Artificial Intelligence 🦾 and the Climate. Will AI Stop Us from Destroying the Environment?
Believe it or not AI is all around us. Just because the Terminator hasn’t dropped in from 2029 (that was optimistic!) doesn’t mean that society hasn’t wholeheartedly embraced the coming AI revolution.
In fact, if you’ve got an up to date smartphone in your backpocket chances are there’s Artificial Intelligence inside it powering up certain algorithms and making decisions that help to create a more seamless experience for you the user. It’s the same with Amazon or Netflix; they try to predict what you might be interested in next by using Machine Learning (ML), which evolved from an earlier iteration of AI and involves the use of algorithms in order to monitor your choices and suggest new ones based on your tastes and preferences. It’s there to improve your life so don’t get sweaty palms just yet, it’s not going to start speaking to you in a menacing Austrian accent.
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AI: the job killer
But things will change. AI is quite simply the ability of a machine to demonstrate some of the qualities that we normally associate with human functions. Qualities such as planning, learning, reasoning, problem solving, knowledge representation, perception, motion, and manipulation and, to a lesser extent, social intelligence and creativity. This development is reflected in the use of Deep Learning, a subset of Machine Learning, that works in a similar way to the human brain. Deeping Learning is what allows a computer to come to it’s own decision without external input, which means that, unlike Machine Learning that is very clearly defined, it can be difficult for Scientists to understand the results that a system might produce as a result of a Deep Learning process.
AI is increasingly picking up the slack; taking over the kind of jobs that, well can be easily automated. 47% of jobs are about to disappear; not in 50 or 20 years time… in the next decade.
And if you’ve been awake over the past decade you will have noticed the creeping automation of supermarkets, public transportation systems, banks and airports. In fact it’s now possible to travel the world without ever encountering another grim-faced airport official again.
So if all this is set to revolutionise the societies we live in, what exactly does it mean for the natural world we depend on. After all, if we programme a future super-intelligent AI to fix the problems of climate change what’s to stop them turning their unwanted attention on us? AI won’t see things from the same perspective as us. It will be programmed to respond to certain inputs with a pre-programmed response in order to find a solution to a problem. Could planet Earth become planet AI?
The answer to this thorny question depends on how we design AI, how we integrate it into our societies and how we deploy it in the pursuit of solving the problem of climate change.
A World Economic Forum report, Harnessing Artificial Intelligence for the Earth, describes AI as the Fourth Industrial Revolution and concludes:
The opportunity for AI to be harnessed to benefit humankind and its environment is substantial. The intelligence and productivity gains that AI will deliver can unlock new solutions to society’s most pressing environmental challenges: climate change, biodiversity,ocean health, water management, air pollution, and resilience, among others.World Economic Forum
AI is already having a huge impact on a whole range of applications; it’s improving weather forecasts helping to keep people safe and building our understanding of how intense weather events can be linked back to climate change, its helping farmers achieve maximum yields and its even counting trees in effort to combat deforestation.
AI: Projects & Inititiatives
An AI project called Allen Project Atlas set up by tech billionaire Paul Allen aims to map all of the world’s coral in an effort to help identify at risk corals, coral bleaching and other environmental threats in order to help protect this ecosystem from annihilation. So where we utilise AI the benefits are clear.
It’s not just through direct involvement with conservation projects that AI is having an impact. Through it’s analytical lense AI is able to start making efficiencies across all aspects of life. In construction AI can help in developing new materials, such as concrete in a different formula, that has a much reduced carbon footprint; it can support the deployment of energy from new renewable power stations, it can help to manage the infrastructure required in the take up electric vehicles and it can help urban planners and architects design more energy efficient buildings and urban centres.
The deployment of AI is endless because its application is endless but, like all good tools at our disposal, it’s only as effective as we allow it to be.
Humans can tackle climate change when they decide to do so and how AI might help in this quest is the focus of a collaboration by some of the leading figures in the field, resulting in the publication of a research paper snappily titled: Tackling Climate Change with Machine Learning.
At a brief 97 pages the paper aims to outline some of the routes that we might take in the employment of AI and Machine Learning to help tackle climate change. The authors conclude:
Machine learning, like all technology, does not always make the world a better place – but it can. In the fight against climate change, we have seen that ML has significant contributions to offer across domain areas.Tackling Climate Change with Machine Learning.
ML can make systems more efficient (e.g. prevent electricity loss during transmission, consolidate freight, and reduce food waste). It can enable remote sensing and automatic monitoring (e.g. pinpoint deforestation, gather data on buildings, and track personal energy use). ML can provide fast approximations to time intensive simulations (e.g. climate models and energy scheduling models), and it has the potential to lead to interpretable or causal models (e.g. for understanding weather patterns, informing policy makers, and planning for disasters). In all these cases, we emphasize that ML is only one part of the solution; it is a tool that enables other tools across fields.Tackling Climate Change with Machine Learning.
Climate change is a complex issue and its imperative that research such as this unravels those complexities to help u understand the myriad ways in which it may be able to help us in our goals. It helps to build a road map, designing smart electric grids to tracking greenhouse gas emissions through satellite imagery, the tools that AI can provide will help us in our understanding and mitigation of consequences for humanity as natural disasters multiply, sea levels rise, and ecosystems falter.
The report’s authors, which include DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis, Turing award winner Yoshua Bengio, and Google Brain co-founder Andrew Ng, make the point clarion clear:
Technology alone is not enough
Technologies [to help fight climate change] have largely not been adopted at scale by society. While we hope that ML will be useful in reducing the costs associated with climate action, humanity also must decide to act.Tackling Climate Change with Machine Learning.
AI for Earth
One of the companies deciding to act is Microsoft, who are spear-heading a campaign and grant-making programme called AI for Earth. This is a $50 million fund awarding grants to projects that use artificial intelligence to address four critical areas that are vital for building a sustainable future. The four areas are listed as:
- Climate — the changing climate threatens human health, infrastructure, and natural systems. AI can give people more accurate climate predictions to help reduce the potential impacts.
- Agriculture — By 2050, farmers must produce more food, on less arable land, and with less environmental impact to feed the world’s increasing population. AI can help people monitor the health of farms in real time.
- Biodiversity — Species are going extinct at an alarming rate. AI can help people accelerate the discovery, monitoring, and protection of biodiversity across our planet.
- Water — In the next two decades, demand for fresh water is predicted to dramatically outpace supply. AI can help people model Earth’s water supply to help us conserve and protect fresh-water.
So what are the research papers and funded initiatives showing? How are they making the case, or not, for artificial intelligence and, if we decide to go down the AI rabbit hole, what are the real world applications for AI? What are the tangible solutions?
Challenging AI in the Real World
This is where it gets really interesting. Tackling Climate Change with Machine Learning identified 13 key areas of focus, whilst the work of AI for Earth is uncovering all sorts of applications that we might not have previously thought about. Some of them are listed below:
- Energising the grid —AI can be used to forecast energy generation and demand whilst hundreds of tiny tweaks can be made across the system that increase the efficiency of it as a whole. Researchers are using AI to understand how wind powers turbines and effects the wind stream for turbines downfield. Tweaks can susequently be made that improve performance and efficiencies.
- Counting trees and protecting forests — AI can literally count trees helping researchers to monitor the impacts of ongoing deforestation. It can even monitor the type of trees being cut down, helping us to understand the carbon absorbing qaulities of those forests and how their absence might contribute to a feedback loop as smaller trees absorb less carbon
- Monitoring extreme, life-threatening, weather events — some of the more challenging effects of climate change, such as the direct threat to human life via hurricanes, will represent complex problems that are influenced by the changing climate in many difference ways. AI will help to provide context, linking increased rainfall, a changeable climate and the consequences of that, to the carbon emissions of our energy intensive societies.
- Sustaining Cities and creating better, more livable urban environments — one of the biggest noticeable changes that AI will bring about is the creation of smart cities, cities that use the Internet of Things to monitor real world, real time data about traffic, air quality, congestion and environment. This data will help inform architects and urban planners as they introduce strategies for tackling high pollution levels, that are extremely harmful to human life, reduce CO2 emissions and look at the introduction of trees in city streets to help minimise the impact of future heat waves
- Maximising Agriculture — AI can be used to create a more robust agricultural system and one which will stand up to the threat of rising temperatures across the world. It will help the management of crops, incorporating the use of drones to monitor them and ensuring crops are watered and sprayed with fertiliser and pesticides in an optimal way to ensure the highest level of efficiency
- Protecting the world’s oceans — Saving the seas is an AI initiative funded by Microsoft’s AI for Earth. Ronan Fablet at IMT Atlantique, who received an award for this work, says:
Data can help tell us about the health of our oceans, including temperature and rising sea levels. But we need technology’s help to capture this vast amount of data and convert it into actionable intelligence. Fundamentally, AI can accelerate our ability to observe ocean dynamics and how they are changing at a global scaleRobin Fablet, IMT Atlantique
- Better climate predictions — the climate is already changing and that is bringing about new and unforeseen consequences that could accelerate the change we are experiencing. These environmental feedback loops may be extremely difficult for humans to predict and once they kick into gear it may be even harder for researchers to know what the consequences will be. AI will play an essential role in providing the computational power to support a better understanding of the impact of feedback loops leading to better and more accurate climate predictions
- Geoengineering Earth — of of the more controversial ‘sticky plasters’ for mitigating the problem of climate change, what was once a left of field idea of last resort has now become a viable option. More Scientists Now Say it Must Be an Option. The role of AI in helping humans to create a more reflective Earth, through the use of reflectively engineered clouds would be essential in calculating where best to deploy such a technology. It’s worth bearing in mind that this is still considered by many an option of last resort and one that does not help us to address the problem of carbon emissions which have led to climate change and human-made global warming.
There are inherent risks if we use AI and unleashing the power of machine learning on the world may create a series of seemingly small steps that one day results in the human race being enslaved to our robot overloads in a dystopia of the future.
But that’s a big IF. On our current trajectory we are running out of options. The time to act is now and, if we want to steer ourselves away from our grand lurch into the abyss, then we may just have to use every tool at our disposal.
“Come with me if you want to live” is one of the most iconic lines featured in all of the Terminator films. Spoken by human and machine it epitomises the co-dependent future we building. Artificial intelligence may well outlive us as a species but heroes and monsters are creations of the human imagination and, if we do want to live, we may just have to go along for the ride.
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