New story in Technology from Time: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg Visits Lawmakers To Discuss Tech Industry Regulation

(WASHINGTON) — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg visited lawmakers Thursday to discuss potential regulation of the tech industry, particularly when it comes to the collection of users’ personal data on their platforms.

Zuckerberg is discussing oversight of the industry in private meetings with senators including Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee; Mike Lee, R-Utah, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., an outspoken conservative critic of Big Tech.

Congress has been debating a privacy law that could sharply rein in the ability of companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple to collect and make money off users’ personal data. A national law, which would be the first of its kind in the U.S., could allow people to see or prohibit use of their data.

Acting pre-emptively, Zuckerberg last spring called for tighter regulations to protect consumers’ data, control harmful online content, and ensure election integrity and data portability. The internet “needs new rules,” he said.

Facebook, a social media giant with nearly 2.5 billion users, is under heavy scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators following a series of privacy scandals and amid accusations of abuse of its market power to squash competition.

The Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission and the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee are all conducting antitrust investigations of the big tech companies, and a bipartisan group of state attorneys general has opened a competition probe specifically of Facebook.

It is Zuckerberg’s first public visit to Washington since he testified before Congress last spring about privacy, election interference and other issues.

At Facebook’s request, Warner helped organize a dinner meeting in Washington Wednesday night for Zuckerberg and a group of senators.

“The participants had a discussion touching on multiple issues, including the role and responsibility of social media platforms in protecting our democracy, and what steps Congress should take to defend our elections, protect consumer data, and encourage competition in the social media space,” Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for Warner, said in a statement.

Warner and Hawley have proposed legislation that would force the tech giants to tell users what data they’re collecting from them and how much it’s worth. The proposal goes to the heart of Big Tech’s hugely profitable business model of commerce in users’ personal data. The companies gather vast data on what users read and like, and leverage it to help advertisers target their messages to individuals they want to reach.

The tech companies view with particular alarm a separate legislative proposal from Hawley that would require them to prove to regulators that they’re not using political bias to filter content. Failing to secure a bias-free audit from the government would mean a social media platform loses its long-held immunity from legal action.

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New story in Technology from Time: Gears of War Fans Who Love Multiplayer Are Going to Love Gears 5

I’m looking for answers in the frozen landscape near Mount Kadar when the ice storm hits. It’s cold this far north, and sometimes the sky drops hail the size of a van. As I make my way through the snowy wastes, running and dodging the giant blocks of ice, the attack comes — the Swarm look like mutant bug-lizards toting chainsaws mounted on the end of assault rifles. I crouch behind the nearest block of ice and prepare for the onslaught.

This is Gears 5, a third-person cover-based shooter from publisher Xbox Games Studios and developer The Coalition, out now for Xbox One and PC. As I played, I controlled a variety of characters as I snuck from cover to cover in tight corridors and semi-open areas while using a variety of weapons to take on the bad guys. The campaign lasted around 12 hours, but the excellent multiplayer ate up more of my time.

Some video games I play on the train while waiting for my stop. Some I play while a podcast or TV show runs in the background and my brain turns to gelatin. Some, like Gears 5, I play on a huge 4K television while surround sound explosions shake my walls. Gears 5 is the game equivalent of a reliably dumb yet fun summer action blockbuster. It’s like a Marvel movie or the latest Fast & Furious movie. Gears 5 won’t challenge you, but it looks and sounds incredible, controls well, and is worth every penny of its $60 price tag. In a video game market increasingly dominated by live experiences and “free to play” schemes, that’s no small thing.

Gears 5 is, weirdly enough, the sixth title in the franchise that started with 2006’s Gears of War. These games have always been over the top, but they take their story seriously. Sadly, I missed the last few entries in the series. Thankfully, The Coalition included a brief movie that caught me up on everything I’d missed. In sum: on an Earth-like planet in a futuristic world, humanity has been locked in life-or-death struggles with monstrous enemies called The Locust and The Swarm. In Gears 5, that struggle seems to be drawing to a conclusion as the pseudo-fascist human rulers, the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG), consolidates power. Players spend the first act playing as JD, the badass son of long-time series protagonist Marcus. Story events quickly sideline JD, leaving me to spend most of the game as Kait, a woman born on the fringes of the COG empire with a mysterious secret. The plot of Gears 5 revolves around Kait discovering the secret of her birth while battling alongside COG forces and against the monstrous bad guys.

Gears 5’s single-player campaign mostly involved making my way down linear sets of wide corridors with chest-high walls I ducked behind to fling grenades and take shots at Swarm and Locust troops. If I was out in the open, the bad guys would quickly kill me. Pushing a button would make Kait crouch and cling to the nearest chest-high wall. From there, I’d aim down the sight to attack the baddies, or move between cover to out-flank the enemy. Gears of War popularized the cover-based shooter that dominated gaming in the mid-aughts. It hasn’t updated the formula much since the first game, but it hasn’t needed to, either. Thirteen years later, Gears 5 plays pretty much like the original Gears of War — which is just fine.

Occasionally, Gears 5 opens for a few hours as Kait explores an area, taking on side quests and talking to people. I appreciated these slower, more carefully paced portions of a typically fast game, which helped to build Kait’s character as she explored the world around her. But these slower moments always gave way to bombastic, intense, and downright fun action sequences — the kind of action scenes where ice is falling from the sky and I was down to my last few bullets, praying I’d make it through. It’s a good time.

But plenty of Gears fans are really just here for the multiplayer — and they won’t be disappointed. Online combat has long been the secret to the Gears series’ success. Thankfully, Gears 5 continues the franchise tradition. It’s got excellent multiplayer that keeps what I liked about previous installments, while changing it just enough to keep the experience fresh. This being 2019, there are microtransactions, but they’re cosmetic and don’t get in the way of the core experience. It’s not great, but it’s also par for the course with big budget gaming these days.

Horde mode is back, a Gears of War standard in which players team up to take down waves of progressively more difficult enemies. Gears 5 expands the class system introduced in Gears of War 4, letting players take on the role of a tank, engineer, scout, offense or support. Tanks get on the front lines to take damage, engineers build fortifications, scouts creep ahead, offense is an all-around grunt, and support flies around the field as a small drone, healing team members and stunning enemies. It’s a fun update to the Gears of War formula and, though the game also has a versus and free form “arcade” multiplayer mode, I mostly stuck to Horde.

Gears 5 isn’t revolutionary. It doesn’t push the medium forward, and the story, while interesting enough, could just as easily be dropped. But it’s not bad either. It’s a serviceable game that does what it says on the box: provides players hours of mindless ultraviolence while flipping between cover and getting close enough to chainsaw the enemy. There’s a story, if you want it, but there’s just as much fun to be had in ignoring the campaign altogether and jumping right into multiplayer.

New story in Technology from Time: Borderlands 3 Is Just Fun Enough To Ignore its Mediocre Story

It was at some point after Katagawa destroyed the frogurt stand with a Death Star-style laser blast that I decided I didn’t like any of these people. I was on Promethea, a planet of long highways and tower blocks made of concrete and steel. This was the home of Atlas and Maliwan, two mega-corporation arms dealers in the silly yet bleak future of Borderlands 3.

Maliwan was trying to merge with Atlas by force, and its ruthless leader Katagawa was conducting the siege from a pleasure yacht, firing a planet-destroying superweapon at restaurants enjoyed by Atlas’ CEO. It’s supposed to be funny, but I wasn’t laughing. As the Atlas CEO cried about frogurt, dropships delivered Maliwan troops into the courtyard, and I got to the real work of Borderlands 3, the stuff that makes the game’s terrible writing worth cringing through: shooting bizarre weapons at cartoonish enemies.

Borderlands 3, out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, is a first-person loot-shooter with RPG elements from developer Gearbox Software. Players are vault hunters in a whacky cyberpunk dystopia. The Borderlands sit at the edge of the galaxy, teeming with danger and treasure, and it’s the hunters’ job to collect the treasure and kill the danger.

Players choose from four classes. Zane, the Operative, uses gadgets like a drone and a digital decoy to distract enemies. FL4K, the Beastmaster is a robot who tames the monsters of the Borderlands and deals damage from afar. Amara, the Siren, uses magic to increase her physical strength and dish out melee damage. Moze, the Gunner, summons a giant mech to dominate the battlefield.

I spent the most time playing as FL4K, and trained a Jabber (a monkey-like creature) to wield a shotgun and rocket launcher. I earned experience from eliminating enemies, completing missions, and finding collectibles in Borderlands 3’s semi-open world. Leveling up granted access to stronger weapons, increased my health, and allowed me to pick talents to customize my character.

At level 25, my FL4K could turn invisible and deliver impressive burst damage with a sniper rifle while my Jabber laid down cover fire. At any time, I could re-spend my points to try a different way to play. Each character has three separate tech trees, and each plays a little differently. I could, for example, trade in my Jabber for a radioactive teleporting dog-like beast called a Skag.

What sets Borderlands 3 apart from its predecessors (and peers like The Division 2) is the variety and strangeness of its weapons. Games like Borderlands 3 deliver a constant stream of loot in the form of weapons, shields, and character customization pieces. The game randomly generates these items, and in previous titles the gear began to feel generic and set apart by only minor differences. One shotgun would do 20 damage and hold 5 shells, while the next would do 25 damage and hold 4 shells.

This still happens in Borderlands 3. But many of the weapons feel more carefully designed, and I’d often get a weapon that was downright strange. I once used a pistol that I had to start like a lawnmower. I never had to reload it, but it’d overheat and I’d pull out a spray bottle to cool it down. A friend used a submachine gun he could toss to the ground and turn into a turret. He later found another submachine gun that, when reloaded, dropped a mine that attracted enemies with a bright sign reading “shoot me.” When the enemies inevitably did, the mine exploded, coating them in a green corrosive substance.

Like the weapons, Borderlands 3’s enemies are varied enough to support long hours working your way through them. I took down authoritarian outer world prison guards, strange cultists, a wide variety of robots, and strange teleporting aliens. Missions often end in well-designed boss encounters that required me to pay attention, learn the bosses’ attack patterns, and wait for an opening to score critical hits.

Even while it’s fun to play, Borderlands 3’s story and characters fall flat. The series has always been crass, dumb, and self-aware. But that juvenile humor used to feel silly and fun. The world of Borderlands is day-glo and over the top. It’s not meant to be taken seriously. But some of the dialogue, quests, and characters are strikingly awful this time around. “You killed a succulent skag with the big suck! That’s good sucking!,” an NPC cheerily yelled at me at the end of a quest, and I cringed.

The story follows the vault hunters as they race across the galaxy to open vaults — alien tombs containing powerful monsters and vast wealth. Along the way, they’re taunted by Tyreen and Troy Calypso, twin YouTubers who use their popularity to start a cult. They want to open the vaults and absorb the power of the monsters for reasons that, after a dozen hours of gameplay, still weren’t clear. Add to this the fact that many of the players’ allies are weapons manufacturers and you’ve got a story it’s best to ignore.

Thankfully, Borderlands 3 makes that easy. A loot-shooter needs to do two things: deliver loot and feel good to shoot. In Borderlands 3, every weapon is a joy to use, and it delivers a constant stream of them. It takes too long to get going, though. My suggestion to you: ignore the side quests in the opening area and burn through the story. Once you’re on a spaceship and exploring new planets, Borderlands 3 starts to show its charm.

New story in Technology from Time: What Apple Risks By Doing Momentous Events Without Momentous News

Over the past couple of years, Apple has made one thing abundantly clear: It’s trying to transform from a hardware company into a services company, with subscription offerings like Apple Music and Apple News+ intended to make up ground amid industry-wide slowing smartphone sales. So far, it’s succeeding: The company’s revenue from services is growing steadily, growing about 13% in the most recent quarter and hitting $11.46 billion compared to $10.17 billion year-over-year. Apple’s September event doubled down on that trend, with the company revealing new details about two new services: Apple TV+, a Netflix competitor, and Apple Arcade, a subscription plan for mobile games. Both stand to be far more disruptive in their respective industries than the new iPhones Apple introduced during the same event, which are fine upgrades but iterative rather than revolutionary.

Apple’s pivot to services makes sense from a business perspective: offering compelling subscription services can generate “ecosystem lock,” keeping users in the Apple family of devices even if its latest iPhones don’t generate as much hype as they once did. But the move begs another question: If Apple’s turning more into a services company, does it make sense for it to keep holding the kind of whiz-bang events that it’s popularized over the years? Software, after all, rarely generates the same levels of excitement as a new device that people can hold in their hands.

“I think the art form as they’ve perfected it has gotten a little bit old,” says Adam Lashinsky, executive editor of Fortune and author of Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired — and Secretive — Company Really Works. “The shtick has gotten a little bit cliché.”

Whether Apple should keep holding multiple large-scale events every year is more than just an insider debate for tech journalists and company megafans. The reliance on spectacle to promote what amount to small-scale updates risks feeling like a company trying too hard to stay top of mind. Furthermore, treating each event like a worldwide phenomenon might lead to disappointment if the announcements don’t lead to shock and awe. Worse yet, lackluster events could encourage consumers to think more critically about what they’re actually getting — maybe, just maybe, they would start comparing the new iPhones’ multi-camera setup, increased processing power, and brighter display to the competition, which has features still missing from the iPhone, like wireless power sharing, in-screen fingerprint readers and 5G connectivity.

Of course, Apple is far from the only company that holds major events to boast about their latest gizmos — Google, Samsung, Microsoft and plenty of others do as well. They, too, are facing the same problem: Broadly speaking, smartphones aren’t getting revolutionary updates every year, or even every other year. “Every category is exciting at first, and then becomes a bunch of incremental changes,” says Ken Segall, Apple’s former advertising director who’s credited with creating the company’s “i” nomenclature — iMac, iPhone, iPad, etc. “How often do we feel compelled to buy a new laptop?” Apple’s only major new hardware in recent memory, the AirPods, are a nice accessory but haven’t yet become truly revolutionary (that may change as they evolve into self-sufficient platforms for AI assistants like Siri.)

Werner Goetz, an analyst with research firm Gartner, says it’s time for the tech world to recalibrate how it thinks about big industry events from Apple and its rivals. “I think we need to divest ourselves of the expectation that each vendor event will bring groundbreaking and disruptive features in hardware,” says Goetz. One exception he points to is Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, a bold new foldable smartphone design. “But these types of hardware-based step changes will become increasingly rare,” he adds. (The Fold has been delayed due to hardware issues).

Another former Apple employee, Guy Kawasaki, says Apple faces a conundrum of its own making, given it was the company that made flashy tech events world-famous. Now, Apple’s fans, investors and the media all expect it to wow the world with a big event at least once a year or so. But the products it’s been promoting lately haven’t been delivering on that expectation the same way the first iMac or iPhone did. “It’s created an impossible act to follow,” says Kawasaki, author and chief evangelist for online graphic design company Canva. (Kawasaki worked with Apple during the creation of the Macintosh, convincing developers to create software for the platform.) He also agrees that we’re in a boring period for smartphones — while Apple’s latest phones have some impressive features and under-the-hood upgrades, it’s unlikely they will change anyone’s life. “For many of these products, we’re in mid-life, whether it’s Samsung or Apple,” he says.

Apple holds big events in part because they’re a great way to kick off a major marketing campaign. But in recent months, it’s showing an increasing willingness to make at least smaller announcements via press release, as it did when it announced new MacBook laptops in July. And there is no shortage of Apple bloggers and streamers whose work helps promote the company’s products. Meanwhile, Olivier Toubia, a professor at Columbia Business School, says Apple’s brand image is strong enough even without big events. “I think part of the perception people have of Apple is driven by the brand’s story, and the way it’s been created and nurtured over the years,” he says. “First with Steve Jobs and now Tim Cook, there’s a powerful story behind the brand, which also, I think, influences how people evaluate the actual product.” Still, when CEO Tim Cook takes the stage, the rest of the technology world comes to a screeching halt, and all eyes are on Cupertino. With power like that, it’s unlikely the company will abandon events any time soon.

New story in Technology from Time: Facebook Expands the Reach of a Tool That Exposes Users to More Local News

(SAN FRANCISCO) — Facebook is trying to coax “news deserts” into bloom with the second major expansion of a tool that exposes people to more local news and information. But the social network confesses that it still has a lot to learn.

The social media giant said Thursday it is expanding its “Today In” service to 6,000 cities and towns across the U.S., up from 400 before.

Launched in early 2018, the service lets Facebook users opt into local information, including news articles, missing-person alerts, local election results, road closures and crime reports. Facebook aggregates posts from the official Facebook pages for news organizations, schools, government agencies and community groups like dog shelters.

The mobile-only tool lives within the Facebook app; turning it on adds local updates to a user’s regular news feed. In areas with scant local news, Facebook will add relevant articles from surrounding areas.

Some 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United States over the past 15 years, according to research from the University of North Carolina. Newsroom employment has declined by 45% as the industry struggles with a broken business model partly caused by the success of companies on the internet, including Facebook.

Campbell Brown, head of global news partnerships at Facebook, said Facebook has a responsibility to support journalism, while also noting that the media industry has been in decline “for a very long time.” Brown, a former news anchor and host at NBC and CNN, said local reporting remains the most important form of journalism today.

“There is no silver bullet,” Brown said in an interview. “We really want to help publishers address challenges in local markets.”

Warren St. John, CEO of hyperlocal news service Patch, said the service means potential new readers because it goes to people who haven’t necessarily liked a Patch Facebook page.

“Facebook has taken its lumps, perhaps rightly so over the last couple of years, but I think what they have done around local news is pretty unique,” he said. This includes grants and accelerator programs for local news organizations, “passing the expertise and knowledge of a Silicon Valley tech firm down to the local publisher ecosystem.”

Today In won’t automatically turn on for people even in the areas it serves, which could limit its reach. So far, Facebook says, 1.6 million people have activated the feature and receive news from some 1,200 publishers every week.

The service has no human editors and uses software filters to weed out objectionable content. Tweaking the algorithm to find relevant local stories has been complicated. Does a road closure matter if it’s 100 miles away? How about a murder?

Already, Facebook says it’s learned from publishers’ input about what doesn’t work. For instance, it now allows only posts from publishers registered with its “News page index,” which means they meet guidelines such as focusing on current events and information, and don’t have a record of publishing misinformation. Obituaries from funeral homes and real estate posts — both of which previously showed up under “news” — are no longer eligible.

Facebook has also learned that local news doesn’t work like national news. Political stories, for instance, don’t generate a lot of local interest.

Facebook isn’t paying licensing fees or sharing ad revenue with these news outlets. But the company says publishers get additional referrals to their websites, more so than when people see the same stories in their regular news feed, based on data from its test partners.

While people scroll through their news feeds passively, people engage with articles more when they appear in Today In, said Jimmy O’Keefe, a product marketing manager at Facebook.

Google also announced changes to its news service Thursday, saying it would slightly alter its search system so original news stories on a topic show up before follow-ups or repeated news from other publications. Similar to Facebook, the company has been working on showing news articles from authoritative, proven publications.

Outside researchers studying local news data provided by Facebook found that about half of the news stories in the Today In feature met what they called a “critical information need” in the communities it served.

The researchers said Facebook users interacted the most with stories serving a critical need — such as information on emergencies, transportation and health — even though “non-critical” stories such as sports were more numerous. The researchers — Matthew Weber at the University of Minnesota and Peter Andringa and Philip Napoli at Duke University — received no funding from Facebook.

Large metro areas such as New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco are still excluded from Today In. The abundance of news and population density there makes it more difficult to provide relevant local information. A big local story in Brooklyn, for instance, might be irrelevant in the same borough just a few miles away.

New story in Technology from Time: The Next Generation of Airbus Aircraft Will Track Your Bathroom Visits

(Bloomberg) — Attention airline bathroom loiterers: The next generation of Airbus aircraft will track how long you’ve been in there.

It’s all part of an effort to make commercial cabins a digitally aware domain. The program is Airbus’s bid to raise the Internet of Things — that buzz-phrase for connected household gadgets—to cruising altitude.

The Airbus Connected Experience aims to give flight attendants a more detailed survey of the cabin, with sensors for such critical data as when bathroom soap is running low and how much toilet paper remains in each bathroom. But the rethinking of the passenger environment doesn’t just stop with the lavatory. At each seat, your belt will signal red for unbuckled and green when fastened. The goal is faster boarding and departure, dispensing with those lap-scrutinizing walk-throughs flight attendants must perform. The crew will also have access to information on what’s onboard and where, like which galley carts contain specific meals, such as preorders or vegetarian selections.

“It’s not a concept, it’s not a dream: It’s reality,” Ingo Wuggetzer, Airbus’s vice president of cabin marketing, said Tuesday at an aviation trade show in Los Angeles. Airbus has begun flight testing the connected cabin on its A350 test aircraft and plans to introduce it on the A321 family in 2021, followed by the larger, two-aisle A350 series two years later.

As cool as all of this may seem to you, the passenger, it’s just another way for airlines to squeeze more profit out of operations. While data from these various areas will be sent to flight attendant tablets or smart phones in real time, the crunching of that data over time is where the real value lies. The connectivity Airbus envisions for its cabins will provide an enormous trove of information airlines can use to analyze and optimize in their never-ending quest for cost efficiencies.

From the time it takes a flight attendant to respond to a call button, to preferences for prosecco versus chardonnay, to which bathroom gets the most use—the information can help optimize all aspects of flight. “You can make the service more attentive,” said Ronald Sweers, an Airbus cabin-products director. While the digital doodads are expected to simplify flight attendant workloads, their true value may lie in giving airlines more insights about what happens in the cabin.

That space, Wuggetzer noted, is a virtual “black box” to carriers once the plane leaves a gate. But not for much longer.

Airbus also plans to offer airlines the option of cameras at each lavatory (on the outside, mind you) to count how many passengers are waiting, a feature which may help flight attendants redirect some of that traffic on larger jets. While certainly helpful to that man in 17C who had one too many sodas, the data will also show airlines the length of wait times on various flights, and on different aircraft types. More seriously, it can also alert a flight attendant that someone inside may be ill or need assistance, Wuggetzer said.

The crew will also be able to control features such as window shades and public address volume from their mobile devices. The system will know which overhead bin spaces are open, with green lights along the cabin, much like the lighting schemes used in parking decks to signal drivers toward unoccupied spaces. That should, in theory, speed boarding, Airbus says.

As far as Airbus is concerned, the cabin’s platform is open so customer airlines can attach their own crew applications or other software, Sweers said. Many large carriers have customized or proprietary software for such onboard tasks as catering.

“The feedback we heard from airlines was, ‘OK, Airbus, we don’t believe you’re able to give us an application that will work with our systems,’” Sweers said on the trade show floor, discussing the galley equipment.

New story in Technology from Time: The Tech Innovations We Need to Happen if We’re Going to Survive Climate Change

Harry Campbell for TIME

In the 1970s, the U.S. Department of Energy poured money into making practical a miraculous technology: the ability to convert sunlight into electricity. Solar energy was a pipe dream, far too expensive and unreliable to be considered a practical power source. But yesterday’s moon shot is today’s reality. The expense of solar power has fallen more quickly than expected, with installations costing about 80% less today than a decade ago. Alternative energy (like wind and solar) is now often cheaper than conventional energy (like coal and gas). Last year, California generated 19% of its electricity from solar power, up from less than 1% just 10 years earlier. That growth is global. Solar-energy production worldwide has increased nearly 2,000% since 2009, but the U.S. is far from the leader. Of approximately 100 gigawatts of solar generation added in 2018, China accounted for 44 and the U.S. 11.

Eliminating the carbon emitted in the production of electricity is a crucial step toward keeping the world from heating to dire levels. It is also among the most straightforward, largely thanks to the innovations of the past few decades, which were driven by a combination of ingenuity, research funding and policy incentives. Innovation is not enough to avert the worst consequences of climate change, but there are solutions at hand that are commonplace and cost-effective. We desperately need more. Here’s a look at the things engineers have checked off their list, and the sticky problems left to solve.

Today’s Renewables: Solar and Wind

The decline in the cost of solar and wind power over the past decade has transformed the energy industry. Wind capacity in the U.S. has doubled over the past 10 years and is expected to double again by 2030. Solar power is growing even faster, with total installed capacity expected to double by 2024. Together, the two technologies have helped renewables leap from 9% of the U.S.’s electricity generation in 2008 to about 17% in 2018. Ongoing research and development is leading to continuous gains in how much power they produce. Wind operators are using artificial intelligence and improved weather forecasts to position their turbines for better performance, while solar-panel manufacturers are refining the use of new materials and processes to generate more electricity from smaller panels and drive down costs.

Federal Reserve Beige Book
Richard Vogel—APIn this Aug. 8, 2019 photo a worker helps to install solar panels onto a roof at the Van Nuys Airport in the Van Nuys section of Los Angeles.

Improving the Grid: Interconnection and Storage

In 2019, Nevada and Washington joined California and Hawaii in committing to 100% carbon-free electricity in the next generation. Around the world, France, Sweden, Norway, Portugal and the U.K., among others, have set similar goals. Achieving that with solar and wind power alone is tricky because of their “intermittency”—the times when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. One solution is to improve the ability to move energy from where it’s produced to where it’s consumed by building new power lines, known as interconnectors, that can move energy across long distances between regional power grids. Another is to store excess energy for later use, using batteries. Lithium-ion cells—used in mobile phones and electric cars—are the best energy-storage technology we have right now, and their use both in homes and alongside power plants is expected to grow storage capacity tenfold by 2024. While the current storage technology works best for less than four hours, engineers are developing novel alternatives that can store energy for longer periods of time. A startup in Switzerland called Energy Vault uses surplus electricity gathered on windy days to stack large bricks into towers with automated cranes, then recaptures the kinetic energy generated when the bricks fall back to the ground. Other companies are storing electrical energy as heat in molten salt or pumping water into reservoirs for later use as hydropower.

Next-Generation Nuclear

Nuclear reactors have been providing zero-carbon power since the 1950s, and today supply 20% of the U.S.’s electricity and 11% of the globe’s. But safety and environmental concerns have increased the cost and complexity of nuclear power plants, and their construction has all but stopped in the U.S. (Only one new reactor has come online this century.) One strategy for reinvigorating the industry is to focus on smaller, simpler reactors that can be constructed in factories, produce less radioactive waste and require less day-to-day management. (Some will be designed to shut down automatically in case of disaster.) TerraPower, a Bellevue, Wash.–based startup with backing from Bill Gates, is one of several companies aiming for commercial use in the next decade. Another, Terrestrial Energy, in Canada, is developing a design that uses molten salt to produce 195 megawatts per reactor, about one-fifth of conventional units.

But some scientists are looking even further into the future, with novel technologies. Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a startup in Cambridge, Mass., is working to use new superconducting materials to build a fusion power plant—one that creates energy by combining atoms rather than dividing them, as in traditional nuclear. The project could take decades to fully commercialize but has the potential to revolutionize electricity.

Making A Miniature Sun On Earth
Pallava Bagla—Corbis via Getty ImagesPart of a mega construction effort taking place in Southern France where countries are collaborating to create a miniature ‘sun on earth’ aiming to harness the benefits of fusion power, on Aug. 7, 2019 in Saint-Paul-les-Durance, France.

Managing Carbon: Sequestration

Almost all the scenarios outlined by scientists to limit the increase in global temperatures require not merely reducing the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere, but eliminating it. The technology to do that, known as carbon capture and sequestration, involves removing carbon from the atmosphere and either physically storing it, often underground, or leveraging natural processes that capture and store it, as trees do. Engineers have been working on the challenge for decades, but costs remain high—in part because there is no economic benefit to storing carbon.

One way to change that would be to reuse the carbon as fuel, but that only delays its release; another would be a price on carbon itself. For engineers, it is a tantalizing area of research—the ultimate moon shot—because any breakthrough in capturing carbon, reusing carbon or storing it at a large scale would mitigate the potential catastrophe of allowing it to continue to heat the atmosphere. Life could not only go on­—it could go on more or less as it has.


This is one article in a series on the state of the planet’s response to climate change. Read the rest of the stories and sign up for One.Five, TIME’s climate change newsletter.