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WHY CHEAP NATURAL GAS IS GOOD, AND ALSO TERRIBLE

In our last issue, editor David Rotman (in his review “King Natural Gas”) examined how a glut of natural gas is hindering green energy. Putting a price on carbon dioxide is often suggested as a way to boost green energy, but the review noted that natural gas is now so cheap it could be offset only by a carbon price that is too high to be politically viable. This annoyed Neil Frazer, a geophysics professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa: “I’m tired of hearing economists saying that a carbon tax isn’t politically feasible. Their job, surely, is to tell us what would work, not whether it is politically feasible. Taxes on alcohol and tobacco were both politically infeasible before they were enacted.”

One online commenter, intarz, lamented the lack of ingenuity when it comes to clean energy: “I would hate to see a bust in the wind area. I just drove out west and the number of wind farms in Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, and Kansas is staggering. But scattered wind farms will never be effective as long as the industry wants to distribute the power through lines. They should think of alternative distribution schemes. Trains loaded with batteries. Can the electrolyte be charged and pumped in plastic lines from the charging source to the decharging point? I don’t have the answers, but I am surprised the industry seems to consider it efficient to produce power on the plains but ignores the cost to distribute it.”

Rajat Sen, another online commenter, felt the new glut of cheap fossil fuels was fine, but we shouldn’t dupe ourselves into thinking it will last forever. “Shale oil and gas are changing our energy economy for the better. Some say these resources can last as long as 100 years, while other estimates are much lower. No matter which side is correct, the resources are limited. They do give us some breathing room to develop sensible energy policies and develop new technologies that are less harmful to the environment. We should use that time wisely.”

THE INTERNET IS ABOUT TO GET CONFUSING

ICANN, the body that oversees Internet domains, wants to make all sorts of new domains available: instead of just .com, .net, and so forth, it wants to consider the likes of .book, .restaurant, and .carinsurance. Writer Wade Roush took a critical look at the possibilities (in his review “ICANN’s Boondoggle”) and saw a world of confusion and greed. Many readers agreed. “The apologists of this new program are happy to use words like competition and choice,” wrote Dylanj in an online comment. “However, you’ll notice that most of the rhetoric comes from those who stand to directly benefit from it. When you see all those involved in the program, they are seldom people who seem genuinely there for a good cause. Instead, you see smart people working hard to ensure they make a lot of money while producing almost no real value to the Internet ecosystem and probably a lot of unnecessary confusion.”

Natcohen was similarly bothered: “For whose benefit is ICANN overseeing the Internet? The main beneficiary of ICANN’s decisions seem to be—big surprise—ICANN itself. Is ICANN responding to a huge public clamor for more domain extensions? No. They just decided to create huge new territories on the Internet and auction off the rights to that territory, keeping all the money for themselves.”

Not everyone is outraged, however. “The basic premise of this article is all wrong,” wrote Tom Barrett in an online comment. “Who are you or anyone else to decide if there is a good reason for the Internet expansion? We should be encouraging startup activity, not trying to hold it back.”

YOU CALL THESE PEOPLE INNOVATORS?

Our September issue featured our annual list of “35 Innovators Under the Age of 35.” Gary Calabrese of Corning, New York, wrote to say that although he enjoyed the feature, he had a -quibble with our use of the term “innovator.” “Although all of these folks are certainly very creative and inventive, many cannot be declared ‘innovators’ until their inventions deliver tangible economic or societal value. The promise of a breakthrough from an idea or even a patentable invention does not make it an innovation until someone somewhere actually finds it valuable enough to use.”

As for our Entrepreneur of the Year, Ren Ng, creator of a camera whose images can be refocused even after the shot has been taken, one commenter, Mahonj, felt the innovation in question was a neat trick with little practical value: “While the technology is impressive, I think Dr. Ng has solved a problem that didn’t need to be solved. I have never heard people fuming about photographs focused on the wrong object. In fact, most real photographers want to limit the range of focus by using fast lenses and large, SLR-sized sensors. That is what you read about on the camera websites. The technology may be impressive, but the results aren’t compelling. Focusing on the flower or the mountain is a party trick. It doesn’t fulfill a real need.”

THE ROBOTS ARE READY TO SERVE YOU NOW

Our business report on automation investigated all the ways that machines are transforming how we do business. Eugene Chuvyrov, in an online comment, wondered if our senior business editor, Antonio Regalado, was overstating the case in his introductory essay, “Automate or Perish.” “I program machines for a living,” Chuvyrov wrote, “and I do not believe in the singularity, nor do I believe in the economy being a zero-sum game (machines win, humans lose). In fact, the promises of AI have largely remained unfulfilled. Can you really trust Siri, or reliably use Google Translate for more than a six-word sentence? I think we have quite a ways to go before the Terminator days. I suspect the lack of job growth in recent years has a lot more to do with political issues than with automation ones.”

Another commenter, Qev, wondered where all this was leading: “Throughout history, the natural response to displacement (in this case due to automation) was large-scale human migration. But where on earth (or in space, for that matter) is there a place where the tasks or operations still require a large pool of living, breathing, self-aware humans?”

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