Some problems of society lend themselves to a savior's arriving in the form of processing power. Google search activity can help catch deadly viruses before they spread, satellites and supercomputers can monitor deforestation, and data analysis can identify and eliminate inefficiencies in legacy bureaucracies.
Ask an algorithm a straightforward question that requires massive amounts of data and it can help find an answer. But what about the seemingly straightforward test President Barack Obama has mandated for the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would take fossil fuels from the Canadian oil sands to the Gulf Coast?
"Our national interest will be served only if this pipeline does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem," he said in June. "The net effects of climate impact will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project will go forward. It is relevant."
Relevant, but involving a good deal of guesswork. Even though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released its most conclusive report to date, it's impossible to enter Obama's imperative into a machine and get a "correct" answer.
Much of the discussion about Keystone, from backers and critics alike, is still rhetoric wrapped in conviction and difficult to assess quantitatively.
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Energy consultant IHS issued a report shortly after Obama's June speech, saying that they had looked at his definition and could state that the pipeline passed the test.
Oil and gas investor T. Boone Pickens told CNBC last week that the Keystone XL Pipeline would make OPEC obsolete. No mincing words from a capitalist known for his bold, if not always accurate, predictions (consider the NatGas Act).
Hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, recently profiled in The New Yorker as the unlikely big money behind the anti-Keystone XL campaign, seems confident that environmentalists have the upper hand. In the same article, former White House chief of staff John Podesta put the odds at 50-50.