I had never spoken with Carol Stimmel until a few weeks ago, when I was just starting on the project of rebooting Gigaom Research, and she and I connected. I think this is going to be the start of a long association, because of our shared interests.
Carol’s also the first to be featured in this series, Meet The Analyst, where I will be asking Gigaom Research Analysts the same basic questions, and seeing where that leads.
About Carol Stimmel
Carol Stimmel is an Analyst for Gigaom Research (see her Gigaom Research bio) and the founder and CEO of Manifest Mind.
From the Manifest Mind website:
Carol founded Manifest Mind to ensure that companies and investors have the information they need to make enduring investment decisions in the complex world of cleantech and sustainability. Carol’s integrity, years of experience, independent spirit, and ability to create expert teams on-demand, have rapidly made Manifest Mind a trusted source of insight for assessing opportunities in developing human economies, the built environment, and natural ecosystems.
Carol has 25 years in emerging technology markets including operations, research and analysis, and product design. She is a frequent speaker and author of Big Data Analytics Strategies for the Smart Grid, The Manager Pool, and is finishing her book on Smart Cities (2015). She holds several key technology patents with myriad co-inventors, with several pending including a design for an autonomic computing system for distributed generation management, and energy benchmarking.
Stowe Boyd: What’s the short version of your research agenda these days, and what’s the most important trend you’re tracking?
Carol Stimmel: I’m working on two major tracks of research, designing technology solutions for smart cities and future tech, which includes the Internet of Things (IoT), nanomedicine, and machine learning as they relate to sustainable social, environmental, and economic advancement. Both these tracks converge at one key point, which is the practices and principles of technology design in the service of humans. This means that before deploying technology to optimize cities, improve electrification, and accelerate innovation, we fully understand broad goals and specific impacts using well-tested approaches to human-centric design.
When I wrote my most recent book, Building Smart Cities: Analytics, ICT, and Design Thinking (2015), I suggested that the smart city vision that we can create an optimized society through technology is hypothetical at best, and this perspective reflects the failed repetition through the ages of equating scientific progress with positive social change. Up until now, despite our best hopes and efforts, technology has yet to bring an end to scarcity or suffering. Technical innovation, instead, can and should be directed in the service of our shared cultural values, especially within the rapidly growing urban milieu. I argued that creating human-centered approaches to our cities is the only way to integrate our human needs and technology to meet our economic, environmental, and existential needs. The book shows how this approach can lead to innovative, livable urban environments that are realizable, practical, and economically and environmentally sustainable.
My previous book, Big Data Analytics Strategies for the Smart Grid (2014), was the inspiration for the stream of research focused on future tech, because of the widespread use of sensor technology and the platform approach in the energy industry. More broadly, in the case of future tech, we classify and explore the world of advanced sensor technology, robotics, the IoT, nanomedicine, life extension, renewable energy, and virtual reality from the perspective of the knowledge commons founded in the principles of open-source. Clearly the vital field of open-source software has proven itself a massive global incubator for ideas and their realization. With no barriers to entry, nearly anyone can join in and make huge contributions to the field of inquiry, yet many of today’s public and private enterprises inhibit rapid and required innovation. Research in this area must define new models of open innovation, and with it new strategies for identifying problems, breaking them down into the right questions, directing resources in research and development, interpreting results, disseminating information, manufacturing and distributing products, and commercializing future tech that can bring leverage the knowledge commons for social, cultural, and economic advantage.
SB: What was the biggest surprise of the past 12 months in the markets you follow?
As someone with a philosophy background, I’ve been amazed at the recent level of discussion of artificial intelligence in the public forum driven by the tidal wave of new technologies being unleashed in our world. This is especially true where the unique character of human conversation and thought is being managed, controlled, and messaged more and more every day. This is a discussion that has been around since we began formalizing scientific inquiry, but never has it been so broadly and fervently discussed. The most remarkable to me was when Elon Musk among others notables, such as Stephen Hawking and Steve Wozniak, identified AI as one of the most dangerous existential threats we face — a terrifying warning from some of the greatest technologists of the modern era. – Carol StimmelCS: As someone with a philosophy background, I’ve been amazed at the recent level of discussion of artificial intelligence in the public forum driven by the tidal wave of new technologies being unleashed in our world. This is especially true where the unique character of human conversation and thought is being managed, controlled, and messaged more and more every day. This is a discussion that has been around since we began formalizing scientific inquiry, but never has it been so broadly and fervently discussed. The most remarkable to me was when Elon Musk among others notables, such as Stephen Hawking and Steve Wozniak, identified AI as one of the most dangerous existential threats we face — a terrifying warning from some of the greatest technologists of the modern era. At the same time, there is a not unsubtle reaction from others who are pushing their own advanced technology agendas through philanthropic gestures, but which seem to have mostly tended towards quite cynical attempts to get innovation on the cheap to promote their own for-profit entities without any kind of ethical foundation. These particular efforts, seem a very short-sighted view of innovation and understanding of the importance of a moral framework in designing new sustainable technologies.
If anyone doubts this conversation is happening in earnest now — or that it will force a regulatory response — they need only consider the hitchhiking robot that was beheaded in Philadelphia. So maybe the offenders just wanted the electronics in it’s “head,” but that story raised serious issues about how we relate to computers that appear to think like a person, or contain neural networks that can replicate activities of the human brain, including vision, body movement, and language. The very language of response used to describe his “ripped off arms and legs” and “beheading” of essentially a bucket with a smart phone taped to it is profound. Yes, I’m surprised at how the conversation arrived, but it’s here.
And it will shake up the markets to follow, because technology is is not easily fading into the background anymore, it’s being responded to — greater numbers of people understand how technology fundamentally works and fails, and their awareness and thoughtfulness about it will change product strategies and marketing of products for sure. This is especially true as big data applications wend their ways even further into our lives and as key motivators in our decision-making processes for what we buy, the directions we follow, how we communicate in 140 characters, and even how we choose our relationships.
SB: Yes, we might consider the assault of the hitchhiking robot some sort of turning point, looking back in a few years. Or Musk and Hawking’s concerns about AI.
CS: Well, I think it’s not just about the nature of AI, but how we think about ourselves as human beings. Do we want to fight war with AKs strapped to expendable robots? Will a child being born today pick up a copy of The Iliad and miss every cultural reference? Perhaps the question of AI could not be anything other than an existential one; one that might render Plato to a footnote as the idea of what it means to be a human cracks and shifts.
SB: Can you offer up a truly edgy prediction likely in the next year or so, and what is the likely fallout for our clients?
We will see a dramatic (albeit quiet) upsurge in the buying and leasing of livestock, agriculture, highway borders, brownfields, commercial and industrial properties, and poorly-protected recreation land upon which to begin siting utility-scale solar and wind farms. – Carol Stimmel
CS: I believe I can, and it’s something that has been on the periphery of my awareness since the 2009 ARRA funding cycle, but became front and center when I moved to the upper Hudson Valley in New York. About the time I got here after 26 years in Boulder, I realized that a high-pressure fracking pipeline was about to be upgraded, which implies more than underground assets, but compressor stations (these can be quite awful to live near, without question). It was not mentioned by the realtor or the previous homeowner, and there was no obligation for them to do so. I found this shocking and of course, academically interesting. I started voraciously reading about property value impacts, energy infrastructure, the social costs of “NIMBY-ism,” and then the history and current practices of eminent domain. With all that in mind, a horrible thought occurred to me when I noticed the horse property behind me was for sale — what if the owner of that land sold it to a windfarm aggregator. He could do it easily enough and the onus would be on me and my neighbors to fight it and all that it would imply: roads, high-voltage transmission, changes in air pressure, shadow flicker, and habitat disruption. As mentioned, I live in NY, which is under great regulatory pressure to increase the penetration of renewables into its generation mix; market policy which is rippling across the US and the world as a market driven way to mitigating anthropogenic climate change. We can expect that new forms of distributed generation at utility scale will emerge. So, what is this going to look like?
My prediction is that we will see a dramatic (albeit quiet) upsurge in the buying and leasing of livestock, agriculture, highway borders, brownfields, commercial and industrial properties, and poorly-protected recreation land upon which to begin siting utility-scale solar and wind farms. Where land cannot be acquired easily, the use of eminent domain will be deployed to seize property with perpetual leases from private landowners in much the same way as other infrastructure lands are acquired. The same set of regulations that are used today for large infrastructure easements will be actively deployed for renewables projects, and will broadly raise concerns about what many have determined is an uneven playing field between landowners and developers.
Given the rising awareness of how fracking has impacted our environment and the people who live near fracking operations, the backlash against the regulation of these operations, and the new activist role that both the federal and state governments are playing in energy regulatory policy, statutory reform is on the near-term horizon and the end of the perpetual easement for energy projects (which has been threatened against conservation land trusts for years) is a real possibility. What will occur, is a shifting of the dialogue among proponents of clean energy as NIMBY-ism and the questions of collective benefit run headlong into issues of private ownership rights. Renewable energy projects will no longer just be “plain good,” they will be much more complex and require well-thought out regulation and governance that will directly impact the market.
SB: I’ve been tracking the fast-dropping costs of solar: isn’t that an area that is more likely to see growth in the next few years, rather than wind power?
CS: That’s a question I hear a lot, and I try to encourage more holistic thinking about costs. For example, if one thinks about the cost of pollution, that includes factors such as resource depletion and manufacturing impacts, solar power doesn’t necessarily fare well when compared against wind. Simply, the manufacture of solar panels is carbon intensive and depletes metal resources at a greater rate than turbine components. But, let’s put that economic perspective aside for the moment — the nature of distributed energy is just that, a distributed variety of generation sources from utility-scale wind and solar, to rooftop solar, storage, and batteries. This is important from the viewpoint of resiliency, but also geographic and climatic factors. Wind turbines can go places that solar can’t, and the sun isn’t shining at night. Both have benefits and drawbacks, so if I may say, focusing solely on “buying cheap,” is in this case is a false economy.
SB: Thanks for your time, Carol.
CS: I really enjoyed it, Stowe. Thanks very much.