Energy, the Environment, and What We Can Do

A while ago I gave a talk at Google. Since I think we should cut unnecessary travel, I decided to stay here in Singapore and give the talk virtually, in the form of a robot:

I thank Mike Stay for arranging this talk at Google, and Trevor Blackwell and Suzanne Broctao at Anybots for letting me use one of their robots!

Here are the slides:

Energy, the Environment, and What We Can Do.

To see the source of any piece of information in these slides, just click on it!

And here’s me:

This talk was more ambitious than previous ones I’ve given—and not just because I was struggling to operate a robot, read my slides on my laptop, talk, and click the pages forward all at once! I said more about solutions to our problems this time. That’s where I want to head, but of course it’s infinitely harder to describe solutions than to list problems or even to convince people that they really are problems.

18 Responses to Energy, the Environment, and What We Can Do

  1. grlcowan says:

    What did I say before about your naive belief that fossil fuels are net subsidized? Probably that if this were so, they would be hard to get, like subsidized housing, and wasteful use of them, e.g. speeding on public roads, or long idling of vehicles, would draw a strong police response, since the more a motorist burns subsidized fuel, the less is left for paid public servants, including those same police.

    I hope you’ll look into this more deeply.

  2. grlcowan says:

    … where by “the less is left”, sorry for poor editing, I don’t just tautologically mean less fuel; I mean less money.

  3. jamievicary says:

    This looks like a great, clear talk! Aside from not burning any fossil fuels, what were the pros and cons of your robot form? Were you able to chat to the audience before or after the talk in anything resembling a natural way?

    I think it would be better if the carbon dioxide concentration graphs had y-axes starting at 0.

    • John Baez says:

      Jamie wrote:

      Aside from not burning any fossil fuels, what were the pros and cons of your robot form?

      The main advantage was that I didn’t have to fly to Google. That’s great, of course, not just for the environment but because it’s no fun wasting two days flying and getting enormous jet-lag. But I could have gotten that advantage by videoconferencing: the robot wasn’t necessary for that.

      I described the main disadvantages in my reply to Derek below. It would have been easier to give the talk as a videoconference.

      Were you able to chat to the audience before or after the talk in anything resembling a natural way?

      That’s one place where the Anybot worked well—not surprisingly, since that’s what it was really designed for: one-on-one interactions, not giving talks. I could see people a lot better when they were close up, and they could see the little image of me a lot better.

      It was also fun after the talk watching people at Google do a slight double-take as they walked by Mike Stay talking to a robot about his thesis on symmetric monoidal bicategories. Of course, it being Google, they tried to act very nonchalant about it all. Like: “Okay, cool: last week it was cars that drive themselves; now we have robots that know category theory.”

  4. Derek Wise says:

    Fun! This “telepresence” idea clearly needs more development before it really seems natural, but it’s nice to see that it’s already a workable possibility. Watching this, I get the impression it didn’t *feel* natural enough for you to really speak with the same ease you would have in person. There’s something really “organic” and interactive about giving a talk face to face with the audience that seems like it would be hard to simulate.

    (I also don’t remember you ever stuttering so much in person, so I guess there was a less than perfect connection between Palo Alto and Singapore.)

    • John Baez says:

      Unfortunately I did not have time to practice giving a talk using the Anybot. I practiced rolling it around their offices, but the talk required a lot of other actions that I’d never done before. Due to time limitations and technical difficulties, I wasn’t able to see the slides being shown to the audience. I also had no easy way to click something and get the next page of the talk to display. So, I needed to look at a PDF file of my talk on my laptop, send Mike Stay “next page” messages on Google Chat, roll the robot around a bit using the mouse, and watch the audience on a little window on my laptop, all simultaneously. And oh yeah: give a talk about how to solve the problem of climate change, too!

      So yes, it was a hair-raising experience.

      • Simplicio says:

        Honestly the “anybot” seems like a gimmick. I’ve given and attended remote talks using skype, and that seems to work much better. You can see your own slides, see the audience and are able to move your mouse around the slides to function as a laser pointer. Plus its a program that most speakers will already be familiar with.

        Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t really see where the ability to role the webcam around really adds anything.

        • John Baez says:

          Of course it was a gimmick! The only reason for using it was to attract attention to the talk and attract attention to the idea that robots can be used to reduce air travel. The Anybot is not designed for giving lectures and not particularly good for that purpose… though another sort of robot could be. It’s designed for things like getting an American business person to tour a manufacturing plant in China without actually going there.

        • Simplicio – I’m curious, how did you do it? What do you think is the best solution for giving a talk via Skype, and seeing and controlling your own slides remotely? One requirement is that the remote audience should see the high-res versions of the slides (i.e. downloaded before the time and running on a local computer in the audience) since a blurry Skype streaming image won’t do for those complicated climate change graphs!

  5. Tim van Beek says:

    I had expected more questions, because probably most people have already heard about global warming and a lot of people seem to have a settled opinion about it :-)

    Or did they wait to ask their questions to you personally after the talk?

    • John Baez says:

      I didn’t get too many questions. Most people who came to the talk seemed to believe that human-caused global warming is a real problem, so there wasn’t any sort of ‘skeptical’ debate as one might get sometimes. And since it was a talk during people’s work hours, they didn’t hang around too long. I think of it as just the start of a long travelling road show.

  6. Giampiero Campa says:

    Hi John, very nice talk !

    The economic objections are largely based on a ‘growth is good’ philosophy …

    I think it’s a little more than “a philosophy”, in the sense that lack of growth (in the GDP sense) causes widespread unemployment, which means real suffering for a lot of people, and troubles for businesses (both facts explain why governments are reluctant to take measures that might hinder growth).

    In a sense we are probably postponing the suffering and possibly pushing it towards the poorest, closer to the equator, and closer to the sea, countries (not to mention species on the extinction path).

    I guess the best way to minimize suffering would be to still pursue growth while switching to cleaner energy. That is, governments could tax carbon and use such taxes (but many more money would need to be “printed”) to massively build wind turbines and maybe thorium reactors, and redo the electrical grid, therefore also giving job to a lot of people.

    After that, at some point we would probably need to transition towards a zero-growth economy, but i think this needs to happen later, otherwise everything could be harder.

    In other words if somehow growth (in the GDP sense) would stop tomorrow, the CO2 emission rate will somehow decrease, but at the price of widespread suffering, and besides that, I fear that it would make it harder, not easier, the transition to cleaner energy sources.

    • John Baez says:

      Giampiero wrote:

      I think it’s a little more than “a philosophy”, in the sense that lack of growth (in the GDP sense) causes widespread unemployment, which means real suffering for a lot of people, and troubles for businesses …

      That’s true. But to some extent this is the result of government and business policies that are based on the ‘growth is good philosophy’. In other words, things are set up so they work smoothly only when there’s a constant exponential growth of GDP. This is the model we know and love. It’s very hard for businesses and governments to even conceive of another model.

      I’m trying to encourage people to start thinking about other models. And a first step is for people to stop defining growth to be good and start thinking about what’s really good—like you’re doing here! I like your ideas.

      I’m not advocating some instant drastic change in society.

      Luckily, I am also able to get people to start thinking about other models, and unable to cause an instant dramatic change in society.

  7. […] Baez gave a Google Tech Talk on the issue. The slides include links to more detailed arguments and his home page also links to […]

  8. […] Azimuth, John Baez links to his robot-supported talk on environmental issues at […]

  9. C. Ryback says:

    Hi! I saw this randomly on youtube and I have to say that it was very interesting. The conclusions, based in hard numbers, you present are hardly (and sadly) incontestable and you look into some simple, doable things as well as in creative stuff. And I loved that you sent your robot instead. I actually wasn’t aware that flying made such a tremendous impact, even relatively. But I have to constructively point what I think is a mistake: You shouldn’t end the presentation with such a disheartening line! ‘Will this stop global warming? No.’

    I’m not saying that you should lie or mislead in any way, but you can reformulate the question and make emphasis instead in another point, which is both true and positive. Like maybe adding something like ‘Will it help/Is it necessary? Hell yes’. Or maybe even scrap the first question entirely. You see, people like thinking that what they do really matters and visibly makes things better. A more positive presentation will get more people involved!

    That being said, I’ll be following the Azimuth Project closely, I love the idea. Best of lucks with it!

    • John Baez says:

      I like keeping my feet firmly on the ground and not raising false hopes—it actually makes me more, not less productive. But I agree, not everyone responds well to this. I’ll think about it more. Thanks!

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