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Science Can Help

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I wrote a column last week with the title 'Can Science Save the Planet?', and the answer to that question was, 'sure, if you look where the action is in science -- biology and materials science (including nanotech) for example.' Surprisingly, although there were a lot of comments, none of them criticized me for what are the usual lines of attack on this view of science and environment: That counting on future science is just a different form of denial of the problem, because it says that we don't have to change our behavior, we can go on living in the same profligate way, and something will come along to make this life style sustainable. And my critics usually claim that I am way too optimistic about what science will deliver, and there is no justification for this optimism.

To take the second argument first, I would say that if there is one lesson from the 20th century, it is that science, and the technology that flows from that science, always exceeds our expectations. Here is one personal anecdote: In the late 1960s I was working on understanding liquid crystals, and was friendly with the big group from RCA working on liquid crystal displays. They explained to me that while there could be a liquid crystal based sign or a digital watch, there would never be a liquid crystal television, because if you calculate the amount of computer power required for displaying high resolution (and this was pre HD) television in just one TV set, it was more than all the computer power on the planet. And that is what we have in our home LCD TV set today, more computer power than was on the entire planet 40 years ago!

But the need for behavior change is a more difficult challenge. I agree. We need to change our lifestyle to some extent. I still turn to science for this, however. Not applied bioscience to make new fuels and chemicals, and not materials science to make new solar or lighting devices. Rather I look to the third area where the action is in science today, and that is computer science. What computer science offers us are ways to facilitate behavior change, make it that much easier and more palatable. Sometimes make it invisible.

There are many examples, here is one. In several countries today the entire electricity metering system is being changed over to so-called 'smart meters', effectively another powerful computer at the interface between your home or business and the electrical utility. Of course this does away with the need to 'read the meter', does away with estimated bills, allows a large number of different rates for use at peak times and off times, makes it possible to charge poor people less for their electricity, could label electrons so that you pay a different rate when you are charging up the battery in your electric vehicle from the rate you pay for playing Angry Birds, allows the utility, if you give them permission, to keep your freezer or refrigerator or dishwasher from switching on at peak times (because they don't need to), and displays -- in the kitchen or on the corner of computer screen a chart of your electricity use, instantaneous, compared to yesterday, compared to last year, compared to your neighbour -- should I go on? All of these are efficiency measures, or they are ways of stimulating you to use energy more efficiently, but they are made painless by introducing intelligence into what was previously a very dumb piece of equipment in every home.

Now if the utility does all this in hardware, that is replace the mechanical type meter with a computer that is all pre-programmed and can't be changed, then that is just modernizing not transforming. But if the smart meter is using advances in computer science as they come along to install new 'apps', then this gets to be fun.

Science helps. It makes change easy. And, by the way, this is a really good use of scarce resources, because by bringing computer science into critical home and business functions we create the infrastructure for the 21st century.