Meet The Team Tuesdays: Tim Maher

This post is part of a weekly series introducing GCRI’s members. It’s running one day late this week. Yesterday my attention was fixed on Hurricane Sandy, which still loomed over my apartment.

It turns out that there are not many people working on both climate change policy and contact with extraterrestrials. But here at GCRI and our parent organization Blue Marble Space, well, yes, we do both, sometimes in the same study. So Tim must have been pretty surprised when he found us via web searches this past April. Tim was looking for an organization to host him for his Masters program (Bard College, Climate Science and Policy). We were delighted to oblige. Since then Tim’s been helping us write research papers, develop resources for the GCR community, host discussion groups with leading GCR experts, and more. He’s meanwhile been working on his Bard Masters thesis, on ambient intelligence. He’ll return to Bard in February, but we hope he’ll stay in touch. – Seth

Seth Baum: Tim, first, how is it that you became interested in both climate change and extraterrestrials? This is a somewhat unusual combination.

Tim Maher: Originally, I was solely focused on astrobiology in hopes of one day participating in a peaceful contact scenario with extraterrestrials. However, the more that I learned about habitable planets with habitable climates, the more I learned about the damage that we are causing to our own planet’s habitability. Humanity may not be around long enough to successfully make peaceful contact. Therefore, I choose to work on promoting a sustainable future for civilization via reducing the risk of catastrophic climate change as the most imperative first-step task towards eventual space colonization and, perhaps, peaceful contact with extraterrestrials. I may not be around to see the first discovery of life outside of earth, but I can at least work towards buying humanity more time towards this end.

Seth Baum: Your program at Bard sounds great. What’s it like? How’s it going for you?

Tim Maher: The Masters of Science program in Climate Science and Policy (CSP) is one of several interdisciplinary degree programs offered by the Bard Center for Environmental Policy. The first year of the CSP program involves a rigorous curriculum focused around understanding the past, present, and future of climate science, climate economics, climate policy and climate law. In our second and final year, we intern for several months at an organization of our choosing and then return to Bard and write a thesis. I feel that the program attracts a wide variety of interesting and intelligent students and successfully fosters a feeling of community among the faculty, staff, and students. This personal connection is likely due to the smaller class sizes relative to the competing programs at larger universities, such as Duke and Columbia.

Seth Baum: You recently moved to Queens. I live in Manhattan. We work together every day, but we’ve only met in person twice. This to me is the epitome of GCRI’s geographically decentralized nature. What’s it been like for you working with people scattered across the country and worldwide?

Tim Maher: GCRI’s geographic decentralization allows me the independence to delve deeply into research topics using the learning methods that work best for me. Additionally, my national and international colleagues are always just a Skype-call away, which provides a deeply interconnected support network that is almost always available for brainstorming sessions, for example. I thoroughly enjoy the geographic freedom, as well, because I can work from anywhere in the world as long as I can access a stable internet connection.

Seth Baum: OK, let’s talk research. Your Bard thesis is on ambient intelligence. What’s that? Does it have anything to do with GCR?

Tim Maher: Ambient Intelligence (AmI) is a near-future culmination of technologies, such as smart and interconnected sensors and devices, that will be cheap enough and small enough to become embedded into everyday materials. AmI will be capable of automatically detecting an individual’s preferences and then adapting their surrounding built environment to maximize that individual’s level of comfort. For example, if I visit a hotel in Germany for the first time, my hotel room will automatically recognize who I am and my preferences for room temperature, humidity levels, and light levels, and it will make sure to maintain these levels whenever I am in the room, using minimal energy. There are even some methods being developed that could result in AmI technologies persuading individuals toward some goal deemed desirable. My thesis is focusing more on the energy management capacity of AmI, however, AmI technologies could, for the first time, provide the tools necessary for an Orwellian Totalitarian state to monitor, regulate, and even influence its citizens towards some desired goal. Stable global totalitarianism would increase global catastrophic risk.

Seth Baum: We’ve been working on a paper on recovery from global catastrophe, in which you’ve written a lot about resilience. What’s the basic idea here?

Tim Maher: We are discussing the importance of catastrophe recovery and how a society could or should best adapt to changing social and environmental conditions that a catastrophe event could bring about. If a global catastrophe does occur, many of the survivors may be located in small, isolated communities. Improving small-scale social-ecological resilience is imperative to increasing the likelihood of a successful recovery from a global catastrophe.

Seth Baum: Finally, I’m interested in your experience as a student working with GCRI. What have you gotten out of it? What would you recommend for other students who are considering getting involved?

Tim Maher: GCRI has provided me with excellent research experience, which could be particularly helpful if I decide to pursue a PhD. In general, I feel that I’ve never stopped learning while working with GCRI, and I like a job that requires me to think. I also like that I’ve been able to apply my knowledge of climate science and environmental change directly into research projects. Much of my work with GCRI has also focused on non-research related tasks, which may be more useful for those students less interested in research and seeking more of a professional focus for their careers.

This post was written by
Seth Baum is Executive Director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute.
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