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The science and technology that can help save the ocean

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The science and technology that can help save the ocean


Here on Earth, we have more detailed maps of Mars than of our own ocean, and that’s a problem. A massive force for surviving climate change, the ocean absorbs 90% of the heat caused by emissions and generates 50% of the oxygen we breathe. “We have the ocean to thank for so many aspects of our safety and well-being,” says Dawn Wright, oceanographer and chief scientist at geographic information system (GIS) provider Esri, who notes the ocean also provides renewable energy, a major food source, and a transportation corridor for not only ships but submarine internet cables.

Now, the same type of smart maps and geospatial technology guiding outer space exploration support the quest to better understand and protect our ocean. “For the first time, our knowledge of the ocean can approach our knowledge of the land,” Wright says. “We can turn the unknown deep into the known deep.”

GIS—the location intelligence technology businesses and governments use for everything from risk mitigation to crisis response, market analysis to operational efficiency—also applies to the ocean. The logic is simple: the ocean supports a sustainable planet and economy, and data-rich maps can support a sustainable ocean.

Dawn Wright, oceanographer and chief scientist at Esri

‘Tons and tons of beautiful data’

More than 80% of the ocean floor remains unmapped, yet comprehensive ocean maps will be essential for stemming the problems of overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, and biodiversity loss. It’s easy, and at this point cliché, to say “save our ocean,” but a data-driven map compels people to see why the ocean needs saving, where to start, and what needs to be done. “Seeing the ocean in its true depth and complexity is exactly what we need if we hope to reduce the risk of critically damaging or exhausting marine resources,” Wright says.

Since its release in 2017, the world’s first 3D ocean map spurred a revolution of innovation in ocean-related data and sustainability solutions. The 3D digital ocean map sorts global water masses into 37 distinct volumetric regions, known as ecological marine units, defined by factors in ecosystem health and recovery: temperature, salinity, oxygen, and nutrient levels. Scientists, environmental managers, fishers, and shippers, as well as citizen scientists can use the map to virtually navigate and explore the ocean.

What makes the 3D map of the world’s ocean possible is the enterprise technology capable of collecting and processing data that comes in massive volume and variety. And there’s more data on the way. “This whole idea of marine robotics is one of the big future visions for the ocean,” Wright says. “Robotics and sensors and other instruments are creating tons and tons and tons of beautiful data.”

Once collected, those volumes of data go into a GIS where they are managed and processed, using artificial intelligence (AI) to quickly identify and classify information. The output of GIS, often called location intelligence, comes through as smart maps, spatial analytics, and real-time dashboards—the same kind seen across the world this past year to track and analyze the coronavirus pandemic. These GIS-powered interactive data visualization tools bring clarity even to the most complex of issues and help steer policy and commercial decisions based on a solid grasp of what’s happening now and what will happen next.

“We can even make predictions in terms of what the data will be telling us in 2030,” Wright explains. “How warm will the coast of Florida be in 2050? Will those temperatures kill off the sea grass in that area? Will those temperatures result in a red tide around Tampa that will be so toxic it will kill all of the fisheries there?”

‘The ocean is vulnerable’

Growing up on the Hawaiian Islands and working in American Samoa, Wright understands the ocean as a sacred place. That sentiment guides her work now with fellow scientists, government leaders, and business executives. “I want people to understand that the ocean is vulnerable,” Wright says. “What we’re doing to the ocean right now is having huge consequences. Our day-to-day weather and our long-term climate fully depend on the ocean.”

For Wright, the establishment and enforcement of marine protected areas, such as Cook Islands Marine Park off of New Zealand and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the US, represent a triumph in keeping the ocean protected. So far only 7% of the ocean has been marked as protected, compared to 15% of the land. “Even though we have about 7% of the ocean protected in these parks or reserves, less than half of that is an area where you’re not allowed to fish or take the corals or take the pretty rocks,” Wright explains. “So, we have a long, long, long way to go there.”

The ecological marine units are composed of approximately 52 million global ocean measurements that were collected over a 50-year period and provide a 3D view of the world’s oceans.

Protected areas, predictive maps, and pleas from scientists certainly make an impact on corporate and policy decisions. Add to that increasing climate risk and global pressure for social responsibility. These incentives, and the GIS tools needed to respond, are motivating leaders to implement new initiatives.

For example, shipping companies are working to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by designing more efficient vessels, a move that furthers the sustainability cause while reducing business expense. Industries such as retail and manufacturing are putting circular economy principles in place to reclaim or recycle materials after the product has completed its original use. Aquaculture companies are selecting prime locations for responsible fish farming to help reduce overfishing, encourage aquatic ecosystem restoration, and recover endangered species.

Such efforts are moving us toward the vision of a sustainable ocean and thus a sustainable planet. Although Wright feels certain with so much advanced technology—“it’s a great time to be mapping”—what’s less certain is whether the work scientists, governments, and companies are doing will be enough or cede results soon enough.

‘The ocean isn’t too big to fail’

Concerned about mounting threats to the ocean, the United Nations has declared 2021 to 2030 the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. “It’s like the Paris Climate Accord for the ocean,” Wright says. “To me, it’s the moonshot … to have something this focused for everybody—governments, universities, nonprofit organizations—this is a really big push.”

A number of important ocean mapping projects are already in various stages of development and execution. For example, Seabed 2030 has the ambitious goal to map the entire ocean floor by the year 2030. The Map of Biodiversity Importance shares habitat models for more than 2,200 at-risk species in the contiguous United States, featuring AI predictor layers for species viability based on development plans and environmental factors. And the Ocean Health Index annually assesses ocean health by looking at social, ecological, and economic benefits to speed progress on ocean policies.

Such projects will aid socially responsible companies (those building sustainability solutions to match business opportunities) in achieving profit while preserving the ocean. Their work often revolves around complex and real-time data, stored and processed with GIS, and presented on smart maps and data visualizations with GIS. Location intelligence helps companies—especially shipping, energy, logistics, and fishing industries—questions like the following:

  • Where would offshore wind turbines have the least impact on commercial fishing?
  • Where should a new transatlantic submarine communications cable go to avoid interference with scallop beds, rare deep-sea coral habitat, or sand mining areas needed for beach restoration?
  • Where are appropriate areas for ships to transit in the Arctic (now that it’s no longer covered with ice year-round) to minimize the impact on sensitive ecosystems?

As the world slowly emerges from the pandemic and enters the United Nations’ Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, it can do so knowing companies, scientists, and policy makers have the power to make smarter choices for people and the planet.

Those choices will be guided by comprehensive data about the ocean, the technology to map crucial information, and the understanding how, when, and where to intervene. The linchpin will be making sustainability choices in time. “It turns out that the ocean is not too big to fail, unfortunately,” Wright says. “The good news is that it’s also not too big to fix.”

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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