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Tomorrow’s world

Is doomsday nearer than we think?

Will Smith in I Am Legend. Warner Bros. Pictures.

In 1972, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Jerry Foster went on American television to declare that by “around 2040 to 2050, civilised life as we know it on this planet will cease to exist”. His team had used early computer modelling, based on data including population growth, industrial output and pollution, to predict that society would collapse by the middle of the 21st century.

The study was “widely derided at the time”, says Nafeez Ahmed at Vice. But a senior director at accountants KPMG has rerun the numbers and found that we’re right on track. Using an updated version of the simulation, named World3, Gaya Herrington predicts economic growth halting in a decade and society starting to fall apart a decade after that. Technological progress and investment in public services could avert it, “but we really have only the next decade to change course”.

A planet hungry for chips

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The microchip factory in Malta, near Albany, New York, runs 24 hours a day, says Jeanne Whalen in The Washington Post, cranking out half a million silicon wafers every year. The wafers are then cut up into billions of tiny transistors that form the brains inside an ever-growing array of electronics, from toothbrushes to cars, though just 13% of the world’s chips come from the US (three-quarters are made in Asia). Workers wear elaborate protective gear – two layers of booties, two pairs of gloves, a hairnet, a hood and a jumpsuit – known as “bunny suits”, to prevent stray fluff or hair from affecting the delicate machinery. “A speck of dust can ruin the painstaking process.”

The factory is alive with “the static hum of $10 billion worth of machinery”. The vast expense and the complexity of building new semiconductor factories mean global demand is far outstripping supply, forcing car makers and other chip users to pause production at enormous cost. The most important bits of kit are “lithography machines”, which print intricate designs onto the chips. The Malta plant has 20 of them, at $100 million a pop. Last summer one of them went wrong. Normally the Dutch manufacturer, ASML, would dispatch an engineer to fix it, but Covid made that impossible. So, instead, a factory technician wearing an augmented reality headset connected with ASML’s engineers so they could guide his hand remotely.

The robots are coming

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Researchers at the National University of Singapore have developed the world’s first “robotic skin” to make prosthetic limbs more like human ones and improve their function. With nerve endings of electrodes connected to a computer and a spongy polymer exterior infused with microscopic metal particles, the technology is capable of self-healing and sensing nearby objects. When pressure is applied, the metal particles draw closer, changing their electrical properties. These changes are detected by the electrodes, which prompts the computer to dictate the actions of the limb in question.