Is there training at NASA or elsewhere for this kind of stuff?
There are analogues of the space station and the modules to prepare you for how to handle things. You go see how you’re going to do the so-called mundane things you’ll be doing in space. And when it comes to figuring out how you’ll do these things in space, there’s the parabolic flights you go on, where you experience weightlessness for 25 seconds at a time.
But we never really take weightlessness training to do other things, like cleaning your teeth. So you really have to figure that out, make that connection from your zero-G training to the actual working and living in space. And I think most people make that transition fairly quickly. People will have to figure these things out. I think once you visualize the environment you’re going into and have had some zero-G training, then you have this thought exercise on how you do this in microgravity. And I think those are the people that really get it quickly, because you’ve already kind of done it from visualization.
One of the reasons we’re talking about this is that Tide just announced a new partnership with NASA to develop and test out detergent that could be used to clean items in water-scarce environments. Astronauts might finally be able to do laundry in space. This seems like small stuff, but why does it matter to astronauts and to future space travel?
We throw away our clothes in space, because we don’t clean them. When we’re finally going on future lunar or Martian missions, or one day when we’re even further out, we won’t be able to throw anything away. We’ll have to reuse everything. And I think that’s critical for exploration. Washing clothes would seem mundane, but it’s life. It’s a must-have for the future of exploration. Or we’re not going to have enough clothes to exercise and work out in and do our jobs.
There are a ton of new opportunities coming up for civilians to go into space. How do you anticipate astronaut training evolving and transforming to accommodate these kinds of people? What could new technologies like VR do?
There’s a company called Star Harbor Space Academy that’s looking to have a Natural Buoyancy Laboratory for training people for space, along with zero-G flights in an airplane, robotics, and even VR. I mean, what if you had a VR suit that gave you the tactile sensations, the smell, the temperature—all the senses that you have to be excited by what you’re perceiving as the experience of space? Like if you’re doing a spacewalk, and you’re going out in this suit, you open the door, and you’re feeling the sun is there. That’s 250 degrees Fahrenheit, right? This immersive experience—that would be a great tool for helping people train.
Is there any major advice you have for the civilians who are going to be going on these missions?
Self-care before group care: you take care of your stuff first, before you try to go help anyone else. Because what’s going to happen is you’ve got to go work the robotic arm while someone’s on the end of it, or tasks like that. But now suddenly you’re worried about “Hey, did I put my shirts back in here? Did I get the right thing that I need? Did I do all my stuff?” So take care of your own personal space, your gear, your hygiene, all of that stuff as quickly as you can. And then if you can help someone, then do it then.
The other thing is visualization. I would close my eyes and say, “Okay, I’m transitioning from the space shuttle through the hatch through the space station. I’m rotating around 180 degrees …” It’s like what we did when I was playing football: we would go through this whole paper exercise of me running the route, catching the ball, making the touchdown. And you can do the same thing in space for something like working the robotic arm: “I am moving the translational hand controller out, and the payload is moving this way I’m moving …” And I think that’s something that I think civilians that are coming up should start doing.
Climate tech is back—and this time, it can’t afford to fail
Boston Metal’s strategy is to try to make the transition as digestible as possible for steelmakers. “We won’t own and operate steel plants,” says Adam Rauwerdink, who heads business development at the company. Instead, it plans to license the technology for electrochemical units that are designed to be a simple drop-in replacement for blast furnaces; the liquid iron that flows out of the electrochemical cells can be handled just as if it were coming out of a blast furnace, with the same equipment.
Working with industrial investors including ArcelorMittal, says Rauwerdink, allows the startup to learn “how to integrate our technology into their plants—how to handle the raw materials coming in, the metal products coming out of our systems, and how to integrate downstream into their established processes.”
The startup’s headquarters in a business park about 15 miles outside Boston is far from any steel manufacturing, but these days it’s drawing frequent visitors from the industry. There, the startup’s pilot-scale electrochemical unit, the size of a large furnace, is intentionally designed to be familiar to those potential customers. If you ignore the hordes of electrical cables running in and out of it, and the boxes of electric equipment surrounding it, it’s easy to forget that the unit is not just another part of the standard steelmaking process. And that’s exactly what Boston Metal is hoping for.
The company expects to have an industrial-scale unit ready for use by 2025 or 2026. The deadline is key, because Boston Metal is counting on commitments that many large steelmakers have made to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050. Given that the life of an average blast furnace is around 20 years, that means having the technology ready to license before 2030, as steelmakers plan their long-term capital expenditures. But even now, says Rauwerdink, demand is growing for green steel, especially in Europe, where it’s selling for a few hundred dollars a metric ton more than the conventional product.
It’s that kind of blossoming market for clean technologies that many of today’s startups are depending on. The recent corporate commitments to decarbonize, and the IRA and other federal spending initiatives, are creating significant demand in markets “that previously didn’t exist,” says Michael Kearney, a partner at Engine Ventures.
One wild card, however, will be just how aggressively and faithfully corporations pursue ways to transform their core businesses and to meet their publicly stated goals. Funding a small pilot-scale project, says Kearney, “looks more like greenwashing if you have no intention of scaling those projects.” Watching which companies move from pilot plants to full-scale commercial facilities will tell you “who’s really serious,” he says. Putting aside the fears of greenwashing, Kearney says it’s essential to engage these large corporations in the transition to cleaner technologies.
Susan Schofer, a partner at the venture firm SOSV, has some advice for those VCs and startups reluctant to work with existing companies in traditionally heavily polluting industries: Get over it. “We need to partner with them. These incumbents have important knowledge that we all need to get in order to effect change. So there needs to be healthy respect on both sides,” she says. Too often, she says, there is “an attitude that we don’t want to do that because it’s helping an incumbent industry.” But the reality, she says, is that finding ways for such industries to save energy or use cleaner technologies “can make the biggest difference in the near term.”
It’s tempting to dismiss the history of cleantech 1.0. It was more than a decade ago, and there’s a new generation of startups and investors. Far more money is around today, along with a broader range of financing options. Surely we’re savvier these days.
Making an image with generative AI uses as much energy as charging your phone
“If you’re doing a specific application, like searching through email … do you really need these big models that are capable of anything? I would say no,” Luccioni says.
The energy consumption associated with using AI tools has been a missing piece in understanding their true carbon footprint, says Jesse Dodge, a research scientist at the Allen Institute for AI, who was not part of the study.
Comparing the carbon emissions from newer, larger generative models and older AI models is also important, Dodge adds. “It highlights this idea that the new wave of AI systems are much more carbon intensive than what we had even two or five years ago,” he says.
Google once estimated that an average online search used 0.3 watt-hours of electricity, equivalent to driving 0.0003 miles in a car. Today, that number is likely much higher, because Google has integrated generative AI models into its search, says Vijay Gadepally, a research scientist at the MIT Lincoln lab, who did not participate in the research.
Not only did the researchers find emissions for each task to be much higher than they expected, but they discovered that the day-to-day emissions associated with using AI far exceeded the emissions from training large models. Luccioni tested different versions of Hugging Face’s multilingual AI model BLOOM to see how many uses would be needed to overtake training costs. It took over 590 million uses to reach the carbon cost of training its biggest model. For very popular models, such as ChatGPT, it could take just a couple of weeks for such a model’s usage emissions to exceed its training emissions, Luccioni says.
This is because large AI models get trained just once, but then they can be used billions of times. According to some estimates, popular models such as ChatGPT have up to 10 million users a day, many of whom prompt the model more than once.
Studies like these make the energy consumption and emissions related to AI more tangible and help raise awareness that there is a carbon footprint associated with using AI, says Gadepally, adding, “I would love it if this became something that consumers started to ask about.”
Dodge says he hopes studies like this will help us to hold companies more accountable about their energy usage and emissions.
“The responsibility here lies with a company that is creating the models and is earning a profit off of them,” he says.
The first CRISPR cure might kickstart the next big patent battle
And really, what’s the point of such a hard-won triumph unless it’s to enforce your rights? “Honestly, this train has been coming down the track since at least 2014, if not earlier. We’re at the collision point. I struggle to imagine there’s going to be a diversion,” says Sherkow. “Brace for impact.”
The Broad Institute didn’t answer any of my questions, and a spokesperson for MIT didn’t even reply to my email. That’s not a surprise. Private universities can be exceedingly obtuse when it comes to acknowledging their commercial activities. They are supposed to be centers of free inquiry and humanitarian intentions, so if employees get rich from biotechnology—and they do—they try to do it discreetly.
There are also strong reasons not to sue. Suing could make a nonprofit like the Broad Institute look bad. Really bad. That’s because it could get in the way of cures.
“It seems unlikely and undesirable, [as] legal challenges at this late date would delay saving patients,” says George Church, a Harvard professor and one of the original scientific founders of Editas, though he’s no longer closely involved with the company.
If a patent infringement lawsuit does get filed, it will happen sometime after Vertex notifies regulators it’s starting to sell the treatment. “That’s the starting gun,” says Sherkow. “There are no hypothetical lawsuits in the patent system, so one must wait until it’s sufficiently clear that an act of infringement is about to occur.”
How much money is at stake? It remains unclear what the demand for the Vertex treatment will be, but it could eventually prove a blockbuster. There are about 20,000 people with severe sickle-cell in the US who might benefit. And assuming a price of $3 million (my educated guess), that’s a total potential market of around $60 billion. A patent holder could potentially demand 10% of the take, or more.
Vertex can certainly defend itself. It’s a big, rich company, and through its partnership with the Swiss firm CRISPR Therapeutics, a biotech co-founded by Charpentier, Vertex has access to the competing set of intellectual-property claims—including those of UC Berkeley, which (though bested by Broad in the US) hold force in Europe and could be used to throw up a thicket of counterarguments.
Vertex could also choose to pay royalties. To do that, it would have to approach Editas, the biotech cofounded by Zhang and Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which previously bought exclusive rights to the Broad patents on CRISPR in the arena of human treatments, including sickle-cell therapies.