Putting AI to Work for the Planet

Putting AI to Work for the Planet

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been around since the late 1950s, but for a long time it was confined to the realms of sci-fi imagination. Today, AI is front and centre of our lives and is already significantly altering our world. At the same time, our global population is growing and due to reach 9.8 billion by 2050. By then, our current environmental challenges will be beyond serious. The good news is, we can put AI to work to help save our environment and our planet – and many organisations are doing just that.

A very sorry state

Industrialisation has led to many of the planet’s current environmental problems. Our world continues to get warmer and it’s no coincidence that in 2016 there were 72 weather and disaster related events across the globe – triple the number that occurred in 1980.

Currently, twenty percent of species on the planet face extinction, and that number is expected to rise to 50 percent by 2100. We are experiencing unsafe levels of air pollution, the depletion of fishing stocks, an unmanageable level of waste and plastic both on land and in the ocean, and toxins in our rivers and soils. It’s unsustainable. And even if countries keep the Paris climate pledges they made, by 2100, it’s still predicted that average global temperatures will be 3˚C higher than pre-industrial times.

AI for good

In AI we have a tool, a very powerful tool, that will not only help us reduce our impact on the planet, but also better manage the effects of climate change. AI is a term for computer systems that can sense their environments, and think, learn and act in response to what they sense, combined with their programmed objectives.

This is an incredibly exciting time for AI. All the pieces have come together to help move it from in vitro (in research labs) to in vivo (in every day lives) – and as a result it has quite literally been propelled into our everyday lives. Those pieces include the vast amounts of data being collected from all types of sources, as well as satellites, the Internet, the development of more powerful and faster computers and an open source community for tools.

Today’s AI can quickly discern patterns that humans cannot, make predictions more efficiently and recommend better policies. It’s changing the way we work, live and interact. It’s not only being used in media, entertainment, social media and retail, it’s helping in recruitment to match skills to jobs, improve efficiency and productivity in the workplace and to empower business decisions. But more than that, it’s helping to diagnose diseases, increase the resource efficiency of the agriculture industry, transform weather forecasting and modelling, and create distributed energy grids.

Big business is paying attention

Microsoft is on board. They see AI as a ‘game changer’ for climate change and environmental issues. Its ‘AI for Earth’ programme has committed $50 million over five years to create and test new applications for AI, and then commercialise the most promising projects.

In its Harnessing Artificial Intelligence for the Earth paper, The World Economic Forum states “Of all the Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies, AI is expected to have the deepest impact, permeating all industries and playing an increasing role in daily life.” It continues, “Beyond productivity gains, AI also promises to enable humans to develop intelligence not yet reached, opening the door to new discoveries.” The report focuses on harnessing AI systems today, to create maximum positive impact on urgent environmental issues.

The opportunity for AI to be utilised to benefit humankind and our environment is substantial. It has the potential to unlock solutions to our most pressing environmental challenges including climate change, biodiversity, ocean health, water management and air pollution. Here at Altius, earth friendly AI is high on our agenda and according to a 2018 report from Intel, ‘Applying Emerging Technologies to Solve Environmental Challenges’, we are not alone. 74% of the 200 professionals surveyed agreed that AI will help solve long-standing environmental challenges.

AI for smart buildings

AI is already being applied to create smart buildings. The increasingly complex technological side to many of today’s new building is ripe for AI application. Most modern commercial buildings operate software platforms to control lighting, temperature, doors, security and even elevators. Many residential homes are also following suit and there’s been a big rise in smart home technology over the last ten years.

With this increase in IoT devices, we are generating more and more data on the performance of buildings and the systems within them. Using AI, this data can be turned into actionable information that can reduce the every day energy consumption of buildings.

AI for construction

Historically, construction has been slow to adopt new technologies and is one of the most under-digitised industries across the globe. But times are changing and the construction industry is gradually seeing the benefits that technology and AI can deliver. Data can now be scrutinised to alert project managers to critical things that need their attention, just like a smart assistant. AI is being applied to assist with advanced safety monitoring and to predict cost overruns based on a myriad of factors such as project size, contract type, competence levels and weather. Any tools that enable greater efficiency and less waste is of course good for our environment.

AI in energy & transport

AI applications in energy and transport are predicted to have the largest impact on emissions reduction. According to PwC and Microsoft’s ‘How AI can enable a sustainable future’ report, AI applications in energy and transport could reduce greenhouse gas emission by up to 2.2% in the energy sector, while in transport, AI could result in a 1.7% cut in greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the report’s authors, AI combined with the adoption of a complementary technology infrastructure, such as AI-enabled distributed energy grids, distributed generation, distributed storage, industrial IoT, electric vehicle charging, dynamic pricing and smart meters, would have the biggest impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

In Pittsburgh, an artificial intelligence system incorporating sensors and cameras that monitors traffic flow is already being used to adjust traffic lights when needed. The systems are functioning at 50 intersections with plans for 150 more, and have reduced travel time by 25 percent, and idling by more than 40 percent. Less idling, of course, means fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

PwC and Microsoft’s combined report estimates that using environmental AI applications across four key sectors (agriculture, water, energy and transport) could contribute up to $5.2 trillion USD to the global economy in 2030. That’s a 4.4% increase. In parallel the application of AI could reduce worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 4% in 2030, an amount equivalent to the 2030 annual emissions of Australia, Canada and Japan combined.

AI risks

Naturally and quite rightly, concerns have been raised about the risks that AI brings with it. Some prominent individuals including the late physicist Stephen Hawking and Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, have warned of the existential dangers of uncontrolled artificial intelligence.  The World Economic Forum report, ’Harnessing Artificial Intelligence for the Earth’ identified six categories of AI risk:

  • Performance. The black box conclusions of AI may not be understandable to humans and thus it may be impossible to determine if they are accurate or desirable. Deep learning could be risky for applications such as early warning systems for natural disasters where more certainty is needed.
  • Security. AI could potentially be hacked, enabling bad actors to interfere with energy, transportation, early warning or other crucial systems.
  • Control risks. Since AI systems interact autonomously, they can produce unpredictable outcomes. For example, two systems came up with a language of their own that humans couldn’t understand.
  • Economic risks. Companies that are slower to adopt AI may suffer economic consequences as their AI-based competition advances. We are already seeing how brick and mortar stores are closing as the economy becomes increasingly digitized.
  • Social risk. AI is resulting in more automation, which will eliminate jobs in almost every field. Autonomous weapon systems could also hasten and exacerbate global conflicts.
  • Ethical risks. Since AI uses inferred assumptions about groups and communities in making decisions, it could lead to increased bias. The collection of data also raises privacy issues.

It states that to deal with these risks, government and industry “must ensure the safety, explainability, transparency and validity of AI application.” More interaction among public and private entities, technologists, policy-makers and even philosophers, and more investments in research are needed to avert the potential risks of AI – and to realise its potential benefits to the environment and humanity.

As AI becomes more pervasive, it is absolutely our responsibility to create ‘responsible and ethical’ AI solutions and systems. But the opportunity for AI to be harnessed to benefit our environment and our planet must be pushed further up the agenda. As the scale and urgency of impact from our deteriorating environment grows, we have an opportunity to look at how AI can help transform traditional sectors and systems to address climate change, deliver food and water security, build sustainable buildings and cities and protect biodiversity and humankind.

Interested to see how AI can impact your work? Get in touch, because there’s a good chance Altius has a data science solution for you.