The age of fire

By James Dean, CEO

Thomas Newcomen was born in Dartmouth, Devon in 1663, and died in London in 1729. His obituary in the Monthly Chronicle noted that he was the 'sole inventor of that surprising machine for raising water by fire'. And so he was. But the word 'surprising' was certainly an understatement; 'world-transforming' would have been more accurate.

Little is known of the life of Thomas Newcomen. He was a Baptist lay preacher, a blacksmith and an engineer, though he was not educated as such. He was a practical, non-theoretical man, as such it was fitting that he had a very practical problem to solve; he needed to find a way to get more coal out of the ground.

Europe in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century was undergoing a period of great change. Vast population increases, the formation of nation-states and the ensuing wars led to ever more demand for raw materials, notably wood for building and for fuel. Forests were being depleted at a faster rate than they could regrow. Coal, which produces ten times more heat than wood, was the obvious replacement for fuel. Demand for coal led to the expansion of mining, but as they mined deeper they encountered the problem of flooding. For Britain, then rising to its ascendancy as a global superpower, this was an urgent problem.

Enter the engineer to transform, first, global strategy and then the planet itself.

What Newcomen did was build a steam-powered pump; the atmospheric engine. It burned coal and used the heat produced to boil water into steam, which was let into a cylinder with a movable piston. The piston rose and then cold water from a stream nearby was sprayed into the cylinder; the steam condensed, the pressure dropped and the piston moves back to its starting position, doing a substantial amount of work in the process and clearing the mines of water.

This was not the first steam engine, but it was the best so far and its descendants powered the railway engines of the nineteenth century. This little engine did nothing less than unleash the Industrial Revolution. This was the first time that any form of life on Earth had purposefully used the energy of sunlight to deliver accessible work and do so in a way that was profitable.

Newcomen’s invention should be heralded not just as the start of the Industrial Revolution but also as the beginning of the Anthropocene - the age of fire, the age in which humans acquired the power to transform the physical world on a massive scale.

As a species, humans inhabit just 0.5 per cent of our home planet, but influence and alter 100 per cent of it. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, there have been 150 years of rapid population growth and increasing demand for resources that, when used inappropriately, significantly damage the planet. Earth passed the threshold of human carrying capacity in the 1970s, and today we consume resources 1.7x faster than they can be regenerated. With a considerable amount of waste created in the process, it’s important to think about the future and how we can begin to grow more sustainably.

Growing sustainably is difficult, and the more I think about it the more I realise that a multi-disciplinary approach is required. Growth and sustainability transcend the fields of economics, science, technology, politics, culture, and engineering. Like it or not, the future will require cross-discipline collaboration to ensure the viability of planet Earth.

The adoption of Newcomen’s steam pump was driven primarily by market forces. Had there been no economic gain from using Newcomen’s steam engine, we may still be back in the world of the seventeenth century. The most important feature of Newcomen’s engine was its profitability. The mere idea of the engine would not have been enough to ensure its development. The great significance, for good or ill, was because it was cheaper as a source of work than human or horsepower.

The calling for us, therefore, is to design solutions for operating planet Earth that combine the best of our knowledge fields to allow us to grow sustainably.

It is my deeply held belief that this task is greater than us alone. To grow sustainably we must build a system of systems to meet the demands of each of our collective knowledge fields. The problem is that the real world is offline; it cannot connect with computers or other devices.

This poses a considerable hurdle when developing Artificial Intelligence for real-world use, something that can help us to live our lives more sustainably. And as global growth surges, it is important to acknowledge, understand and react to the strains which the industry can place on our environment – an impossible task without the help of computer-aided analysis. By 2040, the global population will grow by almost 2 billion people, requiring a combined $94 trillion of new infrastructure investment.

As an inherently physical industry, Infrastructure, like many of its peers, lacks the automation and transparency that has transformed online industries. This has left it as the only sector to see no productivity increase since the dawn of the digital age and contributor of a staggering 61% of total UK waste.

Allowing computers and AI to analyse the real world’s innumerable daily interactions may be the most important challenge ever faced by humanity in order for us to grow more sustainably.

Our long term vision is to build the third edition of the internet – an intelligent eco-system that translates the real world into a version understandable to AI. On this platform, all things and places will be machine-­readable, subject to the power of algorithms to allow us to analyse, and better understand the world in which we live.

This new platform will unleash the prosperity of thousands of more companies in its ecosystem and a million new ideas that were not possible before machines could read the world.