditions are highly sanitary. Colangelo claims his operation can get 10 to 30 times the production of a regular field farm. While that’s initially surprising, when you think about it, it’s not such a boast, given the geometry. As Colangelo points out, “we have 10, 12, 14 levels depending on the room. So you can multiply that yield by another 10, because we’re vertical.”
The operation does have its limits; don’t expect Green Sense to be harvesting canola any time soon. Colangelo says that would require re-engineering their whole system, and his company focuses on expansion for micro-greens across the north and midwest of the United States. But it’s also building 20 farms in China, and he expects to put operations soon in parts of Scandinavia, where most produce has to be imported.
“Everybody comes to us and they love our pink lights,” says Colangelo, “but what they sometimes miss is, where we are a real true market disrupter is… the way produce is distributed. We’re able to put these farms anywhere, so by putting them at the point of consumption, or at the point of distribution, we cut out food miles travelled, we improve efficiency, we reduce cost and improve quality and freshness.”
But not everyone is a quick sell on the idea. “I worry about the energy cost of inputs—light, water, nutrients,” Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University told Fast Company for a recent article. “I also worry about the nutrients in soil that aren’t reproduced in artificial systems. And then, there’s the taste issue. Soil influences taste.”
Colangelo maintains that his operation isn’t doing anything more than “what Mendel did, only we’re doing it in a much more sophisticated manner, and much more quickly…” He can see a future of biopharmaceuticals where producers can “grow plant matter that we can process into vaccines, into protein, into biomedical nutrients. I am so excited, we’re right at the forefront of just fascinating breakthroughs, and it’s all natural. It’s not manipulated.”
Copyright © 2016 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in the February 2016 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine