Soul of the Sea In the Age of the Algorithm:
How Tech Startups Can Heal Our Oceans

Soul of the Sea In the Age of the Algorithm (How Tech Startups Can Heal Our Oceans) is a provocative new book published in October in conjunction with World Ocean Observatory Publications. Authored by Gregory S. Stone, Executive Vice President and Chief Scientist for Oceans at Conservation International, and Nishan Degnarain, co-head of the World Economic Forum Special Initiative on Oceans, Soul of the Sea explores how start-ups and new business models can heal our oceans through technology, innovation, and leadership.

“Our oceans are the single most important natural force on the planet,” the authors declare, “the invisible hand behind the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the moderate weather we enjoy. However, the past three generations of leaders have presided over the decline of our oceans — whether by omission or commission. Their cumulative efforts have not been equal to the forces acting against the oceans. We are precariously close to crossing planetary tipping points, beyond which there may be no turning back, and face the stark choice between a living ocean or a dead one.”

The authors weave together history, ecology, business, and geopolitics, leveraging their experience in science and conservation, economics and policy to address the best examples of revolutionary tools and financial models that could unleash vast new opportunities to sustain the ocean as nurturer and protector of human survival in the 21st century. New technologies and exponential organizations, combined with fresh leadership and values from millennials, they argue, could create radically new solutions that were inconceivable only a few years ago.

Authors Gregory Stone and Nishan Degnarain signing books at the Our Ocean Conference in Malta. (October 2017)

At one level, these solutions take advantage of the world of big data that we live in, the proliferation of observation systems, sensors and satellites, the exponential increase in processing power, and the reduction of costs for information recovery and storage. What happens, then, to conventional analyses of this knowledge when interpreted through algorithms, deep learning and artificial intelligence, providing a whole new set of predictive analytical capabilities? The authors ask us to “imagine a digital ocean avatar that would allow us to trial new activities in the ocean in the virtual world , before bringing this into the real world. As we start to become more advanced in new forms of deep sea energy, bio-engineering, dredging, drilling and aquaculture, we may wish to model our plans in an advanced virtual simulator such as this to predict the potential impact, and either make adjustments to minimize impact, or ensure that there are appropriate externality payments to compensate for any damage caused.”

They envision networks of autonomous vessels, and indeed such vessels are now moving from design to construction, using advanced telemetrics to operate the ships more efficiently and economically, facilitating location services, monitoring legal and illegal activities, powered by alternative, renewable fuels, and reducing labor costs and human error. They envision models of autonomous aquaculture designed to feed a burgeoning world population of 10 million or more, increasing productivity and consistency of farmed fish, re-using water, re-cycling by-product and waste, and improving the associated labor costs and human rights abuses that have been an unfortunate aspect of aquaculture in unsupervised or unregulated enterprise. They envision marine biological engineering, studying and replicating natural ocean processes and species behaviors, mimicking chemical, biological, and genetic material for protein synthesis and recombinant variations that can find form in applications for sustenance, physical and mental health. They envision deep energy platforms for new utilities — offshore wind, tidal, and geothermal conversion to provide economical and alternative energy for coastal communities, desalination plants, smart grids, internet connection, and a new community of makers.

Above all, they challenge the coming generation of leaders to set priorities, form and preserve coalitions, hold partners to account, ensure development of scalable solutions are at the right place and time, and maintain responsible, sustainable, and successful outcomes in a context of equity and social justice. These leaders “will need experience in leading large organizations in complex industrial and natural ecosystems, maintaining stability in governance, and fostering change.”

It’s time to stop talking about ocean problems and losses, and time to start talking about solutions and initiatives. Soul of the Sea does just that. It provokes our imagination, reveals the advantages that new technologies can bring, calls for creative and talented young people to apply their knowledge and skill in the ocean world, and provides a platform for optimism for a future sustained by the capacity of the sea. Find it at your local independent bookstore or on-line. Read it. Share Soul of the Sea with others. Let’s build our global community of Citizens of the Ocean.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.” Peter also owns and operates Leete’s Island Books, publisher of “Soul of the Sea.”

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Dedicated to proposals for change in ocean policy and action worldwide, linking unexpected people with unexpected ideas about the ocean.

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