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Artificial Intelligence Can Save the Planet


AI has reached every corner of the world; sustainability is no exception. Image Source: ModernDiplomacy

In the past decade, the amazing abilities of artificial intelligence have seen applications to every situation imaginable, from helper bots in retirement homes to customized recommendations in your Youtube feed. However, one area where robots and algorithms aren’t often talked about is in sustainability.

With the growing threat of climate change prompting activists worldwide to both take up the pen and take to the streets, why doesn’t it seem like AI is playing a role in our fight for a greener world? One factor may be that the grassroots efforts typically associated with the climate movement don’t lend themselves to integration with the futuristic images that the words “machine learning” conjure up in people’s minds, especially when movies like The Matrix show the environment devastated by the aftermath of AI. However, those couldn’t be farther from the truth—the climate movement doesn’t just exist in picket signs, and AI isn’t some sort of dangerous technology that’s still years away. AI has reached every corner of the world; sustainability is no exception. It is already being used to make our world safer and cleaner. Let’s look at some examples.

IN RESEARCH

Illegal poaching and snaring are huge problems for wildlife conservation, especially in hotspots like Cambodia and Uganda. In 2016, researchers at USC developed an AI called Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security (PAWS). PAWS calculates optimized park ranger patrol patterns to stop the decline of endangered animals like tigers and leopards. Since deployment, PAWS has helped identify high risk poaching areas, allowing rangers to recover more than double the number of snares and weapons and prevent illegal activities (Link).

With climate change comes a rise in severe storms and unpredictable weather. Last year, a team of researchers at Penn State, AccuWeather, Inc., and the University of Almería developed a machine learning model that helps predict the occurrence and severity of hurricanes. The algorithm outperformed human forecasters, demonstrating AI’s unmatched potential for creating fast and effective modern solutions (Link).

IN PRACTICE

Contamination in recycling streams is a huge problem that hinders sustainability and decreases product quality. Walk into the Single Stream Recyclers plant in Sarasota, Florida, and you’ll see multiple robot arms efficiently and accurately identifying trash and throwing it out. These new neural network-trained machines can process up to 80 items a minute, over twice the speed of a human, and are being installed to solve the contamination problem. The quality of resulting products has doubled since the implementation of these handy helpers (Link).

In hopes of lowering energy expenditures, in 2018, Google transferred control of its data center cooling systems to an AI. Following the algorithm’s optimization procedures, cooling costs were lowered by 40 percent! Annually, Google’s data centers consume as much electricity as large cities like San Francisco; there’s nothing stopping the same techniques from being used in cities around the world or even in your own home, increasing energy efficiency and leading to a more sustainable future (Link).

The AI revolution is not and should not be viewed as extraneous to the environmental movement. As already demonstrated by many researchers and in many practical spheres, AI is an extremely flexible and valuable tool that applies as much to sustainability as to any other field. Monitoring global water circulation, learning patterns from air quality data, predicting future trends in electricity use, optimizing renewable energy efficiency—these are all tasks that AI is capable of now or within the next half decade. Some opponents still argue that AI is too young to be practically applied. And that’s exactly why there needs to be more focus on it. More research and discussion will generate the conscience we need to trust and work with AI; otherwise, it could stay locked up in the dark, a powerful ally that isn’t used until the end it could have prevented. So the next time you hear AI in the news, don’t think of rebelling robots; think storm prediction, recycling decontamination, and a greener future. We must all be willing to take advantage of this exciting technology to use it for the preservation of our world.

Photography by Sahil Sethi, Lucy Grossmann, and others
©2020 by SEEC