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.
The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics
The Frost nails its uncanny, disconcerting vibe in its first few shots. Vast icy mountains, a makeshift camp of military-style tents, a group of people huddled around a fire, barking dogs. It’s familiar stuff, yet weird enough to plant a growing seed of dread. There’s something wrong here.
Welcome to the unsettling world of AI moviemaking. The Frost is a 12-minute movie from Detroit-based video creation company Waymark in which every shot is generated by an image-making AI. It’s one of the most impressive—and bizarre—examples yet of this strange new genre. Read the full story, and take an exclusive look at the movie.
—Will Douglas Heaven
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Microplastics are pretty much everywhere you look. These tiny pieces of plastic pollution, less than five millimeters across, have been found in human blood, breast milk, and placentas. They’re even in our drinking water and the air we breathe.
Given their ubiquity, it’s worth considering what we know about microplastics. What are they doing to us?
The short answer is: we don’t really know. But scientists have begun to build a picture of their potential effects from early studies in animals and clumps of cells, and new research suggests that they could affect not only the health of our body tissues, but our immune systems more generally. Read the full story.
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Here, bits of plastic can end up collecting various types of bacteria, which cling to their surfaces. Seabirds that ingest them not only end up with a stomach full of plastic—which can end up starving them—but also get introduced to types of bacteria that they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. It seems to disturb their gut microbiomes.
There are similar concerns for humans. These tiny bits of plastic, floating and flying all over the world, could act as a “Trojan horse,” introducing harmful drug-resistant bacteria and their genes, as some researchers put it.
It’s a deeply unsettling thought. As research plows on, hopefully we’ll learn not only what microplastics are doing to us, but how we might tackle the problem.
Read more from Tech Review’s archive
It is too simplistic to say we should ban all plastic. But we could do with revolutionizing the way we recycle it, as my colleague Casey Crownhart pointed out in an article published last year.
We can use sewage to track the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as I wrote in a previous edition of the Checkup. At this point, we need all the help we can get …
… which is partly why scientists are also exploring the possibility of using tiny viruses to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections. Phages were discovered around 100 years ago and are due a comeback!
Our immune systems are incredibly complicated. And sex matters: there are important differences between the immune systems of men and women, as Sandeep Ravindran wrote in this feature, which ran in our magazine issue on gender.
Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.
Fast and cheap
Artists are often the first to experiment with new technology. But the immediate future of generative video is being shaped by the advertising industry. Waymark made The Frost to explore how generative AI could be built into its products. The company makes video creation tools for businesses looking for a fast and cheap way to make commercials. Waymark is one of several startups, alongside firms such as Softcube and Vedia AI, that offer bespoke video ads for clients with just a few clicks.
Waymark’s current tech, launched at the start of the year, pulls together several different AI techniques, including large language models, image recognition, and speech synthesis, to generate a video ad on the fly. Waymark also drew on its large data set of non-AI-generated commercials created for previous customers. “We have hundreds of thousands of videos,” says CEO Alex Persky-Stern. “We’ve pulled the best of those and trained it on what a good video looks like.”
To use Waymark’s tool, which it offers as part of a tiered subscription service starting at $25 a month, users supply the web address or social media accounts for their business, and it goes off and gathers all the text and images it can find. It then uses that data to generate a commercial, using OpenAI’s GPT-3 to write a script that is read aloud by a synthesized voice over selected images that highlight the business. A slick minute-long commercial can be generated in seconds. Users can edit the result if they wish, tweaking the script, editing images, choosing a different voice, and so on. Waymark says that more than 100,000 people have used its tool so far.
The trouble is that not every business has a website or images to draw from, says Parker. “An accountant or a therapist might have no assets at all,” he says.
Waymark’s next idea is to use generative AI to create images and video for businesses that don’t yet have any—or don’t want to use the ones they have. “That’s the thrust behind making The Frost,” says Parker. “Create a world, a vibe.”
The Frost has a vibe, for sure. But it is also janky. “It’s not a perfect medium yet by any means,” says Rubin. “It was a bit of a struggle to get certain things from DALL-E, like emotional responses in faces. But at other times, it delighted us. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic happening before our eyes.’”
This hit-and-miss process will improve as the technology gets better. DALL-E 2, which Waymark used to make The Frost, was released just a year ago. Video generation tools that generate short clips have only been around for a few months.
The most revolutionary aspect of the technology is being able to generate new shots whenever you want them, says Rubin: “With 15 minutes of trial and error, you get that shot you wanted that fits perfectly into a sequence.” He remembers cutting the film together and needing particular shots, like a close-up of a boot on a mountainside. With DALL-E, he could just call it up. “It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “That’s when it started to be a real eye-opening experience as a filmmaker.”