Good day everyone, this is Ed Maguire, Insights Partner at Momenta Partners, with another Edge podcast, and today we have a special guest, Kelly Wanser who is Executive Director of SilverLining, which is a not for profit climate research institute organization, and a member of the board of directors of Bio-Carbon Engineering.
Kelly has an interesting background as an entrepreneur with successful exits in infrastructure software. That’s how we first became acquainted, it must have been about a dozen years ago when I was an equity research analyst, we encountered her company Cold Spark, and to my surprise many years later she was a keynote speaker at the Singularity Summit in San Francisco just a few weeks ago. I was thrilled to see Kelly, I reached out because I was so fascinated by what she was talking about, which we’ll get into in this podcast, but with that Kelly, thanks so much for joining us today.
Let’s set the stage a bit, I’d love to understand a bit more about what had shaped your views of the problems that you’re now tackling with your newest ventures. Share a little bit about your background, and some of the experience that
Well my background, I spent about 20-years in IT infrastructure working the plumbing of messaging
About a decade ago I became concerned about what looked like could be a big problem in climate, with the pressure we were putting on the climate system. I’m based in the bay area, so I got to know some of the top climate scientists who are based here, a person at Stanford named Steve Schneider who is no longer with us, but a kind of luminary, Ken Caldera, and I got to ask questions about where we were sitting in terms of our risk, and the climate having a dramatic impact on things within our lifetime. What they told me was the risk was a single digit probability, but not low single digits that we could have catastrophic outcomes in our lifetime.
Well certainly the scale and complexity of the environment and climate of many orders of magnitude, more complex than networking, but I don’t know anybody that’s applied that so far. It makes completely perfect sense to think of these big systems, as in a sense they are networks! They’re just connected in so many ways.
Could you talk a bit about how you initially applied what you’ve learned, and what you know, and maybe some of the insights that you’ve been able to derive from working in climate research?
You made a very interesting comment in saying that networks and things are
Today a lot of times the two approaches are either to look at little aspects of the question, like I’m going to look at coral reefs, and maybe these coral reefs in this area, and what they’re doing, and use data for that. Or, I’m going to use a big climate model and try to simulate all the interactions into one giant simulation and see if I can predict what’s happening.
But there are some other techniques that we use in complex systems, like IT or even finance where we’re trying to determine the probability of different kinds of things happening, because we’re going to make bets on it. We’re going to make bets on it because its how we set up our DevOps automation in the hope that we keep the network from failing, or we’re going to make bets on it because its where we put our money based on where we think the economy is going to go. So, there are probabilistic ways of working at these kinds of systems that are different.
We put together an advisory board of people who know how to do that, including Martin Casado from networking, as well as a guy named Steve Strongin, Head of Research of Goldman Sachs, who looks at these questions from a finance point of view, and did some probabilistic
How does the availability of data differ when you’re looking at complex systems, such as oceans and coral for instance? Trying to analyze a large sophisticated corporate network is no small undertaking, but I’d have to think that there’s a lot of thought and consideration that needs to go into collecting data, and how to treat the data that you’re collecting, as you start to build models and analyze. How is it different, and what are some of the considerations that come into play when you’re looking at environmental data?
That’s a big question, so I’m going to start by saying that’s a big question and I’m going to take two angles on it, and there are probably many more angles. So, one angle is if you think about the Earth as a complex system, and one of the complex systems were familiar with dealing with a human body, and some of the situations that we’re in is like a human body under stress, we’ve been filling it with toxins, we’re getting a fever, and we have that kind of situation going on with earth.
When we’re dealing with people, we have lots of people to study, we do epidemiology, we study populations of people, we determine if their fear rises ‘this much’, ‘these’ are the kinds of things that happen. Here we have a patient sample of one, so one of the challenges we have in trying to determine big effects on your system is we only have one earth to study.
A second problem is a related phenomenon, so one of the things that researchers tried to do is to look back at the historical record of earth, going back about 500 million years, study different times that the earth has had ‘this much’ carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, ‘these’ kinds of characteristics where heat has risen ‘this’ much, and they call that the peer inter-logical record.
We try to do that, but we have a population size of one, and then when we try to go back 500 million years our sources of data are limited, we’re using ice core, tree rings, and these kinds of things. So, getting data on big changes to the earth system, which in its history and at a planetary scale normally happen over tens of thousands of years, and we have applied stress in really a very short period, like a couple of hundred years. Getting comparative data where we’d like to do things like machine learning, those kinds of things are hard to apply because we don’t have big pools of data on earth phenomena, we can use that kind of technique on part of the system where we’re looking at more closer periods of time where we can get data-sets, and use them to study for example species behavior, or plant cycles, things like that. So,
So, that’s one angle on the problem which
The second angle on it is where we could use data to hone what we know about short-term effects and causes in the climate system, we haven’t yet applied all of the
So, on the one
That’s great, and there’s no doubt with the growing capability in data collection through so many different avenues, we do have more data to analyze than we’ve ever had before.
But one thing that I will say, because I feel
Could you talk a bit about what you’re doing with your new efforts, SilverLining, and what are some of the goals that are underway?
Coming into this problem a big area of concern for me is the near-term risks associated with the heat pressure that’s being added to the climate system by greenhouse
I came at this from the point of view of, where we haven’t invested anything
So, if you add some particles, even like the ones that are present in nature, you can increase the brightness of the atmosphere by maybe one percent, and you could offset as much as two degrees of warming. These ideas are potentially interesting areas to explore if we’re looking at a short-term heat risk, they are risky too, and since we haven’t really studied them yet, we don’t know whether they are viable solutions, or how we would go about them. So, SilverLining is coming in from the point of view of saying we may have a serious safety issue with regard to heat energy in the climate system, and we think its important that as a matter of urgency we research possibilities for reducing heat quickly if we need to. Part of that research will have to include a better ability to understand and forecast
So, if we want to influence to reflectivity of the climate system, we’re going to have to be able to better understand the role that CO2 is playing in heat, the role that heat and methane are playing, the role that other particles are playing, and we’re going to have to be able to better forecast what’s happening than we do now. So that brings in all the things we were talking about, the proving our ability to understand the climate, and so SilverLining is about accelerating RND for innovating in climate to keep us safe and understanding the climate system better.
That’s no small undertaking.
How does that relate to your involvement in biocarbon engineering, and are there capabilities that work across both ventures?
Yes, and I’ve just heard the wonderful Paul Hokin, the author of ‘Drawdown’, where they look at all different manner and means of reducing greenhouse gases in the system, he was talking about it isn’t one solution, we must look at everything, and we need to pursue all available solutions in order to address this kind of problem.
In the case of biocarbon engineering, what that company does is they’re playing
So, if a company like Biocarbon and technologies like that are successful they can help accelerate our maintenance of force in the ecosystems, and our planting or rewilding of new ones. At the kind of scale that’s enabled by these technologies, that means in a relatively short period of time we could have improvements in our forests, wetlands, and things like that, that make a material difference to how much CO2 we can bring out of the atmosphere every year.
This an amazing dimension of technology, and I’ve seen the demo and there’s a great video on the site, could you talk about some of the enabling technologies now that are going to allow us to address these massive problems of a global scale; what’s helping accelerate the process and make real tangible impact possible, sooner than we would expect?
If you don’t mind, I might talk from the bottom of the stack, up, if that’s okay?
If we start at the bottom of the stack of storage and computer, I’ll take the climate system; so climate research and climate models are the biggest
So, right now you have some severe constraints in the amount of computing available for researchers to do this stuff, there are two big
There’s one thing we already have which is public cloud computing, which by and large the climate research community doesn’t use. Partly they don’t use it because there’s been a perception that it won’t support the kind of simulation models that they’re doing, which is increasingly untrue; and partly its because of the way computing is funded, which is similar to the way things used to be in the enterprise and financial services back when you have your
I’m working with the National Academy of Sciences on a study to look at computing for climate research, and the public cloud computing utilization is a piece of that. Another piece of that is, what will advances in
So, those are the two areas at the bottom of the sack, and then as you move up the stack or around the stack, if we think about the Internet of things, and remote-sensing culpabilities, and remote actions, then this new generation of autonomous platforms like companies such as Saildrone that have autonomous platforms operating on the ocean, the new generation of drones and especially the longer distance higher capacity drones that can go out further distances over the ocean, that carry heavier instrumentation for measuring the atmosphere. NOAA recently used the Global Hawk which is the Department of Defense’s stratosphere bird drone, put instruments and fly
Then, if you have the computing, you have the measurements, then how do we get the advances in
I believe there’s a lot of
It would seem there’s enormous amount of potential to harness a lot of the work that’s been done in academic settings, or in traditional climate research, bringing that together with almost an open source mindset that certainly permeates the developer community, are there any challenges that are involved with bringing some of the academic work into more of a public sphere, and having the work… because this would seem to me, all of this work has massive human applicability, global applicability in an opensource model to harness the millions of eyes, as it were, on the problem would be a logical next step.
You referenced having the idea of hacking competitions, what do you think we could do to bring together existing expertise with some of the gurus and wizards on the programming and implementation side?
Maybe a sort of hacking competition, we’re even talking about maybe more of a platform almost where climate researchers could pose projects and people, developers, who wanted to help could pick them up. So, in that way a bit more like opensource initiatives where people are contributing code to projects for good reasons. So, I think there is some potential for those kinds of things to happen, and I’ll try to keep you and the rest of the community abreast if we’re able to successfully launch that up. I certainly know engineers that I’ve worked with, and people around the tech community who care a lot about the problem, they may have some skills that are applicable to helping with it. At the same time, some of the technical problems are cool and interesting to work on, I think there could be a good marriage here of those kinds of skills.
Part of what SilverLining does is also look at how the government system works, and how the structural system works around the research area to see can we help shift the way things are done towards these open capabilities, so public cloud, open projects and things like that, so there’s some element of structural change that might be needed to help enable researchers, and agency contacts, and university contacts to be able to work this way more easily, or at all. So, it’s a bit like the changes that had to happen in the enterprise to enable public cloud adoption. We may need to help a little bit with how things are funded and how things are structured.
Are there some projects or organizations that you look to as good examples of early successes, or early wins in climate science?
When you say climate science, I think one of the important things to
I don’t know if that answers your question?
I think that’s very
Yes, in this case it’s a combination of trying to maybe shift the government market a little bit, to make it easier for these emerging technologies to move faster in that market, and shift the philanthropic market a little bit towards looking at climate research more, as an augmentation to government research, and certain applications of technology to that.
It’s a tough space for pure commercial markets because we’re dealing with a problem of the climate, the whole climate problem is a problem for everyone, but it usually ranks lower on people’s specific individual list. So, in that way some of these things don’t have an immediate commercial market, so you have companies like Still Drone, Aspire, things that would quite happily provide relatively cheap and inexpensive ways to monitor key things, but its generally speaking a government market, or a philanthropic market to get there.
The work that the UN has been doing with the sustainable development goals has been helpful in terms of coordinating efforts across borders. I’ve interviewed Atti Riazi who is the CTO at the UN, a few weeks back, and its really exciting to hear how she’s seeing a lot of truly global efforts to apply technology to tackle these sustainable development goals, and one of her key areas of focuses is human trafficking, but there’s a massive component and focus on sustainable water, and climate, and conservation as well. I think this is super-encouraging.
Yes, and I didn’t mean to be too discouraging, because where problems can be scoped to specific impacts, and certain impacts that have a constituency, there’s a lot of progress, like I’ve seen several projects in the area of over-fishing, monitoring ships, piracy, and violation of fishing rules and regulations for example, and so people are looking for ways to apply satellite data that’s available now to different pieces of the problem, fires and early detection of fires is another one. So, I think they are emerging, and it’s growing the applications of these technologies to different pieces of the problem. The hardest one is the system of the whole, which is climate, I definitely think that’s the case.
I should give a shout-out to an initiative that I really like, which is an AWS initiative called ‘Earth on AWS’. AWS is an accident pre-proactive in trying to do some pilot work, and seed support for different initiative bringing data and even models onto their cloud, and helping sponsor research efforts that way. One of the
I know we’ve had the SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence which has essentially been a crowd-sourced data processing, any initiative that would harness the interest of the tech community at large would be very well received if its focused on climate, no doubt.
Well, I hope so. Part of what SilverLining is doing is trying to help foster these kinds of initiatives that will sit at the intersection of tech climate problems and help move that process along more quickly.
There is a National Academy of Sciences study on sunlight reflection research. What are some takeaways on that from your perspective, and could that change things?
This is exciting, I’ve been involved with the National Academy of Sciences for a few years, as a member of their President’s Circle, and many people may not be as familiar with the National Academy of Sciences as I am, but they’re a body that was established over 100 years ago, they’re an independent organization, so they’re not a governmental entity, but to provide independent scientific advice and counsel to the nation. So they’re often called the public congress or government agencies to put together groups of experts to study different questions as pertains to science and policy. It was National Academy of Science’s studies that were responsible for the National Highways system, for the National Parks system, for public universities system, our national labs, so when they do these studies they have a process that is really effective looking at the state of the science, and where it is, and what it implies for how we should think about a problem like say a nuclear energy today, where it might need to go, and what we might need to research in future.
They did a study in 2015 to look at this question of what are technical interventions in
Now, based on their work and also a proposal from representative
Yes, I’ve been an advocate for that, and I think there’ll be other things in the future where the goal is to make sure from my perspective, and SilverLining’s perspective is that within the next 10-years we have the understanding that we need, and we’ve created some options to ensure that we’re always keeping our people and our natural systems safe. One of my friends in the political community said, ‘You need to talk about a fire-extinguisher for the planet’, maybe not a
In a sense this is a moon shot, it’s a global moon shot of sorts, and one of the dividends that have come from a lot of the work that was initially applied to the space program was, technologies that were able to be applied in daily life, or even for commercial areas, and I could see certainly in forestry, in fishing, in agriculture, there may be some real applicability from some of the technologies, tools, and techniques that come from some of the focus on the bigger climate problems.
I’d like to get a sense as we look forward, what gives you the greatest optimism, and what are some of the concerns that keep you up at night?
Firstly, I’ll say that’s a really great point
In terms of where I get optimism, I think there are two big places I get optimism, one is, I’m here in Silicon Valley and I have exposure to work that’s being done at Stamford, at the Stamford Linear Accelerator, at Park, Barclay, and I get contacted by people in related fields all over the world, and I truly believe that advances in material
I believe that. We have this little question though that the climate system problem looks like its moving faster than that. So, what keeps me awake at night is that right now we don’t have things to come on stream fast enough for some of these risks, big-big risks that we’re running in the 2050’s – 2040’s time rising. Then the other thing that keeps me hopeful is that the full weight and force of the tech industry has not been applied to this problem yet. So, if we can bring it on, I believe we can get some really big progress quickly based on what I know of people in tech, so that gives me a lot of hope, and when I talk to people that gives them hope too.
Now, we just have to do it.
Yes. I think the industry needs more people like you to evangelize the problem, and call to arms as it were; we’ve got the big investments in
Oh, I absolutely agree. Right now, today, there are vastly more resources going into the question of what you’re going to buy at the store
What was that joke? I think it was one of the founders of Hadoop, was it Jeff Hammerbacher who said, ‘I see the best minds of my generation focused on getting people to click on ads, instead of solving great problems of our era’!
That’s exactly right, and we don’t even need all those resources to be applied to this, we just need some modest reaction focused this way for big jumps. So, that’s an optimistic thing.
We do need to call to arms, and I think you’re extraordinarily articulate in defining the challenge and the problem, and the opportunity ahead. I do hope that people who hear this
That is a fantastic community, and I appreciate your podcast community also.
Let’s hope that the message resonates as much with others, as it has with me for this conversation. I really want to thank you
If it’s okay with you I’m going to give you two films and a book?
Two films related to the
- A film called ‘Chasing Coral’, which is about what’s happening to the coral reefs in the face of climate change. It’s a wonderfully entertaining and coolly shot film, told from the perspective of an ad executive who wanted to figure out how to communicate something that people can’t see. Chasing Coral is an amazing film, available on Netflix.
- The second one is a new one called, ‘The Hole’. It’s a one-hour film available on YouTube, it’s the story of how people got together to solve the problem of the ozone hole, which is an existential problem for humanity, a few decades ago, and they did it. So, this is a wonderful brief film about that.
As far as books go, the book I’ve most commonly been giving to people is a book called, ‘Altruism’, by a chemist and Buddhist monk named Matthieu Ricard. He wrote another famous book called, ‘Happiness’, he sits at the intersection of economics, science, and mindfulness. Altruism is a beautiful book.
I’ve heard fantastic things about him, and I shook his hand once in Hong Kong, but I didn’t get to see him speak. Those are terrific recommendations, we’ll put recommendations to those in the show notes.
This has been a great conversation. Again, this has been Kelly Wanser who is Executive Director of SilverLining, and I’m Ed Maguire the Insights partner at Momenta Partners, and we thank all of you to listening to another episode of our Edge Podcast. Especially thanks to you Kelly for sharing all your thoughts.
Thanks very much