Can AI help save the planet?

Illustration: Irene Rinaldi

Illustration: Irene Rinaldi

Artificial intelligence systems that can sense, think, learn, and act on their own could allow a major upgrade in conservation efforts, in dealing with climate change, and living in a more energy-efficient manner. A report released during the recent Davos World Economic Forum meeting laid more than 80 potential environmental applications for AI, ranging from the mundane to the futuristic.

The ‘Cloud Brain’ might make it possible to tighten up the uncertainties of how the climate will respond to rising carbon dioxide.

AI is now going mainstream: Algorithms and supercomputers that once were limited to specialist researchers at universities and government labs are now open to startups and everyday corporations. New ways of managing ecologically relevant systems are opening up as never before. There are five ways artificial intelligence could help save our planet.

Autonomous energy and water networks

Solar, wind, and other renewables have the advantage of being carbon-free and ubiquitous. They can be situated in villages and towns and out-of-the-way places, bringing energy closer to everyone who needs it. The challenge is stitching these disparate sources together into a coherent, functional whole. That’s where autonomous systems come in. They can deal with the intermittency of renewables and react to the ebb and flow: when one source of power is coming online or going down, or when one user is ramping up demand and another is clocking off for the night. AI systems are flexible and they can do more work, and be in more places, than human grid managers.

Opening up climate modeling

Modeling future weather events and climate patterns means processing complicated physical equations, like the fluid dynamics of the atmosphere and oceans. Climate scientists have relied on supercomputers, like the one at the Argonne National Laboratory, outside Chicago, to do their calculations.
Deep-learning techniques, inspired by the way the human brain processes information, incorporate some of the complexity of the real world in climate modeling, allowing computers to run faster and do more calculations within a given period. 

Real-time data dashboard

Problems like illegal logging and illegal fishing require better monitoring systems. Data from satellites and unmanned underwater vessels can help bring greater visibility to such resources, but AI can help crunch the data to make it useful. New processing capabilities could provide close-to-real-time transparency by enabling authorities, and even the general public, to monitor fishing, shipping, ocean mining, and other activities.

Disaster resiliency and response

Techniques like “deep reinforcement” are self-learning and require little or no initial data; instead they learn, like a child, through trial and error and by being rewarded for success. This technology may one day be integrated into disaster simulations to determine optimal response strategies.

Earth bank of codes

The natural world contains reservoirs of innovative capacity that remain largely untapped. AI and systems analytics can help unbundle the biological and biomimetic possibilities. Scientists have begun work on the natural world equivalent of the Human Genome Project, with the aim of mapping the DNA sequences of all living things.

One, to open up potential discoveries, like blood pressure medicine derived from viper venom. And, two, to record the provenance of biological IP assets, so local people can benefit from follow-on discoveries.

Illustration: Irene Rinaldi
Sources: Fast Company - e360

InnovationNiccolo Gorfer