Data, AI and the tragedy of the commons

Illustration of artificial intelligence
ShutterstockLiu zishan

This article is drawn from the VERGE Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running every Wednesday.

In case you missed it, GreenBiz launched a new daily newsletter lineup last week. And I’m excited to change things up. Senior Writer and VERGE Transport conference chair Katie Fehrenbacher offers transportation and mobility-focused insights in Transport Weekly. Editorial Director and VERGE veteran Heather Clancy demystifies clean energy market news and trends in the Energy Weekly. Circular Economy Analyst and VERGE Circular conference chair Lauren Phipps is unpacking circular economy-enabling designs, models and systems — as a solutions-oriented skeptic — in the Circular Weekly.

These newsletters will more substantively dive into the topics that my colleague Shana Rappaport and I have been able only to touch on over the five-plus years we’ve been authoring VERGE Weekly, so I encourage you to subscribe to the new newsletters if you haven’t already.

In the meantime, our VERGE Weekly newsletter will continue to explore the convergent trends and solutions accelerating the clean economy. To that end, here are three cross-cutting topics I’ve been thinking about recently:

1. Data access, data ownership and data privacy

The recent Supreme Court ruling updating Fourth Amendment protections for the digital era (Carpenter v. United States) represents a win for digital privacy advocates. While narrow, it may have implications for all sorts of information held by third parties, including browsing data, text messages, emails and bank records. And Apple CEO Tim Cook just doubled down on his company's approach to digital privacy, which stands in contrast to its big tech competitors whose ad businesses depend on collecting information about users. Meanwhile, Assistant Editor Holly Secon explains how cities can use data to take climate action despite the challenges that still lie ahead.

2. Artificial intelligence (AI) and preventing the bias and fallibility that comes from the humans who build it

AI is considered the next big thing, with major tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft realigning around it. Algorithms increasingly are driving critical real-world decisions: helping doctors detect cancer; suggesting who should be released from jail, deciding who should be interviewed for a job or judging who gets a loan. While Elon Musk may see AI as an existential threat to humanity, the more immediate concern may be its inherent bias. Some suggest that the future of AI depends on high school girls. Meanwhile, the momentum around using AI for good is increasing.

3. Overcoming the tragedy of the commons through circular economy solutions

"Tragedy of the commons" is a phrase coined by ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968 to describe a situation in a shared-resource system where individuals who act independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action. Examples of this manifestation include the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, traffic congestion and, certainly, climate change.

This year, when China banned importing nonindustrial plastic waste (45 percent of the world’s plastic) and created stricter standards for the paper waste it accepted, the world got a serious wake-up call on how it would divert its unwanted recyclables — another "tragedy of the commons." Hardin concludes that privatization or government regulation of the shared resource solves for this systems trap. Building on these solutions, circular economy-oriented thinking will be critical to creating new policies and models to make a necessary pivot.

These are some areas we plan to explore more deeply at VERGE 18 in October, so stay tuned as our program continues to develop. 

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