Harnessing AI to Fight Climate Change

In 2015 the World Economic Forum coined the phrase “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” and it struck such a chord with me, that I featured it in many of the 108 keynotes I gave that year. I often showed this video to highlight the speed of technological progress and to showcase some of the technologies which would feature in this revolution.


Today, we see that we have “progressed” faster than even we thought possible back in 2015. Big data just keeps getting bigger and some analysts suggest that 90% of all the data in the world was created in the last 12 months – this has come from the explosion of blogs, news sites, video, voice from smart devices, social media and IoT sensors in your home such as Nest or Hive for example. And it’s not going to let up anytime soon.


90% of all the data in the world was created in the last 12 months.


At IBM we estimate that there will be approx 1M devices added to the internet every hour by 2022. That’s a scary amount of data to make sense of.  But this is where technology, and especially AI will help. AI systems are now capable of tracking 2.5Bn weather events every few minutes, or processing 10M data records every second. AI is helping drive autonomous vehicles, advising physicians to diagnose patients more accurately, helping farmers to grow crops more efficiently and measuring industrial data in order to help businesses be more responsible and sustainable. So the challenge and the opportunity when it comes to saving the planet is how do we embrace the promise of AI in order to fight the climate crisis?


The best combination is a good human plus a machine.” Garry Kasparov


Industrialisation has led to many of the world’s current environmental problems. For example, climate change, unsafe levels of air pollution, the depletion of fishing stocks, toxins in rivers and soils, overflowing levels of waste on land and in the ocean, loss of biodiversity and deforestation can all be traced to industrialisation.


As the world’s current population of around 7 billion grows to 9.8 billion by 2050, it will increase the demand for food, materials, transport, and energy, further increasing the risk of environmental degradation and affecting human health, livelihoods, and security. Can humanity preserve the planet for future generations?


As the Fourth Industrial Revolution gathers pace, innovations are becoming faster, more efficient and more widely accessible than before. Technology is also becoming increasingly connected; in particular we are seeing a merging of digital, physical and biological realms. New technologies are enabling societal shifts by having an effect on economics, values, identities and possibilities for future generations.


A Few Areas Where AI Could Help


  • Automated intelligence systems that take repeated, labour-intensive tasks requiring intelligence, and automatically complete them. For example, a robot that can learn to sort recycled household materials.
  • Assisted intelligence systems that review and reveal patterns in historical data, such as unstructured social-media posts, and help people perform tasks more quickly and better by using the information gleaned. For example, techniques such as deep learning, natural language processing and anomaly detection can uncover leading indicators of hurricanes and other major weather events.
  • Augmented intelligence systems that use AI to help people understand and predict an uncertain future. For example, AI-enabled management simulators can help examine scenarios involving climate policy and greenhouse gas emissions, as pioneered by MIT’s John Sterman.
  • Autonomous intelligence systems that automate decision-making without human intervention. For example, systems that can identify patterns of high demand and high cost in home heating, adapting usage automatically to save a homeowner money.


We have a unique opportunity to harness this Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the societal shifts it triggers, to help address environmental issues and redesign how we manage our shared global environment. The Fourth Industrial Revolution could, however, also exacerbate existing threats to environmental security or create entirely new risks that will need to be considered and managed.


Harnessing these opportunities and proactively managing these risks will require a transformation of the “enabling environment”, namely the governance frameworks and policy protocols, investment and financing models, the prevailing incentives for technology development, and the nature of societal engagement. This transformation will not happen automatically. It will require proactive collaboration between policymakers, scientists, civil society, technology champions and investors.


If we get it right, it could create a sustainability revolution.


The proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI) is having a significant impact on society, changing the way we work, live and interact. AI today is helping the world diagnose diseases and develop clinical pathways. It is also being used to adapt lesson plans for students with different learning needs. Elsewhere, AI is matching individuals’ skill sets and aptitudes with job openings. However, as AI acts increasingly more autonomously and becomes broader in its use, AI safety will become even more important. Commonly discussed risks include bias, poor decision-making, low transparency, job losses and malevolent use of AI (e.g. autonomous weaponry).


Developing approaches to guide “human-friendly” AI is arguably one of the biggest unsolved AI problems today. As the scale of the economic and human health impacts from our deteriorating natural environment grows, it is becoming increasingly important to extend the rapidly growing field of AI safety to incorporate “Earth-friendly” AI. As the technology evolves, its direct and indirect applications for the environment will need to be better understood in order to harness the opportunities, while assessing the potential risks and developing approaches for mitigating them.


For example, AI could be developed to support the creation of distributed, “off-grid” water and energy resources; to improve climate modelling; or to improve natural disaster resilience planning. Ongoing cooperation among governments, technology developers, investors and civil society will be essential to realising this vision. As AI is the “electricity” for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, harnessing its potential could help to create sustainable, beneficial outcomes for humanity and the planet we inhabit.


AI systems, and their ability to control machines automatically and remotely, have caught the public’s imagination. 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.


We ask too much of technology and not enough of ourselves“. Nate Silver


However, AI technology also has the potential to amplify and exacerbate many of the risks we face today. To be sure that AI is developed and governed wisely, government and industry leaders must ensure the safety, explainability, transparency and validity of AI applications. It is incumbent on authorities, AI researchers, technology pioneers and AI adopters in industry alike to encourage deployments that earn trust and avoid abuse of the social contract.


Achieving this requires a collaborative effort to ensure that as AI progresses, its idea of a good future is aligned to human values and encapsulates a future that is safe for humanity in all respects – its people and their planet.


Download the full report Harnessing Artificial Intelligence for the Earth from World Economic Forum about  here 


** If you have the time and are interested, I recorded this (2 hour) lecture on the state of AI, exploring what it is, what it’s not and how it works, by digging into a few interesting case studies from the world of business, sport and entertainment. **