How Rethinking AI Could Help Us Save the Planet

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Today marks the beginning of Earth Month, with the 49th annual Earth Day celebrated on April 22. Since it was created in 1970, Earth Day Network keeps gaining worldwide recognition, with millions of activists all over the world showing their support for the initiative.

At Corporate Parity we strive to do our part in protecting the planet. Therefore, we make sure to address sustainable development in our diverse event programmes, and equip our clients with tools to minimize negative imprint and achieve greater sustainability in their respective organizations. Since our conferences are largely focused on technology, we are particularly interested in the ways new inventions can serve the greater good of humanity and the world at large.

Now, technology is about to enter a new era – the era of artificial intelligence, which will bring about new opportunities and challenges related to the environment.

The development of AI and deep learning has been making headlines for the past decade. From shockingly articulate Sophia the robot (first AI granted citizenship) to self-driving cars, we create smart technology in our own image, and for our own service. Until recently we did so not only with little regard for other species, but even the future generations of fellow people. The discourse on technological advancement tends to be in “here and now” terms, with short-term goals eclipsing sustainable, long-term solutions.

Sophia, the first robot citizen. Credit: Hanson Robotics

It is no revelation that our vision of progress has always been predominantly anthropocentric. When the first steam engines rolled out on the rails leaving clouds of smoke behind, hardly anyone was occupied with the question of a carbon footprint, or the damage we cause to the native flora and fauna when conquering new territories. What really mattered was how these developments improved he material condition of our lives.

Now, as climate change and resource scarcity are turning into a gruesome reality, we are finally becoming aware of our impact on the planet, and have begun to consider sustainable development options. Instead of deploying technology to ensure survival and comfort of humankind at all costs (like colonizing other planets), we need to focus on how it can help us save the planet we currently reside on. In order to do that, humans must learn to think beyond the “here and now”.

Roman Krznaric has made a similar observation in relation to politics  in his recent BBC piece „Why we need to reinvent democracy for the long term“. Krznaric argues that urgency and the “here and now” mindset drives policy. Self-interest causes us not only to overlook the environment, but also the needs of future generations – their rights to clean air, water and nature reserves. With the limited time politicians have in office, he notes, most of their actions are directed towards instant results to win the approval of voters, rather than long-term benefits to the entire society. He proposes transforming institutions and political systems with future generations in mind, and acknowledges the efforts of some governments such as Wales, which in 2015 passed the Well-being for Future Generations Act, appointing its own Future Generations Commissioner.

Students gather in Parliament Square in central London to protest the government’s lack of action on climate change. Credit: Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Although Krznaric’s argument is mainly focused on politics, a similar approach can be applied to technological development, historically.

While technology evangelists preach about the beautiful Utopia we are about to enter, where the new and improved human race will live in harmony with nature and machines (“O brave new world that has such people in it!”) the sceptics like to paint a darker image of the future.

The critics of AI point out that it has thus far largely contributed to our mental regression rather than progress. Having constant, tailor-made stimulation available at the tip of our fingers has already led to new unhealthy habits and behaviours such as social media addiction, binge watching and shortened attention spans. And while technology certainly saves time, it also renders some forms of mental labour unnecessary: we no longer require basic math skills, knowledge of science or even proper grammar and spelling to function in everyday life. Our smartphones can effortlessly navigate, calculate and autocorrect us right through it – and when all else fails, you can always just google it!

This reinforces the Here and Now mindset that Krznaric cautions about, and may lead to an increased pursuit of instant gratification rather than long lasting benefits. Indeed, the AI we developed thus far seems to have done exactly that – think of the last time you binge-watched Netflix content selected just for you, or browsed social media, where smart algorithms are constantly at work to deliver you the ultimate personalized experience.

Building upon Krznaric’s proposal to reinvent democracy – it is time to reinvent our idea of technological progress. A true smart technology is the one that serves the greater good of humanity (and the planet), not just immediate individual comfort. As AI continues to learn and improve itself, it is reasonable to expect that it will soon not only equal human intelligence, but far surpass it. Can we then expect to fundamentally change the way we interact with AI? Instead of a mere server satisfying our every need, will it transform into a digital sage, able to guide our future perhaps better than we can ourselves? Hopefully, the AI of the future will enable us to completely redesign our lives, so that we could indeed become the “new and improved” human race, living in harmony with the rest of the world.

The author feels optimistic about it. Ideally, a “good” AI would not be susceptible to an anthropocentric view of progress, and help us make unselfish decisions directed towards the betterment of our civilization. And while our vices still outweigh our virtues in our treatment of the planet, in recent years we have seen prospects for improvement.

Environmental organizations and tech corporations alike are beginning to explore the possibilities of AI to aid conservation and combat climate change. In December 2017 Microsoft launched its AI for Earth project, led by Microsoft’s chief environmental scientist Lucas Joppa.

One of the grants was awarded to the Seattle’s Snow Leopard Trust – a conservationist organization dedicated to preserving the rare species. The Trust works with Microsoft to develop tools for monitoring the populations of the elusive cats. Automated motion sensor cameras are placed in locales where snow leopards are likely to appear. Normally, sorting through all the images to find those of snow leopards would take thousands of hours of human labour. Instead, a Machine Learning algorithm trained in image recognition scans them in seconds with 95% accuracy.

Similar technology is used in African national parks to help save elephants from poachers. TrailGuard AI software installed in motion-sensor cameras identifies images of people, instantly notifying the park administration of potential illegal trespassers.

The Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE) uses AI to fight deforestation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Spatial modelling software and artificial neural networks analyse the factors contributing to forest loss, and predict where it is likely to occur next. This enables the DRC government to make better-informed decisions directed towards conservation, namely relocation of resources and law enforcement to fight illegal deforestation.

Forest loss risk in CARPE landscapes. Credit: World Resources Institute

With these and many more use cases in the making, the future with AI can look very promising.

Although there are valid concerns associated with this technology, one must remember that artificial intelligence learns and models itself after humans. If we learn to see past our individual needs and show more compassion towards each other and our planet, we can truly build a sustainable world with AI.

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