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Blue water thinking

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Blue water thinking


The names of many of the new companies and technologies created to combat the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems can evoke thrilling acts of derring-do on the high seas. WaveKiller uses compressed air systems to create “walls” of bubbles up to 50 feet thick, to guard against erosion and contain waste and oil spills. The Inceptor is a solar-powered barge deployed by the Dutch nongovernmental organization Ocean Cleanup along rivers in Southeast Asia to gather tons of waste before it hits the sea. Saildrone and WasteShark build and deploy fleets of autonomous drones to ply the oceans, gathering meteorological and marine data in the former case and trash in the latter. 

This sample of (often menacingly-named) technologies represents the increasingly diverse approaches to combat marine degradation—diversity which is desperately needed, as climate change wages war on the health of the world’s oceans on many different fronts. Carbon emission levels are warming air and water temperatures, which in turn are melting polar ice sheets so quickly that NASA estimates global sea levels will rise half a centimeter annually through 2100.

Addressing the challenges of warming, rising seas is essential for global sustainability on multiple fronts, but two are particularly stark. One is coastal habitats: as the world’s coastlines recede and are degraded, the homes and livelihoods of the one-in-three of the world’s people who live along its coasts will likely be irrevocably changed in this generation. The second is global food supplies. Overlooking the economic setback caused by the global covid-19 pandemic, exponential growth in global trade and protein consumption has pushed ocean-going transportation and commercial fishing to increasingly unsustainable levels.

Growing consumer demand and systemic failures to recycle and manage solid waste also add 8 million tons of plastics to the 150 million tons in our oceans today, according to the Ocean Conservancy. Plastic ocean waste is both an immediately visceral sustainability challenge—impacting a variety of industries from aquaculture to tourism—and a perniciously long-tailed threat to global ecology, as ocean tides break down plastic waste into microplastics that seep into food chains. This is one area where a broad portfolio of technology-enabled responses are being scaled up in response, from the aforementioned walls of bubbles and fleets of waste-gobbling drones, to the creation of new polymers that dissolve in seawater, to managing information and insight around maritime commercial activities through sensors and AI-enabled analytics. 

But much more—more technology deployment, more investment in innovation, more regulation and government oversight—is needed to effectively mitigate the rise of ocean plastics, and the myriad other threats to the world’s oceans.

In this context, MIT Technology Review Insights, the custom content division of MIT Technology Review, is embarking on a global research initiative to assess how new “blue economy” technologies and solutions are being deployed to clean up our oceans, reduce sea-related carbon emissions, and increase sustainability in maritime industries. This project will culminate with the publication of the “Blue Technology Barometer,” which will quantify where amongst the world’s coastal economies relevant technologies and solutions are being created and effectively deployed to address challenges ranging from reducing carbon emissions in container shipping and port logistics to combating illegal, unreported, and unregulated activities.

The Barometer will evaluate these efforts in over 50 coastal countries and territories globally, and rank them using an econometric model anchored in an extensive set of data and forecasts from dozens of sources. This model and research methodology will be based on the work MIT Technology Review Insights has done to create the Green Future Index—our foundational global ranking of decarbonization progress and potential—and will form an important complement to our expanding portfolio of holistic research projects that examine the role technology plays in advancing sustainable development.

The Barometer will also examine national and transnational efforts to deploy technologies, regulation, and commercial solutions that both tackle climate change and are deployed to roll back the damage caused to marine environments and the cryosphere. Through assessing this intersectionality of innovative thinking and action, the Barometer aims to highlight which coastal economies are working most effectively to ensure a blue tomorrow.

This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush


The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan


Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI


A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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