We as a society have never discussed our mental struggles as candidly before, and that’s a good thing. It’s not just more discussion; we are definitely freaking out. Or at least slightly more anxious on average. Some of it is undoubtedly the result of changes in our information consumption, but to be honest, there are genuine concerns with the state of the world. We may be about to screw ourselves with climate change, democracy around the globe is teetering, and truth barely even exists as a concept anymore. At my best, I find it exhilarating to live in times where we stand on a knife’s edge. At my not as good, I drink more caffeine to make the anxiety indistinguishable.
But there is hope. World leaders have gotten to experience making hard decisions through covid, and we still can and must save our environment. The light has been shone on the forces of fascism and hate with democracy and love holding fast, at least for a while. While it’s important to appreciate the positives in the present, the future can act as an inspiration and a source of hope. Among all our future stories, there aren’t many that depict a utopia as appealing as Star Trek. Despite all the Gossip Girl level drama that unfolds on the screen, the stories define a world built on great values.
Set in the distant future, the Star Trek universe includes a large variety of outlandish technologies; at least they must’ve seemed so at the time of inception. While some of the technologies like the transporters used to beam humans around aren’t possible given our current understanding of the universe, we’ve already achieved many on-screen technological developments. Today’s iPads may as are inspired by the PADDs (Personal Access Display Devices) used by Starfleet officers, and advances in virtual reality look to rival the Holodeck “soon”. AI has progressed to make some Star Trek use cases, such as the Universal Translator, possible. However, androids like Lieutenant Commander Data remain quite far off. We’ve even made progress on Star Trek’s most impressive technology, the Warp Drive. The Alcubierre drive theorised in 1994 represents a paradigm shift as it elevated us from the stage of “this is definitely impossible” to the “maybe potentially theoretically possible”.
While futuristic technology is exciting, it’s the ideology empowered by the really inspiring technology. The Federation represents a genuinely equal and meritocratic society made possible by its deep appreciation for diversity. By reaching post-scarcity, humanity can let its better nature flourish and focus on the search for knowledge, altruism and the exploration of deep space. While we are all a far cry away from this utopian equality, the Nordic countries have characteristically been at the forefront of social innovation in its direction. Beyond social policy, the Nordic countries have also become a hotbed of deep technological innovation, giving birth to companies attempting some really wild things. Let’s take a look at some of these companies boldly going where no one has gone before!
The Finnish food-tech startup founded in 2017 has drawn a lot of hype, but for a good reason. I’d argue that for all its praise, its potential for impact is still underestimated. Soleil, the protein Solar Foods produces from CO2, water and electricity through a macrobiotic process, heralds a delinking of food production from agriculture. This means that food production can occur in such uninhabitable places as the Sahara, the Arctic and even space. In fact, Solar Foods have already established a partnership with the European Space Agency regarding food production in space. Star Trek fans have been eager to compare the technology to the Replicators found onboard Starfleet ships that synthesise organic and inorganic materials out of thin air.
However, it’s on Earth that technology has an opportunity to make its most significant mark. According to Solar Foods, the production of Solein both requires less water and releases less co2 in the orders of magnitudes than the production of plant-based or animal proteins. Switching a significant part of our food consumption to non-agricultural foods like Solein would positively impact the environment. Solar Foods is hoping to bring the cost of Solein down to 5€ / kg as they expand their production in 2023. As the main cost is renewable electricity and the price of solar is estimated to fall by multiple factors over the coming decades, it’s reasonable to assume that it could become the cheapest and most readily available source of protein in the world.
Let’s imagine a world where the post-agricultural revolution is in full swing and non-agricultural nutrition represents most of our diet; this means that giant swaths of land will become available for other purposes. In Europe alone, 39% of all land is used for farming. We should rightly let nature reclaim much of it, but combined with other trends likely to ramp up in the 21st century, the influx of available land might have some exciting effects. Remote work that enables people to move away from city centres is definitely here to stay. The development of mobile house 3D printers is expected to reduce the cost of building homes by drastic amounts.
While this is all conjecture, the simple notion of creating food from Finnish microbiomes might actually lead to a world where we have an abundance of cheap and environmentally friendly food as well as an abundance of affordable housing.
Is it just me, or is this starting to sound like post-scarcity?
ATLANT 3D Nanosystems
If Solar Foods are solving the Replicators’ nutritional outputs, Copenhagen based ATLANT 3D Nanosystems are working on the rest with their state-of-the-art atomic layer 3D printing technology. While the Replicators conjure stuff up by arranging sub-atomic particles, we’re now getting quite close.
Their atomic printer is being marketed as the ATLANT3D Nanofabricator as a nod to the Radio Times journalist James Burke. Oh boy, are we in for a treat if it eventually lives up to his visions for nanofabrication and their transformative effect on life. ATLANT 3D’s vision is to democratise access to advanced technologies. In the same vein, James envisioned a world where nanofabrication could produce anything you want from basic inputs virtually for free. Every household would have one and be in effect self sustained, eliminating any need for infrastructure or even governments.
This vision is quite clearly some ways off, but if 3D printing continues progressing on its current trajectory, we just might be headed there.
With humanity firmly on our way to post-scarcity, it’s time to start taking an earnest look at space. Percy Roc spun out of the Ångström lab at Uppsala University in 2018 and went through the European Space Agency’s Swedish incubation program. Their high-power microwave energy solutions are used to cure carbon fibre composites for the aerospace and automotive industries resulting in improved quality, higher productivity and much greater energy efficiency than current technologies.
Improvements in manufacturing are certainly significant, but that’s hardly enough to land a spot on this prized list. When fully developed, Percy Roc intends to use microwave technology to crush rocks for mining purposes. In 2018 the first microwave enabled mining project in the world went live at a copper mining pilot site achieving both a 30% reduction in energy consumption as well as drastically reducing the amount of waste ore, opening up the possibility of extracting more of Earth’s copper reserves due to increased efficiency. This is a huge deal as up to 5% of the world’s entire electricity production is currently being used in mining processing plants. This project started back in 2009, but back in 2005, a masters student at McGill University published his thesis on the potential for using microwaves to assist with rock breaking in space mining applications. He subsequently turned his focus to earth-based mining, but if we are serious about space colonisation, we need to master space mining. Perhaps Percy Roc will have an important part to play in that endeavour.
Remember when we said that the transporters from Star Trek are impossible? If we ignore the latest movie series introducing faster than light transportation, they’re actually also quite unnecessary. Why transport somewhere when we’re already on the cusp of complete telepresence in the 21st century, possibly even as soon as next year when the four years $10 million XPrize Avatar challenge finishes. Last April, XPrize announced its 38 semi-finalist teams, among which was Augnition from Helsinki. They’ve been in stealth mode, quietly working on the future of physical augmentations and human-machine interaction while providing little to no information on their barebones website or LinkedIn page. The only person publicly connected to the project is the young Finnish innovator Perttu Yli-Opas who also cofounded the space tech company Aurora Propulsion Systems during his bachelor studies three years ago. However, as the teams that advance to the finals this fall will receive a part of the prize money from the challenge, we might be about to see them ramp up their presence.
The XPrize competition is not the first major public push towards Avatar systems. The Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov founded the 2045 Initiative in 2011, intending to escape death by 2045 by transferring the human brain into avatar systems. The initiative is an interesting take on an effectively single issue venture fund/think tank. Still, given the lack of development in the last decade, the initiative is far off in its predictions of progress, and their future milestones seem very farfetched.
Whether or not avatar systems will eventually save humanity from death through the uploading of consciousnesses, non-invasive versions of the technology will likely play an important role in human society in the coming centuries. What’s definitely likely is that the Nordics have an up and coming tech superstar in Helsinki.
There are a significant number of Nordic deep tech startups shaping tomorrow’s opportunities. But who will step up to meet them? To help humanity emulate the Vulcan ideal of infinite diversity, we look to Alva Labs from Sweden. Combining state-of-the-art psychometrics with data science offers companies a unique candidate assessment platform to ensure an automatic and meritocratic hiring process.
Embracing diversity in a hiring process is not some politically correct Kumbaya exercise. As outlined in the HBR back in 2016, diverse teams vastly outperform homogenous teams on intellectual tasks. One study concluded that among financially literate equals, members of diverse teams were 58% more likely to price stocks correctly compared to their counterparts from homogenous teams. Diversity may change the way teams digest information, and it keeps them sharper through greater scrutiny. They stay more objective, recall facts better and more carefully, likely resulting in them outperforming homogenous teams when it comes to decision making.
It sounds like just about every Star Trek crew I’ve seen: To the point and smart as heck.