Undergrad Advocates for More Study of Environmental Effects of the ‘Internet of Things’

June 1, 2022 By Jennifer McManamay, jmcmanamay@virginia.edu Jennifer McManamay, jmcmanamay@virginia.edu

From fitness watches to pollution detectors to E-ZPass electronic toll collectors, devices connected to the internet are everywhere. They improve our quality of life, but also consume power and often wind up in landfills. And they alter our behaviors in ways we’re not even aware of.

Andrew Li, a rising University of Virginia fourth-year student double-majoring in computer science and economics, earned a unique opportunity to dive into the global debate about what engineers call the “internet of things.”

Li is a co-author of the lead article, “Earth’s Electronic Skin,” in the March-April issue of The Environmental Forum, the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Law Institute’s journal for its more than 2,300 members. Although many undergraduate students conduct research, the opportunities to publish articles in journals or professional publications are rare than for graduate students.

Li’s co-author is Kasantha Moodley, former senior manager of the Environmental Law Institute’s Innovation Lab, where Li completed an internship. The lab’s team focuses on the environmental implications of the digital economy and emerging technology.

The title of the article came from a sociologist’s 1999 prediction that Earth would eventually wear an internet-powered “skin” that would sense and transmit every human activity.

Li and Moodley say that day is here, and they extol the potential of the ever-expanding technology. “It is modernizing our businesses, cities, transportation systems, energy grids, and agriculture,” they write. “It is also being proposed as the next big thing to confront our most pressing environmental challenges.”

They advocate for much greater research into the potential effects of so much connectivity, including the amount of energy required to manufacture and power all the devices; the way technology shapes peoples’ behaviors and decisions daily; and the trash left behind – known as electronic waste or “e-waste” – when devices are no longer useful.

“With limited empirical research on the environmental costs of [the internet of things], there can be no action taken by businesses, technology developers, or policymakers to ensure the responsible development and deployment of this technology,” Li and Moodley write. The Network for the Digital Economy and Environment, an initiative of the Innovation Lab, “seeks to build a multidisciplinary coalition to produce research that will expand our understanding and encourage actions and policies that harness the benefits of [the internet of things] while mitigating its harms.”

In other words, a lot more research is needed about the environmental effects of these discarded devices before anyone dives into policies to potentially regulate them.

Li wrote several papers related to the environmental impacts of new technologies for the Innovation Lab. These included a bibliographic analysis on artificial intelligence, which entailed combing publicly available publications to extract meaningful patterns, Li said.

“I used a lot of data analysis tools to collect, clean and analyze data, and I was really happy to be able to leverage some of my computer science background and mix that with research and writing experience,” Li said.

Li participated in UVA Engineering’s Policy Internship Program, which is in its 21st year and combines coursework focused on communications and policy analysis skills with hands-on internships alongside high-level science and technology policymakers in Washington. The goal is to encourage today’s science and engineering leaders-in-training to explore careers in public service and policymaking.

Each summer the program places up to 12 students and, to date, more than 175 students have completed internships with government entities such as congressional offices, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Science Foundation, European diplomatic agencies, the World Bank, and many think tanks and nonprofits.

Li, who is interested in social and economic issues arising from the interaction between law and technology, said the opportunity to work with people of non-technical backgrounds within a policy environment was the most valuable part of the Policy Internship Program.

“Learning how to effectively communicate and explain complex technology allowed me to make the most of my unique perspective and skillset as an engineer,” he said.

Li’s experience demonstrates how, as participants in the Policy Internship Program, students can bring their engineering education to bear on complex public policies, said Rider Foley, director of the program and associate professor of science, technology and society in the Department of Engineering and Society.

“While not every intern’s work is published, many contribute in substantive ways to the organizations they work with during the summer,” Foley said. “Andrew’s internship offered him a wonderful opportunity to explore meaningful questions about the internet of things and to contribute to the public dialogue on the topic. Past interns have contributed to drafts of federal policy, memos and other publications.

“Students in this program are training for the future, but many also are influencing the here and now.”

Li said the opportunity was invaluable: “I feel that my experience over the summer prepared me greatly for a future career beyond purely technical work.”