Here’s Biden’s plan to reboot climate innovation
The Biden administration announced its third major climate effort on Thursday, February 11, rolling out initiatives to accelerate innovation in clean energy and climate technology.
The White House has formed a working group to help set up the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Climate (ARPA-C), which Biden pledged to create during the campaign. Its mission will be to accelerate progress in tough technical areas, likely including technologies that can capture, remove, and store carbon dioxide as well as heating and cooling products that don’t rely on highly potent greenhouse gases.
In addition, the Department of Energy plans to provide $100 million in funding for low-carbon energy projects through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a group funded in the first Obama administration to support clean energy technologies that aren’t far enough along to form businesses or attract traditional venture capital.
The move could help revitalize a favorite target of the Trump administration, which repeatedly tried to eliminate ARPA-E’s budget during the last four years. Congress, however, consistently maintained or even slightly raised its funding.
More federal money for research and development promises to drive down the cost of clean technologies, which makes it cheaper and more politically feasible to combat rising climate risks in the US and beyond.
But some energy observers are confused about why the administration wants to expend political capital trying to set up and fund a new research agency rather than focusing on boosting capital for existing programs. It took years for Congress to appropriate money for ARPA-E, which was authorized under George W. Bush but wasn’t funded until Obama pushed through the Recovery Act in 2009. The precise boundaries between the two ARPAs aren’t entirely clear either.
ARPA-E is primarily focused on “transformational low-carbon energy technologies,” while ARPA-C will likely take on a larger suite of climate-related tools, at least judging from Biden’s energy plan announced during the campaign.
Its expected focus on carbon capture, removal, and storage promises to be controversial. These technologies include systems that prevent greenhouse-gas emissions from leaving power plants and factories; “direct air capture” tools that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; and even farming techniques that suck up and store more carbon in soil. (ARPA-E has made some investments in such areas already, too.)
Many fear that these technologies could help extend the life of the fossil-fuel industry. But they may also provide ways of preventing or counteracting emissions from sectors where there aren’t affordable and scalable clean options, like steel, cement, aviation, and agriculture. What’s more, the technologies could be critical in reducing levels of carbon dioxide already in the air.
The Biden administration said it wants to boost funding in other areas as well, including cheaper energy storage; lower-cost clean vehicles and transit; sustainable fuels for aircraft and ships; carbon-neutral building materials; and cheap, clean forms of hydrogen, which can be used as a fuel and is a crucial ingredient in certain industrial processes.
Chinese creators use Midjourney’s AI to generate retro urban “photography”
If you saw these images pop up on your timeline, would you be able to tell if they were real photographs of the southwestern city of Chongqing in the 1990s?
In fact, none of them are real. Zhang Haijun, a street photographer in Chongqing, generated these images with Midjourney, an image-making artificial-intelligence program.
A number of artists and creators are generating nostalgic photographs of China with the help of AI. Even though these images still get some details wrong, like the number of fingers that humans have or what Chinese characters look like, they are realistic enough to trick and impress many social media followers, including me.
Retro AI artwork like Zhang’s has also caught the attention of Tong Bingxue, a collector of Chinese historical photographs. He reposted some of them to his popular Twitter account China in Pictures last week.
These generated photos are indeed aesthetically pleasing, Tong says. They look sophisticated in terms of standard photography metrics, like definition, sharpness, saturation, and color tone. “When people look at things on social media, these [attributes] are the first things that catch the eye. The authenticity of the photo comes second,” he says. Real historical photos, on the other hand, sometimes look amateur or come with material imperfections.
Zhang, the creator of the AI images above, was born in Chongqing in 1992. He grew up near the Chongqing Iron and Steel Company, one of the oldest and largest steel factories in China, and remembers watching the workers when he was about seven years old. “When I was little, I would often watch them come out of the factory during their break, sit on the ground, smoke a cigarette, and look into the distance. There were stories in their eyes,” he says.
When he turned that experience into an image-generating prompt for Midjourney, he was amazed by the results. “What the AI generated—the look of resilience in their eyes and the way they are dressed—it looks exactly the same as what I described to it,” he says.
Now, Zhang pays more than $200 a year for Midjourney, and uses it to generate new retro photographs with different themes: rural weddings in the ’90s, physical laborers for hire waiting in the market, and Chongqing street fashion. Each time, he writes the prompts in Chinese, uses machine translation tools to convert them to English, feeds them into Midjourney, and spends about 20 minutes tweaking them to get the ideal result.
Technology and industry convergence: A historic opportunity
And it’s that combination of technology and human ingenuity, as we say, and as Danielle just alluded to in her medical example on cancer treatment, that is really where the greatest value and the greatest impact is going to come. We believe the companies which are going to be leaders in the next decade are going to need to harness five forces, and all of these forces are going to require technology and ingenuity to come together. They’re going to require organizations to work across all elements of their organization, to work with new partners, to expand into new areas and ecosystems, to learn and collaborate with innovators across industry, as well as across industry and academia and beyond to really push the boundaries of science and impact.
The five forces that we see right now, the trends that we’re seeing that are impacting our clients the most really start with what we believe underpins everything right now, and that is something we’re calling total enterprise reinvention. And we really started to see this come to the fore as we moved through covid. And what we’re seeing now is that as companies are looking to enter these new waves of change and opportunity, that they’re needing to execute strategies to change and transform all parts of their business through technology, data, and AI, as Daniela just talked about, to enable new ways of growth, new ways of engaging customers, new business models, new opportunities, but they’re doing it in a very different way. They’re doing it in a way where they’re looking at every part of their organization and the technology and digital core that underpins it at the same time, so we believe we’re in the early stages of this profound change, but we believe it’s going to be the biggest change since the industrial revolution.
And embracing total enterprise reinvention often requires something that we call compressed transformation, which are bold transformational programs that, as I said, span the entire organization with different groups working together in ways that they never did before in parallel, but in very accelerated timeframes. And underpinning all this is leading edge technology, data, and AI. At the same time, the second trend we’re seeing with our clients, and we certainly are all reading about it and of hearing about it for the past few years, is the power of talent and the importance of the human side of this equation. And we think that one of the forces that’s going to shape the next decade with talent at front and center is not just the ability to access talent, but really for organizations to learn to be creators of talent, not just consumers. To unlock the potential of the humans in their workforce. And that’s going to require technology to unlock that potential. And again, as Daniela just gave in some of her examples, to compliment the talent that they have in the organization.
The third is sustainability. That trend is … I would say personally, I’m very pleased to see this trend underpinning everything that we’re doing and everything that our clients are thinking about right now. We believe that every business needs to be a sustainable business. And every industry is looking at this in a way that is unique to their industries. But whether it’s consumers, employees, business partners, regulators, or investors, we know that we’re moving in a direction where companies are being required to act. To make a change, not just around climate and energy, but areas like food insecurity and equality. All of those issues are coming to the fore, and underpinning this, again, is the ability to leverage new bleeding technologies to accelerate the pace of change and find solutions to the issues that we’re facing as a planet and across society.
The fourth force that we’re seeing is the metaverse. Now, there’s been a lot of confusion, and a lot of talk about the metaverse, but our view is that the metaverse is a continuum, and we’re seeing this come to the fore in the marketplace right now. As we look at the metaverse and how that’s going to impact, just if you think all the way back to when the internet was in its early stages, we believe that the impact is going to be that great. And while it’s early stages and not everybody can see exactly how the impact is going to be there, we believe that this is going to impact not just consumers, and of course interesting areas like virtual reality and using AI to bring new experiences to life, but also to look at extended reality, to look at digital twins, smart objects. So how do cars and factories run? What’s happening with edge computing? Looking at blockchain and new ways of payment. All of those things are going to change the way businesses operate and really the way society operates, and we believe that this is going to underpin change as we move forward over the next five to 10 years.
And then lastly, the fifth force is what we’re calling ongoing tech revolution. And the ongoing tech revolution is a pretty broad expansive category, often pushed by our friends in the academia world around science, but we believe in the coming decade, the pace of technological innovation is not just going to continue but accelerate, which we believe is going to create positive change. New technology, whether it’s in quantum computing or it’s in areas, as I said, like blockchain or material science or biology, or even space, we believe this is going to open brand new areas of opportunity. And all of these things are allowing companies, our clients to find new ways to not just serve their customers, but to monetize their investments, to impact society, to impact their employees, and to drive positive change for their business as well as for the world around them.
Laurel: Yeah. Kathleen, I feel like some of that acceleration happened in these last few pandemic years so that businesses and consumers are operating differently from remote healthcare solutions to digital payments, greater expectations of those immersive virtual experiences. But how can organizations and technologists alike then continue to innovate to anticipate the future, or as Accenture likes to say, learn from the future? You have some good examples there, but the five different areas all kind of also lead to this acceptance of change.
Kathleen: Yeah, they do. And they also lead to embedding data in everything, in new ways into every change that organizations are putting forward. When we think of learning through the future, we think about organizations and leaders who are constantly seeking new data and insights, not just from inside their organization, but from outside their organizations’ four walls. So we like to use the phrase intentional futurists. These are people and leaders and organizations who use AI-based analysis to find patterns, anticipate trends, detect new sources of growth opportunities, understand their consumers, their customers, other enterprises, the markets and their employees better.
Delivering insights at scale by modernizing data
This data is often siloed in enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. However, with ERP data modernization, businesses can integrate data from multiple sources, which will ensure data accessibility and create the framework for digital transformation. Migrating legacy databases to the cloud also gives companies access to AI and ML capabilities that can reinvent their organization. According to Anil Nagaraj, principal in Analytic Insights, Cloud & Digital at PwC, companies that modernize their ERP data see increased efficiencies, costs savings, and greater customer engagement, especially when it’s built on a cloud platform like Microsoft Azure.
Cloud transformation—along with ERP data modernization—democratizes data, empowering employees to make decisions that directly impact their segment of business. And in an increasingly competitive marketplace, becoming data-driven means organizations can make faster, timelier, and smarter decisions.
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.