On Valentine’s Day, a rare burst of Arctic air spread across the central US and into Texas, dropping temperatures there into the single digits and nearly causing the state’s power grid to collapse. A state known for its abundant energy resources saw widespread failures of natural-gas and electricity systems that left more than four million Texans without power for days.
The proximate cause of Texas’s grid failure is now well understood. Frigid temperatures drove electricity demand to a new winter record that exceeded even the “extreme” demand scenario considered by the state’s power grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. Then dozens of natural-gas power plants and some wind turbines rapidly went offline, plunging the Texas grid into crisis. To prevent the whole grid from going down, ERCOT ordered utilities to initiate emergency blackouts and disconnect millions of customers.
Scientists are still working to determine whether the fast-warming Arctic is driving more frequent breakdowns of the “polar vortex,” which precipitated the Texas freeze. But we know that climate change is making extreme weather like heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and flooding more frequent and more severe. Any of these events can push our critical infrastructure to the breaking point, as happened in Texas. How can we prepare?
Climate resilience will require investment of up to $100 billion per year globally in our infrastructure and communities. But careful planning can help our scarce resources go further.
Looking back, Texas’s troubles offer several key lessons for how to make both critical infrastructure and vulnerable communities everywhere more resilient to climate extremes.
Assessing future risks
First, it’s worth noting that grid failure alone did not lead to the intense suffering and loss of life Texas residents faced.
Natural-gas wells and gathering lines also froze, cutting gas production and supply for the state’s pipelines and power plants in half just as demand soared. Elsewhere, water treatment plants lost power, and frozen pipes caused water distribution networks to lose pressure. Frozen roadways prevented residents from traveling safely.
The connections between these infrastructure systems keep the lights on and taps flowing in good times but can compound failure when things go bad.
Extreme weather also tends to cause multiple parts of critical systems to fail at the same time. These kinds of simultaneous failures are far more probable than one might think. If 10 power plants each have a 10% chance of failure but these probabilities are all independent, the chance that they all fail simultaneously is infinitesimal (0.00000001%).
A 1% chance that 10 power plants all fail at once is far more worrisome. So building resilient infrastructure means paying close attention to extreme events that can slam large parts of the system all at once, whether that’s a winter storm, wildfire, hurricane, or flood.
Lastly, the worst human impacts of any infrastructure failure don’t come from the outage itself. They come from exposure to freezing temperatures, a lack of clean water to drink, dwindling food supplies, and the fear that help may not come soon enough. So the magnitude of suffering is determined not only by the magnitude of the infrastructure failure but also by each community’s ability to weather the storm.
This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles
Jay Gierak at Ghost, which is based in Mountain View, California, is impressed by Wayve’s demonstrations and agrees with the company’s overall viewpoint. “The robotics approach is not the right way to do this,” says Gierak.
But he’s not sold on Wayve’s total commitment to deep learning. Instead of a single large model, Ghost trains many hundreds of smaller models, each with a specialism. It then hand codes simple rules that tell the self-driving system which models to use in which situations. (Ghost’s approach is similar to that taken by another AV2.0 firm, Autobrains, based in Israel. But Autobrains uses yet another layer of neural networks to learn the rules.)
According to Volkmar Uhlig, Ghost’s co-founder and CTO, splitting the AI into many smaller pieces, each with specific functions, makes it easier to establish that an autonomous vehicle is safe. “At some point, something will happen,” he says. “And a judge will ask you to point to the code that says: ‘If there’s a person in front of you, you have to brake.’ That piece of code needs to exist.” The code can still be learned, but in a large model like Wayve’s it would be hard to find, says Uhlig.
Still, the two companies are chasing complementary goals: Ghost wants to make consumer vehicles that can drive themselves on freeways; Wayve wants to be the first company to put driverless cars in 100 cities. Wayve is now working with UK grocery giants Asda and Ocado, collecting data from their urban delivery vehicles.
Yet, by many measures, both firms are far behind the market leaders. Cruise and Waymo have racked up hundreds of hours of driving without a human in their cars and already offer robotaxi services to the public in a small number of locations.
“I don’t want to diminish the scale of the challenge ahead of us,” says Hawke. “The AV industry teaches you humility.”
Russia’s battle to convince people to join its war is being waged on Telegram
Just minutes after Putin announced conscription, the administrators of the anti-Kremlin Rospartizan group announced its own “mobilization,” gearing up its supporters to bomb military enlistment officers and the Ministry of Defense with Molotov cocktails. “Ordinary Russians are invited to die for nothing in a foreign land,” they wrote. “Agitate, incite, spread the truth, but do not be the ones who legitimize the Russian government.”
The Rospartizan Telegram group—which has more than 28,000 subscribers—has posted photos and videos purporting to show early action against the military mobilization, including burned-out offices and broken windows at local government buildings.
Other Telegram channels are offering citizens opportunities for less direct, though far more self-interested, action—namely, how to flee the country even as the government has instituted a nationwide ban on selling plane tickets to men aged 18 to 65. Groups advising Russians on how to escape into neighboring countries sprung up almost as soon as Putin finished talking, and some groups already on the platform adjusted their message.
One group, which offers advice and tips on how to cross from Russia to Georgia, is rapidly closing in on 100,000 members. The group dates back to at least November 2020, according to previously pinned messages; since then, it has offered information for potential travelers about how to book spots on minibuses crossing the border and how to travel with pets.
After Putin’s declaration, the channel was co-opted by young men giving supposed firsthand accounts of crossing the border this week. Users are sharing their age, when and where they crossed the border, and what resistance they encountered from border guards, if any.
For those who haven’t decided to escape Russia, there are still other messages about how to duck army call-ups. Another channel, set up shortly after Putin’s conscription drive, crowdsources information about where police and other authorities in Moscow are signing up men of military age. It gained 52,000 subscribers in just two days, and they are keeping track of photos, videos, and maps showing where people are being handed conscription orders. The group is one of many: another Moscow-based Telegram channel doing the same thing has more than 115,000 subscribers. Half that audience joined in 18 hours overnight on September 22.
“You will not see many calls or advice on established media on how to avoid mobilization,” says Golovchenko. “You will see this on Telegram.”
The Kremlin is trying hard to gain supremacy on Telegram because of its current position as a rich seam of subterfuge for those opposed to Putin and his regime, Golovchenko adds. “What is at stake is the extent to which Telegram can amplify the idea that war is now part of Russia’s everyday life,” he says. “If Russians begin to realize their neighbors and friends and fathers are being killed en masse, that will be crucial.”
The Download: YouTube’s deadly crafts, and DeepMind’s new chatbot
Ann Reardon is probably the last person whose content you’d expect to be banned from YouTube. A former Australian youth worker and a mother of three, she’s been teaching millions of loyal subscribers how to bake since 2011. But the removal email was referring to a video that was not Reardon’s typical sugar-paste fare.
Since 2018, Reardon has used her platform to warn viewers about dangerous new “craft hacks” that are sweeping YouTube, tackling unsafe activities such as poaching eggs in a microwave, bleaching strawberries, and using a Coke can and a flame to pop popcorn.
The most serious is “fractal wood burning”, which involves shooting a high-voltage electrical current across dampened wood to burn a twisting, turning branch-like pattern in its surface. The practice has killed at least 33 people since 2016.
On this occasion, Reardon had been caught up in the inconsistent and messy moderation policies that have long plagued the platform and in doing so, exposed a failing in the system: How can a warning about harmful hacks be deemed dangerous when the hack videos themselves are not? Read the full story.
DeepMind’s new chatbot uses Google searches plus humans to give better answers
The news: The trick to making a good AI-powered chatbot might be to have humans tell it how to behave—and force the model to back up its claims using the internet, according to a new paper by Alphabet-owned AI lab DeepMind.
How it works: The chatbot, named Sparrow, is trained on DeepMind’s large language model Chinchilla. It’s designed to talk with humans and answer questions, using a live Google search or information to inform those answers. Based on how useful people find those answers, it’s then trained using a reinforcement learning algorithm, which learns by trial and error to achieve a specific objective. Read the full story.
Sign up for MIT Technology Review’s latest newsletters
MIT Technology Review is launching four new newsletters over the next few weeks. They’re all brilliant, engaging and will get you up to speed on the biggest topics, arguments and stories in technology today. Monday is The Algorithm (all about AI), Tuesday is China Report (China tech and policy), Wednesday is The Spark (clean energy and climate), and Thursday is The Checkup (health and biotech).