Planet-Saving Robots? Robert Downey Jr. Is on to Something

Earlier this month, Robert Downey Jr. announced that he was forming a new organization, the Footprint Coalition, to apply technology to “clean up” the planet.  The coalition’s website is still scant on details, just a teaser for news to come. But regardless of how Downey Jr.’s grand plan shapes up, the idea is notable for its premise: New tools can and should be developed to understand and protect the natural world. I, for one, welcome these new conservation technologists.

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p class=”paywall”>The moment demands it. There is a growing sense, which I first heard articulated by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala, that writing scientific papers about wildlife and wild places feels like writing the obituary for the planet. A recent UN report on biodiversity loss warned about the potential loss of more than 1,000,000 species around the world. Scientists are providing an increasingly thorough documentation of the dire state of the natural world, but that accounting has largely been met with inaction. We desperately need more tech companies, entrepreneurs, and engineers to adopt a 21st century conservation ethic.

Luckily, Downey Jr. is certainly not the first to propose tech solutions for our environmental woes. Current conservation technology efforts span from big companies like Microsoft, who appointed a chief environmental officer and announced the $50 million AI for Earth program, to startups like Conservation X Labs, which is building a handheld DNA barcoding device to help combat the illegal wildlife trade. The list of technologies range from tree-planting drones to devices hoping to crack the communication barrier with whales and dolphins. Even big environmental NGOs like National Geographic and The Nature Conservancy are establishing technology labs and startup accelerators. It’s a diverse, decentralized, and growing effort.

Technology has a role, and it’s more specific than activists like Downey may realize. Robots and nanotechnology alone will not solve our environmental problems. If we’ve learned any lesson in this digital age, it’s that technology and technologists should not be blindly trusted. If anything, the focus on “solving” a problem often creates more of a mess than the one it aspires to fix. The importance of engineers and technologists adopting a conservation ethic has much less to do with finding silver bullet solutions and much more about building infrastructure and enabling more people to take responsibility for their environmental impact.

I’ve learned this first hand through our work at Sofar Ocean Technologies as we’ve undertaken the Science Exploration Education Initiative—a nonprofit effort we launched last year that aims to donate hundreds of Trident Underwater Drones to conservation and education projects around the world. We’ve sent out more than 200 Tridents thus far. To date, the recipients include people protecting seahorse habitats in Portugal and groups surveying remote coral reefs in the Indian Ocean. Each project is unique and inspiring. Tools like the Trident drones are an instigating catalyst for individual and community action. Creating a sense of agency is just as important as the technology.

The iNaturalist app is another good example of technology that promotes positive environmental engagement. It’s a free-to-use mobile app that allows anyone to take and submit a photo of flora and fauna. The app helps to identify the plant through a machine learning algorithm powered by millions of verified submissions. Then the ID is confirmed or corrected by any one of the thousands of naturalists scrolling through the site. It’s easy to use, but it’s also helping us collect important data for conservation, like the first-ever photos of a living Colombian Weasel.

Unlike global warming, which requires large-scale government cooperation, biodiversity loss is often local and actionable. We need more technologists supporting the front lines of this effort, with the tools and broad reach necessary to restore ecological balance to the world.

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