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How the network of human minds can save Earth

National Geographic Emerging Explorer Albert Yu-Min Lin uses a suite of non-invasive technologies, like satellite imagery, remote sensors, and ground-penetrating radar, to explore the world’s wild places without disturbing them and set the stage for their future conservation. Nat Geo News Watch contributor Brian Handwerk interviewed Lin about the opportunities presented by innovation and technology to help us be better stewards of our planet.

By Brian Handwerk

Albert Lin engaged on a legendary adventure–a non-invasive search for the tomb of Genghis Khan, known as the Valley of the Khans Project. With high-tech help, including valuable online input from thousands of “armchair explorers,” he hopes to close in on the prize. But the Calit2-based engineer also has his eyes on a much bigger picture, a world where rapidly developing technological tools provide a powerful force for positive change but also the danger of disconnection with what it means to be human.

Your brand of exploration covers new ground, but doesn’t it also explore the ways in which new technologies might be used?

Engineering has driven exploration since the beginning of time. Alexander Graham Bell, a founder of the National Geographic Society, was an engineer and he used the tools of technology to try to drive more understanding of the world.

Today the tools we have are improving every single day at an exponential rate, and the pace of innovation is so fast we have to remember not to pigeonhole. We’re exposed to so much innovation, so much cool stuff is going on, that it’s hard to sift through it all and find out where opportunities lie. But it’s possible and the opportunities are much greater than ever before.

“I don’t want humanity to become some type of big machine or human computer.”

On the other hand, if we forget the point of all this development and progress then we’re just going to end up making things faster, lighter, and stronger. I don’t want humanity to become some type of big machine or human computer. My feeling is that as technology progresses we can choose to use it to try to understand more about what sets us apart, what makes us human.

How are you using technologies to that end in your search for Genghis Khan’s tomb?

What we are able to do is to apply technologies developed for different fields, like satellite remote-sensing, unmanned aircraft, and geophysical surveying. Satellite imaging wasn’t developed for archaeological purposes but it can be used for them–and why not? We’re trying to use technology to do a non-invasive, remote sensing search–we didn’t roll over a single stone–and answer one of the greatest mysteries of our time.

With the Valley of the Khans project we’re hoping to gain knowledge in a way that maintains respect for local traditions of not disturbing any sacred sites. And as we learn about these areas I hope we can also provide a tool, the knowledge which Mongolians can use to protect them, perhaps by creating special areas like UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

albert-calit-erik-jepsen_20453_600x450.jpg

Photograph courtesy Calit2, Erik Jepsen 

You’ve also used communications and networking technology to harness the power of many human brains working together right?

That was one example of how technology drives exploration. We got the public to look at millions of bits of high-resolution satellite images online and try to tell us what they saw that was weird or different in the landscape. People would look at satellite images and tell us where to go, and in Mongolia we would physically jump on a horse and go check it out.

We could have probably used a computer-generated algorithm to look at those images but we didn’t even know what we were looking for, and we would never have been able to get those algorithms to use human intuition to look at photographs and know what’s weird or interesting. The collective intelligence of people online was more powerful as a whole than any computer could ever have been. This is how technology is going back and utilizing what is human to go beyond its limitations, and it could be done for all types of exploration while getting people to actively participate.

You’d like to take these kinds of tools beyond exploration to accomplish conservation and other ends?

Absolutely. Access to information is becoming somewhat unlimited. A universe has been created out of our minds and you’ve got entire societies being built that supersede societies that exist in reality. Networks are developing into platforms that change the way we look at everything, from politics to entertainment to education, because of this mind-numbing expansive and complete technological revolution.

“A universe has been created out of our minds and you’ve got entire societies being built that supersede societies that exist in reality.”

So you have people from all types of cultures, around the world, collaborating on something. That crowd is being developed into a social network and we see now that social networks can actually be guided to specific tasks. You can ask them to vote in a presidential campaign or find out whether they like one kind of Coke can over another kind of Coke can. You can tell them to look for an anomaly in some mass of imagery.

These networks gain a collective consciousness, an ability to work as one big massive blob of minds, which allows us to have a group consciousness about what we really care about.

So what if we can use the development of technology to get people to really care about the planet? That would be the most powerful step and that’s what we saw in a case like the oil spill. They attached a web cam to the (wellhead) and that brought it home to everybody. On the Internet it was easy for everyone to see and all of a sudden it was relevant and real and people cared. Global monitoring of the environment is something that we need to think about very carefully as information networks evolve. It could be a very powerful tool.

What worries you about the pace of technological change?

I would hate to think the technologies we’ve developed would be used to make us think less. But these tools are so powerful in so many ways that they can distract us and make us forget what’s important because everything is so easy now.

Now with technology, in a lot of ways we’ve developed such detachment from our beginnings that most people today have never killed an animal but eat a ton of meat. They’ve never planted a seed but they eat all sorts of wheat products. We’ve gotten to the point where some of the things developed out of all this extra time are starting to destroy the foundations from which everything began and making it impossible to maintain the resources that we need to survive on a long-term sustainable basis.

So technology may pose a problem of sustainability?

One of the biggest revolutions in technology that will define us in our age is the fact that we’ve created an unprecedented network of information transfer. People can exchange information across oceans in a matter of seconds. Our responsibility as humans is to use that network of information towards the goals of a collective consciousness–and in my mind what’s most needed is maintaining sustainable development as we go forward.

We’ve lost focus on that and we need to be thinking about it more than ever. So many things we see today, cars, computers, satellites, didn’t exist at this level 100 years ago. If this trend continues how is the planet going to look after the next 100 years?

“The technologies we’ve developed depend so much on resources that might not always be there that we could create a house on stilts that could soon lose its foundation.”

Unless we start using this tool, communication and social networks, to really think together about how we can steward the planet in a responsible way then we’re heading towards a collision course. The technologies we’ve developed depend so much on resources that might not always be there that we could create a house on stilts that could soon lose its foundation.

On the other hand, do you see that same technology offering hope for the future?

I am hopeful. Inspiration happens in the mind of a single individual. With the technology we have today innovation happens at the level of a couple of people having a conversation.

Genghis Khan took technologies from one part of his world and brought them together with technologies from another part of that world to write one of the great stories of human expansion. But now we can take cutting-edge technologies and combine them with literally the click of a button.

If we all want to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, for example, I am sure there is a way in which collectively we can get the millions of points of innovation that exist and put them into a framework that meets that goal. So technology has made change easier–but the next step is to be sure we do it correctly.

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