How exponential technology is fueling a new environmentalism

You may have heard some wild claims about exponential technology — that it heralds an era of super-intelligent machines, abundance for everyone or even human immortality, to name a few of the boldest predictions. Sounds exciting.

Unfortunately, that kind of talk distracts from the incredible solutions that these technologies already enable today, including some creative ways my friends at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) are tackling the problem of climate change.

The real promise of exponential technology

Let’s start with what makes a technology exponential. Put simply, an exponential technology is one that improves at an exponential — rather than a linear — rate. Moore’s Law is an example of this, describing how computer speeds double every 12–24 months. To put this in perspective, if fuel economy improved at the same rate as computers over the past 30 years, a tablespoon of gas would be enough to travel around the world two times!

Computers are just one example of an exponential technology. Sensors are improving exponentially, too, some shrinking small enough to fit on the hairs of dust mites. And the number of sensors deployed grows by a factor of ten every five years, with greater precision, smaller size and lower cost coming along for the ride. Meanwhile, advances in artificial intelligence — and deep learning in particular — are leveraging the data collected by sensors to make ever more powerful predictions about the world around us.

Advances like these are fueling the trend of using exponential technology to “measure everything” so we can “manage anything.” After all, we have to understand a problem in order to fix it. And one of the biggest problems we face today is methane.

Sensors, lasers and automation to the rescue

The primary component of natural gas, methane is a potent greenhouse gas that’s 84 times more potent than CO2 in the short term. Since human-made methane emissions account for a quarter of today’s global warming, it’s urgent we get methane emissions under control.

So EDF set out to measure the problem and find new solutions, working with teams of scientists, entrepreneurs and oil and gas industry partners on multiple projects:

- A first-of-its kind, five-year research study that revealed the true scale of the problem.

- A partnership that put methane-sniffing sensors on Google Street View cars to map out natural gas leaks across U.S. cities.

- And the Methane Detectors Challenge, a partnership to find the best ways to detect and fix leaks in real time, including sensor and laser technologies that oil and gas companies are already adopting.

As technology continues to advance, oil and gas companies are looking to monitor methane emissions continuously across thousands of sites, saving billions in untapped revenue. Smart sensors on wells may even help predict and prevent leaks before they start.

Taking on global warming, from space

Another trend in exponential technology is moving from optimization — making devices smaller, faster and cheaper — to discovery. That means putting sensors in hard-to-reach places, like space, where we can gain whole new perspectives on the world.

To that end, EDF is designing and launching a satellite designed to map and measure oil and gas methane emissions worldwide. Thanks in part to advances in sensor technology, MethaneSAT will provide global, high-resolution coverage exceeding anything in orbit or on the drawing board today. Not only will it be quicker and less expensive to launch, but all the data will be made public, free for all to see and use. Citizen scientists, rejoice!

MethaneSAT is designed to help both companies and countries spot problems, identify the best solutions and track their progress over time. This is huge, because there are quick, easy fixes for most leaks, and a substantial reduction in methane emissions could help make a dent in global warming in our lifetimes.

Tomorrow and beyond…

Every few years, advances in exponential technology enable us to do things we could never do before, forcing us to rethink how we’re doing everything.

Today’s environmentalists are doing the same — rethinking the roles that farmers, oil and gas companies, venture capitalists and others can play to help protect the environment while they do business. Technological innovation provides us with the tools to combat many of the world’s most pressing challenges, but it is our will to work towards a just and sustainable future that will truly make the difference.

We are entering a new era of environmental innovation that is driving better alignment between technology and environmental goals — and results. #FourthWave