The next industrial revolution is already happening. Artificial intelligence (AI) is ushering in an era of technologies that are faster, more adaptable, more efficient, and making the world more digitally connected.
AI is best described as complementary to human intelligence, delivering the computing power to crunch numbers too big for people and recognize patterns too tedious for the human eye. In a Harvard Business Review study of 1,500 companies, it was found that the most significant performance improvements were made when humans and machines worked together. As AI becomes one of society’s greatest assets, it’s especially helpful for solving problems that seem larger than life — like protecting our natural environment.
Through machine learning, robotics, drones, and the internet of things (IoT), society can achieve better monitoring, understanding, and prevention of damage and stressors on Earth’s land, air, and water. Even technology already available today could reduce energy usage in the U.S. by 12 to 22 percent, according to The Information Technology Industry Council (ITI),
When it comes to saving the planet, technology may even be the most important factor. “This is more about technology than politics,” said Jiang Kejun, one of the authors of the recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that revealed just how urgent climate change is. The report — released in October — said there are only 12 years to keep Earth’s temperature at a maximum of 1.5C rise to avoid catastrophic disaster.
In the face of this dire reality, the potential of technology to help meet this challenge is a rare source of optimism. According to a recent survey by Intel and the research firm Concentrix, 74 percent of business-decision makers working in environmental sustainability agree artificial intelligence (AI) will help solve long-standing environmental challenges; 64 percent agree the Internet of Things (IoT) will help solve these challenges.
As the field of AI develops, so will the potential to protect the environment. From the land and air to both drinking and ocean water, AI is shaping up to be the key that governments, organizations, and individuals can tap to work toward a cleaner planet.
he Earth’s soil is under pressure from pollution, population growth, intensive farming, and a host of other land usages. Its structure is not only compromised (one-third of the Earth’s soil has already been degraded), but much of it is dangerously polluted (pesticide poisoning results in three million hospitalizations and 250,000 deaths around the world every year), according to the United Nations.
AI has the power to completely transform agricultural practices to make them safer for the Earth and people’s health. Machine learning combined with robotics can provide automated data collection and decision-making to optimize farming processes. These systems can interact directly with crops to detect and act on the best times to plant, spray, and harvest, decreasing the need for the fertilizers and pesticides polluting the soil. This will make farming not only more efficient, but it will also lead to more organic, earth-friendly crops. Similarly, AI monitoring can help societies protect areas of land larger than just farms; ecosystems and habitats all over the world can benefit as well. AI-enabled drones, for example, are providing new opportunities to observe and protect endangered areas. More effective plant disease detection, poacher route prediction, erosion monitoring, species identification, and animal migration tracking are all a reality with AI, according to a World Economic Forum report.
When it comes to natural disasters such as hurricanes, mudslides, and wildfires, most people first think of safety and the direct impact on homes and other infrastructure. Beyond these immediate damages are long-term effects on the land, such as the destruction of cropland and spreading of existing soil contamination. While no one can prevent these disasters, everyone from local governments to individuals can be better prepared to contain them. As climate science and natural disaster prediction and recovery become more urgent, scientists are discovering the true potential of AI in the field. For example, climate researchers have had the information needed to elevate their understanding of hurricanes for a long time; they just haven’t had the tools to read it. With AI, tech researchers have finally provided the science community with the computing power to crunch the data it’s been stocking for decades. This vast collection of data has served as the perfect training set for machine learning to make sense of it all and increase the performance of climate modeling.
AI can also provide the tools to better monitor pollution and identify sources of air quality issues faster and more accurately. In the case of a gas leak, for example, smart sensors equipped with machine learning and self-organizing mesh network technology allow for more targeted remediation. Governments, organizations, and homeowners can not only deal with air contamination problems sooner and more efficiently, but also achieve a greater understanding of them in order to implement more effective preventative measures.
In addition to monitoring problems in the air, AI can also reduce the harmful emissions pumped into it in the first place. This is especially urgent because air pollution is already a dangerous global crisis — 91 percent of the world population lives in places that fail to meet World Health Organization (WHO) air quality guidelines. And while it may be easy to think of the consequences of this as a distant problem, it’s already killing seven million people globally each year.
One place to start is with transportation. AI makes autonomous cars possible and helps them not only navigate, but also do so as efficiently as possible. Autonomous vehicles alone can enact a 2 to 4 percent reduction in oil consumption and related greenhouse gas emissions annually over the next 10 years, according to a report by the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. And thanks to autonomous ride shares and dynamic bus routing that will exist in the future, there will be fewer cars on the roads in general. AI-enabled traffic lights will do their part too, adjusting to the flow of traffic to minimize driving time. The first phase of such a system is currently in place in some intersections in Pittsburgh, where it’s already reduced travel time by 25 percent and idling by more than 40 percent.
AI will also make renewable energy technology like solar panels and wind turbines more efficient and cost effective, helping them to become ubiquitous and lower society’s dependence on the fossil fuels polluting the air — then hopefully eliminate them all together. Combined with the smart grid, another technology that will be enabled by AI, this will truly progress the way people receive and use electricity in their homes, offices, and everywhere else. Smart meters save energy by allowing for two-way communication between the grid and anything that uses electricity, giving energy providers a better understanding of usage and the ability to make real-time adjustments for efficiency. Customers will benefit from the real-time data too; seeing the increased costs at peak times will encourage them to voluntarily adjust their usage to save money. This will, in turn, save even more energy: a win-win. Plus, the process of delivering the energy itself will also be improved by the smart grid, thanks to Volt/VAR control systems that can reduce the amount of energy wasted when it’s in electricity transmission lines.
“Healthy oceans, healthy planet” was the theme of World Ocean Day 2016 for a reason. Earth’s largest bodies of water are vital to and are some of the best indicators of the planet’s health. Based on their current conditions, things aren’t looking good.
Humans have polluted the oceans to dangerous levels with offshore drilling, cargo transport, and trash—one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the oceans every minute, amounting to eight million metric tons of plastic annually. But AI is already coming to the rescue: the first effort expected to effectively start deconstructing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is essentially an autonomous floating garbage truck powered by AI. In other oceans, machine learning is making it possible to follow marine litter in real-time, enabling responses that are quick, targeted, and more effective. The monitoring and predictive technology of machine learning can also help researchers understand the human actions and subsequent changing conditions that harm the oceans, such as coral bleaching, illegal fishing, disease outbreak, and industrial activity.
Perhaps even more pressing is the urgent need to clean up and stabilize drinking water. The planet is running out of fresh water, and much of what’s left is dangerously polluted. Across the world,1.8 billion people currently use a water source contaminated with waste, according the United Nations.
Through both smart household meters and larger infrastructure, AI can greatly improve water and waste management systems to make it easier to monitor water quality, manage usage, and predict maintenance needs. Further down the road, machine learning, IoT, and blockchain combined have the potential to create truly decentralized water systems that operate on the closed-loop recycling of local resources, according to a World Economic Forum report. Such a system would be significantly optimized, helping to keep drinking water clean and plentiful.
AI is shaping up to be one of society’s most helpful tools. With it, we can start making significant amends with our land, air, and water and clean it up for a healthier planet.