Combating the effects of climate change

Climate change has become one of the most intensely politicized issues over the last several decades. Even though the majority of climate scientists agree that human activity has accelerated the warming of our planet, experts agree that such warming will continue even in the best (and incredibly unrealistic) case scenario where the burning of fossil fuels completely ceased (due to a latency period between emission and peak effect). Are we doomed to endure the effects of human induced climate change, or is there a way to reverse and combat the effects of global warming?

Harvard physicist and solar geoengineer David Keith has proposed a simple solution to counteracting the effects of global warming that holds great promise – spray chemicals into the atmosphere to offset the effects of greenhouse gases. While the general idea of spraying chemicals into the atmosphere has been popular among conspiracy theorists for a long time (they maintain that “chemtrails” are distributed into the atmosphere for nefarious purposes such as mind-control), Keith’s proposal is grounded in solid science. The idea is to use jets to carefully release small amounts of sulfuric acid into the atmosphere which then combine with water vapor to form sulfate aerosols capable of reflecting a small portion of the Sun’s light back into space.

Chemtrails

This scheme is appealing for a number reasons. First, according to Keith, the effects of global warming could potentially be cut in half after only one year of such operations. Second, the cost of maintaining such a program is relatively modest – Keith estimates an annual cost of less than $1 billion for these operations in the middle of the century (for comparison, the US military budget for 2016 was $580 billion).

Before you get overly excited, it is worth mentioning that one of the biggest skeptics of Keith’s proposal is Keith himself. There is a lack of research concerning the large scale distribution of sulfur into the atmosphere, as well as a lack of experimental evidence supporting the feasibility of such operations. Clearly, much more work needs to be done for scientists to evaluate the effects of deliberate climate modification. Despite these hurdles, it always fascinates me how some of the most powerful ideas in science are also the simplest.

Artificial intellethics

Whoever knew that Jeremy Clarkson was capable of saying something thought-provoking? In one of the final episodes of BBC’s Top Gear, Clarkson had an insightful dialogue concerning the future of autonomous vehicles, specifically, how the notion of ethics would be programmed into self-driving vehicles.

Clarkson used the following example to drive home his point: imagine a situation where you’re in a self-driving car and are put into a situation where a crash is unavoidable. Specifically, there are 2 possible outcomes: either your car swerves out of the way of a number of pedestrians crossing the street and crashes into a wall (killing you but saving the pedestrians), or hits the pedestrians (killing them but saving you). Which decision should/will the car make? Crash into the wall, killing you but saving the pedestrians minimizing total loss of life? But who would buy such a vehicle knowing that it was programmed to make decisions that could ultimately kill you? Kill the pedestrians and save you? That’s awfully egotistical.

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How will the notion of ethics be programmed into self-driving vehicles? Image Credit: Iyad Rahwan

I did some digging online and found an excellent TED video by Patrick Lin summarizing the ethical dilemma surrounding autonomous vehicles. Driverless vehicles: -1. Go Jeremy!

UPDATE: Apparently even President Obama has been thinking about the ethical implications of self-driving cars. Check out this Wired interview where President Obama and Joi Ito discuss the future of AI.

Bullet-point culture

I recently had a chance to visit the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. where I saw one of the original copies of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451. Being a huge Bradbury fan, I read the description next to the book and discovered that Bradbury wanted to illustrate how “television reduces knowledge to factoids and destroys interest in reading.” Though this statement is somewhat hyperbolic, I understood Bradbury’s concern.

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Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 displayed in the Library of Congress in Washington DC

This reduction of knowledge to short, palatable snippets of information is especially prominent in the world of social media, where a sort of “bullet-point” culture has developed to accommodate similarly short attention spans. 13 foods that may cause birth defects? 27 celebrities who believe the world is flat? Quantum mechanics explained in 30 seconds? It’s not surprising that a recent study by Microsoft found evidence that the average attention span has significantly declined over the last 2 decades, and is now below that of a goldfish!

I would continue this post but I’m afraid I forgot what I was writing about…