Top stories of the week March 15, 2013 : 2:34 PM

The Ecological Limits of Nitrogen-Intensive Agriculture

Since its creation in 1913, synthetic nitrogen has driven an explosion in global population by providing abundant fertilizer to support modern agriculture. Today, 120 million tons of nitrogen are produced each year and 80 percent of it is used for agricultural fertilizer to help feed the world’s seven billion people. Unfortunately, nitrogen-intensive agriculture has several detrimental environmental effects that are devastating entire ecosystems. In preparation for a future that promises a larger population and increasing per capita consumption, it is vital that humanity finds a way to increase agricultural yields in an environmentally sustainable fashion. Read more

Robosourcing: The Evolving Cyborg Workforce

In my new book, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, I describe the incredible ways in which new technologies are transforming the global economy. One prominent example is the way advanced automation technologies and robotics are producing a trend I call “robosourcing”—the shift of jobs from people to increasingly intelligent machines. Robosourcing is in the early stages of transforming the nature of work in the global economy. Currently, robots are augmenting human labor, rather than replacing it in many instances. Humans guide robots and advanced algorithms, easing the immediate concerns of large-scale unemployment created by advanced technologies. Will we continue to work alongside these machines or is it just a matter of time before they begin to replace far more jobs than they create? Read More

What’s on Your Mind? Humanity at the Early Stages of Mind Reading

For the first time, researchers have been able to use scans of the brain to determine the individual person about which a test subject is thinking. Scientists as Cornell University have use functional magnetic resonance imaging to link different brain activity to conceptions of varying individual identities within a person’s thoughts. This mind reading technology has potentially exciting applications in solving disease and understanding human thought processes, but also presents humanity with potentially significant new privacy and security challenges. Effective oversight and regulations are crucial to the responsible development of this powerful new technology. Read More

A “Parallel Universe” of life

If asked to identify the world’s largest ecosystem, what would you point to? The Amazon, the coral reefs of the South Pacific, or something smaller? New results published in the journal Science suggests that the world’s largest ecosystem may be hidden far beneath the ocean floor in oceanic crust. Instead of relying on sunlight to support itself, these vast microbial communities use complex chemical reactions to survive. These findings could present profound implications for the origins of life on Earth. Read More

The Silence of the Butterflies

Rising temperatures, worsening extreme weather and land-use changes in the past few years led to the largest drop in the population of migrating Monarch butterflies this past year. This mass migration of an iconic species would be a terrible loss, not only for the ecosystems it supports, but for all those who celebrate the beautiful complexity of our planet. Read More