Monday, August 28, 2023

Greenhouse Gas Abatement that Makes Some Sense: Methane-Sniffing Drones


Bad old carbon dioxide is not the only gas that contributes to the earth's net heat balance by trapping heat in the atmosphere.  Another commonly used gas—methane, the chief constituent of natural gas—is more than 25 times as effective as CO2 in trapping heat.  Fortunately, methane's lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter:  about 12 years as opposed to the hundreds of years it takes for CO2 to go away.  So doing something about methane emissions promises to have much more of a near-term effect than anything we do with CO2. 


Enter Percepto, a company founded in Israel which recently moved to Austin, Texas to market their services of sniffing out emissions of methane and 14 other gases using artificial-intelligence (AI)-equipped drones.  Their target market is refineries and petrochemical plants, where methane and other hydrocarbon gases can escape in leaks that can take days or weeks to find by technicians walking around with hand-held detectors.


Percepto's system, as outlined in an article that appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, consists of a drone equipped with a wavelength-selective camera.  Most hydrocarbon gases emit and absorb characteristic infrared wavelengths, and a cleverly-designed imaging spectrometer can present the user with a photograph showing a cloud of methane made as visible as a cloud of red smoke from a cherry-bomb firework. 


Finding and fixing such a leak is not only good safety practice.  In 2024, the Biden administration will begin to implement the Methane Emissions Reduction Program, a combination of over a billion dollars of funding to pay for programs like Percepto's, combined with steeply increasing fines for emitting methane and other greenhouse gases.  Ariel Avitan, co-founder of Percepto, saw a business opportunity in providing large firms with a means of tracking leaks that is faster and more comprehensive than the older methods.  So now, his firm is poised to help track down leaks and other sources of methane that have previously gone undetected.


Percepto is to be congratulated for seeing a market niche and exploiting it.  Methane itself is not a particularly valuable gas.  When the cost of transporting it from a wellhead to the market exceeds what it can be sold for, producers typically flare it by burning it at the source.  The government is coming down hard on flares, too, which may lead to other expensive issues, as even flares don't burn 100% of the gas they consume. 


In an ideal world we wouldn't waste or release any methane at all through oil and gas operations.  But even if we had a magic wand to do that, it would decrease the world's budget of methane release by only 14%.


According to the International Energy Agency in Paris, France, the most profligate source of methane emissions worldwide is a natural one.  Methane is emitted in wetlands by natural decomposition, and unless we are willing to drain all the wetlands, there's nothing we can do about the 32% that nature produces.  The next largest source is agriculture, at 23%—think flatulent cows (there aren't any other kind).  Oil and gas come next at 14%, then coal operations and something labeled as "waste," which probably means methane produced by landfills. 


If anyone thinks that we're going to stop global warming by fixing all our methane leaks, this means that there is a disappointment in store.  But in the current state of climate rhetoric, few people are going to think beyond the one step that can be summarized as "Greenhouse gases bad—must stop at any cost." 


As I have mentioned elsewhere, the climate has slowly been warming and the ocean levels slowly rising (we're talking millimeters here) since the early 1800s.  And now that CO2 levels have risen as much as they have, whatever effect that's going to have on the climate will be with us for the next couple of hundred years, even if we stopped 100% of all human activity that emits CO2, including breathing.  And stopping the breath of the 8 billion or so humans on the planet is exactly what some "deep ecologists" would like us to do—the folks who regard humanity as some kind of evil infestation of an otherwise pristine Earth.


The sensible thing to do—the thing that would let most of those 8 billion people enjoy some of the benefits of modern technology that we in the U. S. have enjoyed for many decades—is to figure out how to adapt to the relatively minor and certainly gradual changes that global warming is going to make, while picking low-hanging fruit with regard to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.  If there's a six-foot hole in a dike in one place and a three-inch crack in another, the only reasonable thing to do is go after the six-foot hole first.  And if you can more easily deal with the water over the dike than fix the dike, maybe that's the best thing to do.


Unfortunately, the debate—or more accurately, accepted doctrine—about global warming has left such notions behind.  Most world leaders and their cadres of experts have bought into the easily-propagated notion that if we don't do really drastic and painful things about greenhouse gas emissions right now, we're all going to die horrible deaths as the globe imitates an egg in a frying pan.  The fact that highly reputable people such as Steven Koonin have shown this oversimplification to be mostly false has no effect on something that has become the mass-psychology equivalent of a kind of hypochondria.  It's like a patient that comes to a doctor with a pimple on his nose and says it's cancer and he's sure it's going to kill him.


We would try to talk reason to such a person, but it's easier than trying to talk sense to an international community that has bought into a severely distorted picture wholesale, and created huge institutional incentives to keep the delusion going. 


Don't get me wrong. I'm glad Percepto saw their opportunity and took it.  People have a right to profit from laws that, however misconceived, do some incremental good.  And it's certainly a good thing to stop methane leaks, even if it costs millions of dollars to do so.  But one can still question the reasoning behind the laws, and wonder whether succeeding generations (if there are any) will scratch their heads over the strange panic about climate change that we are currently enduring.


Sources:  The article titled "Company using AI to detect gas leaks" appeared on page 1F of the Sunday, Aug. 27, 2023 edition of the Austin American-Statesman.  The International Energy Agency's website provided me with statistics about methane lifetime and sources.  Physicist Steven E. Koonin's book Unsettled? was published in 2021 by BenBella Books, Dallas.

Monday, August 21, 2023

AP Faces AI


The Associated Press, one of the most respected news organizations worldwide with a history dating to 1846, has taken on the issue of how its writers and editors should deal with generative AI, represented by chatbots such as ChatGPT.  Since its release late last year, ChatGPT has been used by everyone from elementary-school children to Ph. D. scientists, and most observers would agree that the results reach a new level of sophistication, human-like qualities, and accuracy—most of the time. 


Other forms of generative AI can produce audio segments, photos, and videos that look genuine but are in reality fabrications that never happened.  The AP has now taken a clear stance that such AI products should not be used unless they are clearly labeled as fabrications.  In this the AP is following the example of Wired, which flatly forbids any AI-produced content in their site unless the story is explicitly about AI and is used in examples. 


An Associated Press story by David Bauder quoted Amanda Barrett, AP's VP of news standards and inclusion, as saying, "Our goal is to give people a good way to understand how we can do a little experimentation but also be safe."  Editors can use AI to come up with headlines or interview questions, but the final product presented to readers must be "vetted carefully."  In other words, just because ChatGPT says something doesn't mean it's so. 


Such rules leave a fair amount of wiggle room.  For example, I can imagine a lazy reporter assigned to look into an obscure topic such as ball lightning, who might start by asking ChatGPT to write two or three paragraphs summarizing the subject.  The reporter would be obliged to check any alleged facts that ChatGPT comes up with, but that is a lot easier than looking for examples and writing the summary yourself. 


If the question comes up as to how much of a story was written by AI and how much by the human reporter, it won't be easy to answer.  When two people collaborate on a joint work that is repeatedly revised and re-edited, sometimes they lose track of whose sentence was whose, and the same will be true of AI.  Despite the AP's intention to keep AI in its place—namely, as simply another tool reporters can use—I suspect more and more content production is going to involve AI at some point. 


But the intent is clear:  when a reporter puts a byline on a story, the reporter is taking ultimate responsibility for every word.  And that is as it should be.  Nobody likes to get personalized letters from entities such as "The Google Team" or "Your friends at Acme Collection Agency."

And so the AP's insistence that however reporters put together a story, they must stand behind it instead of blaming AI for mistakes is only reasonable.


Still, we may be farther down the road of AI involvement in news reporting than you think.  In the same article describing AP's policies on AI, we learned that OpenAI, the developer of ChatGPT, has agreed to a deal with AP to "license" AP's archives going back to 1985.  Apparently this means granting OpenAI complete access to those archives, which may not be publicly available otherwise.  This has annoyed some content providers, who see it as an unfair use of their work without compensation.


The problem here is that to most people, often including the developers of generative AI themselves, exactly what the AI systems do with the trillions of bytes of data they scrape from various Internet sources is not clear, except that without those sources, the AI system would be as useful as mammary glands on a boar hog. 


Back in the olden days of plain plagiarism, if Author A wrote a certain book and Author B came up with a different book in which several verbatim pages of text from Author A's book appeared without attribution, you had an open-and-shut case of plagiarism. 


But if we allow an AI system to look at work created by humans, and then ask it to come up with something similar, and the work it produces doesn't have significant word-for-word copying of the original works, how is that any different from Thomas Mann reading the Bible and then writing Joseph in Egypt?  Mann was a human being, of course, but the process itself is in question here.  Clearly there are issues that our legal and ethical systems are going to have to come to grips with, and we are only beginning to do so.


The NewsGuild, a 26,000-member union of news reporters that includes many staff members of AP, has expressed concern that AI may replace human reporters in ways that will work to the detriment of the whole industry, not to mention the reporters whose jobs will disappear.  Nobody has been talking about walkouts, and in general the legacy media such as newspapers are in such parlous financial straits that organizations like the NewsGuild realize you can't get blood out of a turnip.  But they are right to worry that many outlets with less of a reputation to uphold than AP will grab onto ChatGPT and use it instead of live human beings to produce stuff that is good enough to attract clicks.


The AP itself is a non-profit cooperative supported by member news organizations, and so can take a somewhat above-the-fray view of things compared to an outfit that has to make a profit.  They are to be praised for addressing the public's concerns about AI-generated news, and I hope they can make their rules stick about how AI should and should not be used.  It should be easy enough to avoid blatant howlers of the type that ChatGPT seems prone to come up with—things like an entire legal brief full of citations that turn out to be imaginary.  But what concerns me is the more subtle effects of relying on ChatGPT for drafts, for instance.  All its written productions I have seen have had exemplary grammar, which is more than I can say for some news items written by humans.  When you take a hundred encyclopedias' worth of verbiage and put it in a digital blender, the words that come out may be arranged in correct grammar.  But they will lack that ineffable something that goes under the name of style.  And we may miss that more than we think. 


Sources:  David Bauder's article on AP's rules regarding AI can be found at  I also referred to related articles at and, and the Wikipedia article on NewsGuild.  As always, no AI tool was used in the writing of this article, you can rest assured. 

Monday, August 14, 2023

The Lahaina Fire: A Failure to Communicate


We think of Hawaii as being the stereotypical island paradise, where the weather is always ideal and nothing major can go wrong.  But on Monday, Aug. 7, the weather forecast on the island of Maui for Tuesday included near-hurricane-force winds of up to 65 mph (105 kph).  Combined with an unusually dry summer, this forecast meant that any fires which might start would spread, well, like wildfire.


Sure enough, shortly after Tuesday began, a little after midnight a fire in Maui's central Upcountry region was reported, and emergency management officials ordered some evacuations.  This fire attracted the attention of safety and fire officials throughout most of the day Tuesday.


In comparison to most other parts of the U. S., Hawaii is well equipped to notify its residents of emergency situations such as fires, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions.  An extensive network of alert sirens blankets the occupied parts of the islands, as well as electronic notifications that can be given through legacy media such as radio and TV as well as social media (Facebook, X—ex-Twitter‚ and so on).  So one would think that even a rapidly-spreading wildfire would not be able to keep residents from evacuating promptly.


Think again.  The historic town of Lahaina sits on the western coast of Maui and is accessible by only three main roads that go along the coastline.  Nestled between the ocean and the mountains, Lahaina was an attractive tourist destination with historic structures.  The following timeline was reported by the Associated Press.


When a second fire started near Lahaina before 7 A. M. Tuesday, firefighters converged on it and reported that it was contained by 11 A. M.  However, the fires had knocked out power to much of Lahaina and surrounding areas, which may have included cell towers.


The Upcountry fire continued to occupy the attention of officials even after the Lahaina fire escaped containment some time after noon.  By 3:30 PM, the fire's progress made officials decide to close the Lahaina Bypass road, one of the three main routes out of Lahaina. 

Around that time was when the Lahaina fire exploded.  Very few residents reported receiving any warning about the fire before it showed up at their doorstep.


Survivors describe cars in the downtown area being surrounded by flames, smelling smoke one minute and seeing their houses engulfed the next, and fleeing along the Lahaina Bypass only to be turned back by the roadblock.  Up until 4:30 PM, virtually nothing appeared about the Lahaina fire on any communications medium, and residents report that the sirens never sounded. 


At 4:30 P. M., residents of an inland subdivision of Lahaina were instructed by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency to evacuate to a civic center north of town.  But by then, much of the damage had been done, and the fire continued to spread toward the coastline.  By 5:20, the Lahaina Bypass roadblock was lifted, but by then many residents of Front Street near the coast had fled to the shoreline and were either treading water in the ocean or hiding on the shore away from the worst of the flames.  More announcements came warning residents of Lahaina to shelter in place, but if your place is going up in flames, that's not good advice. 


At this writing (Sunday morning Aug. 13), the death toll stands at 80, making this natural disaster one of the worst in Hawaii's recent history.  While it is too soon to make a thorough assessment of what went wrong, experience and the little we know now can help us make some preliminary judgments.


First, the Lahaina fire wasn't the only emergency happening that day.  The earlier Upcountry fire engaged the attention of emergency management personnel to the extent that information from Lahaina may not have been acted upon as fast as it might have been otherwise.


Second, the widespread power failure may have crippled a number of electronic communications systems.  Sirens may or may not have backup power sources so that they will work when utility power fails.  If the ones in Lahaina didn't have backup power and the power was out, this would explain why no one heard sirens before the fire.  Also, although most cell tower stations have some form of backup power, the emergency power source doesn't always work properly.  And a cell tower with its ground-level equipment engulfed in flames is unlikely to be of much help anyway.


Third, it is pretty clear that some well-intentioned actions of officials actually made things worse.  Closure of a road that has smoke from fires crossing it is a prudent measure, as tragic traffic accidents on interstates suddenly enveloped in smoke attest.  But when the people needing to use the road are fleeing for their lives, that should take precedence over lesser considerations, if the officials in charge know what is going on.  It looks like the Lahaina fire moved so fast that it was hard for officials (or anyone else) to know what was happening. 


One reason that overall global deaths from natural disasters have been declining for the last several decades is that electronic communications can give advance warning to people who would otherwise be in harm's way.  Tornado fatalities in the U. S., for example, can be averted by timely warnings of specific storms that include likely localities to be affected.


Unlike tornadoes, fires can't be tracked by radar, at least not yet.  Until such technology is available, fire and safety officials have to rely on eyewitness reports to take appropriate actions, whether that consists of warnings, evacuation orders, or dispatch of fire-fighting resources.  The speed with which the high winds spread the Lahaina fire is unusual, but not unprecedented.  Clearly, the system of fire warning and protection was unprepared for what happened. 


Lessons learned from the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks about the failure of electronic emergency communications led to widespread improvements in interoperability and design of first-responder communications systems, as I wrote in a paper published in 2007.  We can hope that the sad lessons learned from the Lahaina fire will lead to upgrades in equipment and changes in policies that will make the emergency response to the next wildfire in Hawaii more robust, leading to more lives and property saved.


Sources:  I referred to an AP report published by PBS at and a map of the fire extent at  My paper "We've Got to Talk:  Emergency Communications and Engineering Ethics" was published in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol. 26, no. 3 pp. 42-48, Fall 2007.