Silicon Valley’s prowess in artificial intelligence is being harnessed by smart developers to help control floods, thwart hurricanes, and predict the weather. But what if they turned their attention toward a longer-term problem: to help us deal with a serious climate crisis.
As Dr. Sebastian Junger argued in Rolling Stone last summer, “a global crisis is taking place: An unprecedented assault on our planetary boundaries.” And although there are a few individual moves that average people can make to combat climate change, like quitting SUVs and farming more organic food, doing more big things, like substantially slashing carbon emissions, can be difficult. However, if they are carefully tied to existing technologies — like real-time AI — it seems like a rather plausible and worthwhile goal.
In fact, a virus like Ebola could be used to help save the planet. While it may be complicated to imagine how a virus resistant to existing vaccines could be a viable solution to a global warming crisis, as Eli Lake wrote in The Wall Street Journal last month, “Just about every imaginable technology could help us save the planet from looming catastrophe.”
This isn’t just sci-fi: AlphaGo is already mapping the best and most efficient route in real time. And, of course, it’s possible we’ve already found some of the most promising solutions to our most pressing problems.
Before the British put an end to the Crimean War, they secretly developed a noxious treatment that rapidly eradicated the disease; later, the world’s first large-scale gene-therapy experiment gave researchers the genetic code to transform them into plants. And while genetically modified mosquitoes aren’t nearly as radical as zapping them with AI, they might just be able to help, if they are harnessed appropriately. (Even Ray Kurzweil, the theoretical inventor of a Singularity-ready world of computing, thinks turning genes into living organisms — provided they are carefully balanced — is a promising solution.)
The most extreme weather events — Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, Super Typhoon Haiyan — have such a profound impact on life and commerce that many aspects of our response have already been perfected to some degree. But imagine an invisible safety net made out of Kevlar pants, which better resists floods, and boats which can remain afloat while drifting across rapids, and suddenly climate change becomes less of a personal crisis and more of a societal issue. That’s exactly what scientists at Queen Mary, University of London are working on.
If it’s used alongside other forms of mesh technology, connected technologies could provide more information about the condition of towns and neighborhoods, where low-income residents might lack mobile coverage and high winds could cause damage. In other cities, researchers at the design agency EYE have used cell tower imaging to help create wireless sensors attached to runways, so they are always available for emergency use. If city-level solutions are backed up by technological innovations, they might be able to successfully address the extreme weather and floods that are projected to occur because of climate change.
Time is running out for us to prevent climate change; yet, according to a report from the United Nations, we have many ways to help ourselves and our children. And while an electrified highway system could help increase our mileage and decrease our carbon footprint, there are also ways that might do us more good.
In terms of renewable energy, it’s critical to actively pursue projects that will transition us from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. For example, a smart grid of electric buses could help greatly decrease fuel emissions — while also helping children pay for the boarding fee. Increasingly, solar power is on the rise — and even those who are not keen on the idea of an electric car might find it useful to charge their other cars. And new research suggests there may be useful battery materials available in the Earth’s mantle that can do things that are far harder to get right with current lithium-ion batteries.