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Can Computers Give Us the Wisdom We Need to Live Sustainably?

RP Siegel | Friday July 13th, 2012 | 0 Comments

Extracting materials from beneath the ground that will eventually be depleted could certainly be the very definition of an unsustainable activity, especially considering the inevitable collateral damage that occurs.  When those materials are burned as fuel, giving off greenhouse gases that overwhelm our planetary system’s ability to absorb them, thereby putting our entire planet’s thermal equilibrium at risk in the process, it could easily stand as an illustration of the folly of our time.

You might find the word folly a bit harsh. I don’t mean to suggest that the men and women we revere as the great leaders and thinkers that led us to where we are today, were, in fact, fools. But, looking at how some of those great ideas and inventions have been put to use, let’s just say that if I had a better word that represents the opposite of wisdom, I would be glad to use it.

Today’s story is about computers, or one computer in particular: IBM’s now famous Watson, the computer that won Jeopardy. It’s about the application of Watson’s vast capability to make things like coal mining less destructive. Watson performs so fast, it can rival the human mind. Its arrival on the scene has heralded a new era of cognitive systems, relegating those ancient tabulating and programmable computer systems to the dustbins of history. Cognitive systems are actually modeled on the human brain, specifically, on the ability to usefully distill large amounts of seemingly unrelated information in a fraction of a second.

A recent academic case competition at the University of Rochester, challenged students to come up with creative ways to use the capability of a computer like Watson, to address some of the major problems of our time. This is important training, since learning to use a tool of this power and complexity involves a bit of both art, science, and perhaps, even, a bit of wisdom.

The coal mining application actually took second place. Entitled, ‘Mining for Insights, Literally,’ it proposed using the computer’s decision-making toolset to assist energy companies in incorporating regulatory, safety, and environmental considerations along with their more traditional P&L concerns. One might say it gives new meaning to the term, data mining. As to whether the companies would proceed to make their ultimate decisions based on this analysis, rather than simply looking at short term profitability is another matter entirely. That, I suppose, is where the wisdom comes in.

One place where Watson is already being applied today is in health care. In a partnership with Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Watson is being used to generate ‘evidence-based decisions’ to improve cancer diagnosis. According to Dr. Larry Norton, Deputy Physician-in-Chief, “we have the opportunity now, to go past intelligence into what I would call wisdom. That wisdom is there in the medical records… in the way that really experienced doctors make decisions.” What Watson will do, he says, is to act as a wise guide at the side of inexperienced doctors. “This is beyond evolutionary, this is revolutionary.”

But can we really apply this same intelligence towards a more sustainable future? Unlike, diseases, which occur over and over again, involving a relatively narrow field of knowledge, plotting a sustainable future requires stepping into uncharted territory, making choices based on the broadest and farthest reaching context that can possibly be imagined. It involves the ability and discipline to balance short term requirements and long term realities in ways that clearly have not been done in a long time.

A great first step would be to thoroughly embed an understanding of the planetary limits, those existential cliffs towards which we are currently hurtling, with the understanding that changing behavior in ways that head us towards those same cliffs, only more slowly, is simply not good enough for the long run. Planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity, like the ones identified by Johan Rockstrom and published in Nature could serve as a guide.

Our wise computer would keep these boundaries in mind while evaluating alternatives, planning for the future while ensuring a reasonable quality of life in the present as well. It would do well to utilize a model informed by the ones used by Donella Meadows in her classic study, Limits to Growth, first published in 1971, which evaluated mankind’s trajectory into the future, based on a series of choices, looking at inputs such as economics, population models, feedback loops and relationships between things like: agricultural inputs to land yield, human health and fertility, food consumption and longevity, industrial output and use of non-renewable resources, like mining, which takes us back to where we started.

This wise computer’s output could be used to inform everything from government policy to corporate marketing and R&D strategies in every sector that impinges on our world.

Writing this, I’m reminded of the lyric to Donald Fagen’s 1982 song IGY (International Geophysical Year), which, looking optimistically towards a limitless technological future, spoke of: ‘a just machine to make big decisions, programmed by fellows with compassion and vision.’ The song goes on to point out that, we’ll all ‘be clean when their work is done, eternally free,’ and also, ‘eternally young…’

I think those fellows with compassion and vision are still out there, though I expect that, in setting forth the guidelines for humanity’s future, they might have to contend with those other fellows with their big checkbooks and their friends in high places.

[Image credit: PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE: Flickr Creative Commons]

 

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

 


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