These various endeavors are the through line for Gates’s latest book, written from a techno-optimist’s perspective. “Everything I’ve learned about climate and technology makes me optimistic … if we act fast enough, [we can] avoid a climate catastrophe,” he writes in the opening pages.
As many others have pointed out, a lot of the necessary technology already exists; much can be done now. Though Gates doesn’t dispute this, his book focuses on the technological challenges that he believes must still be overcome to achieve greater decarbonization. He spends less time on the political obstacles, writing that he thinks “more like an engineer than a political scientist.” Yet politics, in all its messiness, is the key barrier to progress on climate change. And engineers ought to understand how complex systems can have feedback loops that go awry.
Kim Stanley Robinson does think like a political scientist. The beginning of his latest novel, The Ministry for the Future, is set just a few years from now, in 2025, when a massive heat wave hits India, killing millions. The book’s protagonist, Mary Murphy, runs a UN agency tasked with representing the interests of future generations and trying to align the world’s governments behind a climate solution. Throughout, the book puts intergenerational equity and various forms of distributive politics at its center.
If you’ve ever seen the scenarios the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change develops for the future, Robinson’s book will feel familiar. His story asks about the politics necessary to solve the climate crisis, and he has certainly done his homework. Though it is an exercise in imagination, there are moments when the novel feels more like a graduate seminar in the social sciences than a work of escapist fiction. The climate refugees who are central to the story illustrate the way pollution’s consequences hit the global poor the hardest. But wealthy people emit far more carbon.
Reading Gates next to Robinson underlines the inextricable link between inequality and climate change. Gates’s efforts on climate are laudable. But when he tells us that the combined wealth of the people backing his venture fund is $170 billion, we may be puzzled that they have dedicated only $2 billion to climate solutions—less than 2% of their assets. This fact alone is an argument for wealth taxes: the climate crisis demands government action. It cannot be left to the whims of billionaires.
As billionaires go, Gates is arguably one of the good ones. He chronicles how he uses his wealth to help the poor and the planet. The irony of his writing a book on climate change when he flies in a private jet and owns a 66,000-square-foot mansion is not lost on the reader—nor on Gates, who calls himself an “imperfect messenger on climate change.” Still, he is unquestionably an ally to the climate movement.
But by focusing on technological innovation, Gates underplays the material fossil-fuel interests obstructing progress. Climate-change denial is strangely not mentioned in the book. Throwing up his hands at political polarization, Gates never makes the connection to his fellow billionaires Charles and David Koch, who made their fortune in petrochemicals and have played a key role in manufacturing denial.
For example, Gates marvels that for the vast majority of Americans, electric heaters are actually cheaper than continuing to use fossil gas. He presents people’s failure to adopt these cost-saving, climate-friendly options as a puzzle. It isn’t. As journalists Rebecca Leber and Sammy Roth have reported in Mother Jones and the Los Angeles Times, the gas industry is funding front groups and marketing campaigns to oppose electrification and keep people hooked on fossil fuels.
The Download: Introducing our TR35 list, and the death of the smart city
Spoiler alert: our annual Innovators Under 35 list isn’t actually about what a small group of smart young people have been up to (although that’s certainly part of it.) It’s really about where the world of technology is headed next.
As you read about the problems this year’s winners have set out to solve, you’ll also glimpse the near future of AI, biotech, materials, computing, and the fight against climate change.
To connect the dots, we asked five experts—all judges or former winners—to write short essays about where they see the most promise, and the biggest potential roadblocks, in their respective fields. We hope the list inspires you and gives you a sense of what to expect in the years ahead.
Read the full list here.
The Urbanism issue
The modern city is a surveillance device. It can track your movements via your license plate, your cell phone, and your face. But go to any city or suburb in the United States and there’s a different type of monitoring happening, one powered by networks of privately owned doorbell cameras, wildlife cameras, and even garden-variety security cameras.
The latest print issue of MIT Technology Review examines why, independently of local governments, we have built our neighborhoods into panopticons: everyone watching everything, all the time. Here is a selection of some of the new stories in the edition, guaranteed to make you wonder whether smart cities really are so smart after all:
– How groups of online neighborhood watchmen are taking the law into their own hands.
– Why Toronto wants you to forget everything you know about smart cities.
– Bike theft is a huge problem. Specialized parking pods could be the answer.
– Public transport wants to kill off cash—but it won’t be as disruptive as you think.
Toronto wants to kill the smart city forever
Most Quayside watchers have a hard time believing that covid was the real reason for ending the project. Sidewalk Labs never really painted a compelling picture of the place it hoped to build.
The new Waterfront Toronto project has clearly learned from the past. Renderings of the new plans for Quayside—call it Quayside 2.0—released earlier this year show trees and greenery sprouting from every possible balcony and outcropping, with nary an autonomous vehicle or drone in site. The project’s highly accomplished design team—led by Alison Brooks, a Canadian architect based in London; the renowned Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye; Matthew Hickey, a Mohawk architect from the Six Nations First Nation; and the Danish firm Henning Larsen—all speak of this new corner of Canada’s largest city not as a techno-utopia but as a bucolic retreat.
In every way, Quayside 2.0 promotes the notion that an urban neighborhood can be a hybrid of the natural and the manmade. The project boldly suggests that we now want our cities to be green, both metaphorically and literally—the renderings are so loaded with trees that they suggest foliage is a new form of architectural ornament. In the promotional video for the project, Adjaye, known for his design of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History, cites the “importance of human life, plant life, and the natural world.” The pendulum has swung back toward Howard’s garden city: Quayside 2022 is a conspicuous disavowal not only of the 2017 proposal but of the smart city concept itself.
To some extent, this retreat to nature reflects the changing times, as society has gone from a place of techno-optimism (think: Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone) to a place of skepticism, scarred by data collection scandals, misinformation, online harassment, and outright techno-fraud. Sure, the tech industry has made life more productive over the past two decades, but has it made it better? Sidewalk never had an answer to this.
“To me it’s a wonderful ending because we didn’t end up with a big mistake,” says Jennifer Keesmaat, former chief planner for Toronto, who advised the Ministry of Infrastructure on how to set this next iteration up for success. She’s enthusiastic about the rethought plan for the area: “If you look at what we’re doing now on that site, it’s classic city building with a 21st-century twist, which means it’s a carbon-neutral community. It’s a totally electrified community. It’s a community that prioritizes affordable housing, because we have an affordable-housing crisis in our city. It’s a community that has a strong emphasis on green space and urban agriculture and urban farming. Are those things that are derived from Sidewalk’s proposal? Not really.”
Rewriting what we thought was possible in biotech
What ML and AI in biotech broadly need to engage with are the holes that are unique to the study of health. Success stories like neural nets that learned to identify dogs in images were built with the help of high-quality image labeling that people were in a good position to provide. Even attempts to generate or translate human language are easily verified and audited by experts who speak a particular language.
Instead, much of biology, health, and medicine is very much in the stage of fundamental discovery. How do neurodegenerative diseases work? What environmental factors really matter? What role does nutrition play in overall human health? We don’t know yet. In health and biotech, machine learning is taking on a different, more challenging, task—one that will require less engineering and more science.
Marzyeh Ghassemi is an assistant professor at MIT and a faculty member at the Vector Institute (and a 35 Innovators honoree in 2018).