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Can technology stop the world from warming (and my ice-cream from melting)?

AAAS, Boston –

Whether technology can cure the world’s ills has been a hot topic at this year’s AAAS conference.

I joined Alok Jah and James Randerson as a guest commentator on the Guardian’s weekly science podcast yesterday to discuss, among other highlights from the AAAS meeting, whether we can rely on technology as our sole solution to climate change.

We recorded in Toscanini’s ice-cream café in Cambridge, MA, an institution as famous for its clientele (nobel and ignoble laureates and the Dalai Lama), as much as for it’s delectable ice-cream….the wort variety comes highly recommended!

The impetus for our technology discussion was the release of a report at AAAS by a specialist panel convened to predict the great engineering challenges that humanity will face in the 21st century.

A select group of big names and big thinkers, the blue ribbon panel included Larry Page, co-founder of Google, Craig Venter, entrepreneur, geneticist and billionaire, Lord Broers, a former president of the Royal Academy of Engineering and Ray Kurzweil, futurologist, software engineer and alleged recipient of some 14 honorary doctorates.

Kurzweil sees no end to the possibilities of what technology can achieve this century – from creating artificial intelligence to match the human intellect to reversing the signs of aging. His basis for these assertions is the rate at which technology is advancing – a doubling every two decades. Though this may sound modest, its cumulative effect is worth contemplating – that’s 32 times more technical progress over the next 50 years than there has been in the past half-century!

The views of the panel are positively circumspect in comparison to Kurzweil’s, though are none-the-less fascinating.

The report named solving the energy crisis by harnessing power from the sun as the number one priority for engineering in the coming century. Capturing the energy, converting it to a useful form and storing it all remain formidable challenges, however.

As reported by Mark Henderson in The Times, Kurzweil, who says that we can source all of the energy needs from the sun eventually, is particularly optimistic on this front:

“We only need to capture one part in 10,000 of the sunlight that falls on the Earth to meet 100 per cent of our energy needs”.

But speaking at one of the last AAAS panel sessions here today, Paul Wilkinson of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said that technology would be critical but insufficient in solving the looming threat of worsening climate change.

This is essentially the same point that I made yesterday while savouring my ice-cream….the only down-side of which was that it melted very quickly (no doubt owing to the heating required in cold Boston February weather)…now I wonder if the technological revolution can also solve that.

Olive Heffernan


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