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Can Innovation Save the Planet?

Natural resource depletion and environmental challenges threaten all life. Can technologies like the IoT help to reduce the human footprint on Planet Earth?

Technology is often seen as both a blessing and a curse. Many people believe that technological advances only accelerate our dwindling natural resources. How can science and technology be used to reduce consumption on a global scale? To answer these questions, John Blyler talked with Ramez Naam, a fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Naam is a computer scientist, former CEO of Apex nanotechnoloiges and Microsoft team leader. His latest book is titled; “The Infinite Resource – The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. –JB

Blyler: Technology is often seen as a mechanism that increases the depletion of resources, e.g., consumers consume more not less with technology. Can technology really be used to drive innovation and conserve resources?

Naam: Tech absolutely can increase our resource use and our rate of pollution. But used intelligently it can turn things around.  In the 70s we had massive smog. We were punching a hole in the ozone layer. We had rivers literally catching on fire. We had acid rain. Now the air and water in the US are the cleanest they’ve been in decades. We invented new ways to run air conditioners and refrigerators that are allowing the ozone layer to recover. And the average American uses less oil and less water each year than at any time since the 1960s.

Look ahead and we can see more opportunities. We have to beat climate change, and technology has to play a huge role in that. People want energy. Civilization needs energy. So we’re going to need to keep innovating in things like solar and wind and batteries – and more ways to be efficient in energy use – so we can phase out coal and oil and natural gas while keeping civilization moving.

All of that depends on progress in science and technology.

Blyler: What are some of the hard policy choices we need to make in order to win the race between innovation and resource depletion?

Naam: The technology innovation goes hand in hand with changes in policy. When we turned things around on the ozone layer, it wasn’t as simple as a sudden breakthrough in cooling technology.

The ozone layer is a commons. Everyone on the planet benefits from it. But no one owns it. No one was protecting it. No one was saying “you can’t do this thing that damages it.”

So the first thing we had to do was create a policy that phased out the chemicals that were damaging the ozone layer – CFCs.  Once that agreement – the Montreal Protocol – was signed, the incentive to create and sell and deploy new ways to cool food and homes and cars was huge. Businesses took care of the rest. Once their incentives were right.

Our air, our rivers, our oceans and our climate are all the same. The biggest policy change we need to make is to protect those commons. Once create rules that say ‘you can’t deplete this common resource; you can’t dump pollution into this resource we all depend on’ – then the market tends to find a way to fix the problem.

And very specifically, on climate change, that means some sort of rules that limit the dumping of carbon into the atmosphere, either by capping it, or by putting a price on it. Do that, and you’ll see a fast switch over to solar and wind and other forms of clean energy.

Blyler: The Internet of Things (IoT) is a key driver of innovation in today’s electronic semiconductor markets. Will IoT technologies and the proliferation of a connected sensor world help or hinder the cause of resource preservation?

Naam: The Internet of Things is a big fuzzy term. It means a lot of things to a lot of people. But under that umbrella there are at least two things that will make a big difference. One is getting more data and more control over our buildings, homes, cars, appliances, and all the other objects that fill our lives. A lot of our energy gets used heating and running all that stuff. A simple example is the Nest thermostat, which Google bought. It learns your patterns of how and when you come home and when you get up, and can heat and cool your house appropriately and save you money and energy. That can also reduce the amount of carbon we pump into the atmosphere. Down the road, data from that sort of device can be used to figure out the cheapest time to charge an electric car, or even to give energy back from the car to the grid, or to give the grid data about how and when to balance load across sites.

The second case I think we’ll see a huge impact of is environmental sensors. Sensors are getting cheaper, smaller, and less power-hungry all the time. That means we can start to use them in big ways to look for environmental toxins, to monitor the health of forests, to track endangered species and catch poachers.

Any way you cut it, the ability to get more data about our world and the objects in it is going to help us conserve.

Blyler: Let’s switch gears to talk about your works of science fiction. What do you see as the difference between fiction and non-fiction? Why does Sci-Fi apeal to you – and most technical professionals?

Naam: Science fiction fires the imagination. It frees of from the constraints of the current world we live in, and lets us imagine new ones. And that’s tremendously exciting.

The big difference for me is where I focus. In my non-fiction I tend to zoom out and tell the big picture story of how all the pieces fit together. In my science fiction, there’s a big picture backdrop, but I’m always telling the story through the lens of people who are being swept along in some way that powerfully affects them personally. The first rule in fiction is to never let the reader put the book down.

Blyler: Thank you.

Listen to Ramez Naam on May 7, 2014, in Portland, OR. Naam is a guest speaker at the next Linus Pauling lecture series. See for more information and tickets.

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