The role of AI in shaping our sustainable future  

By Hanna Pumfrey

Is Artificial Intelligence (AI) the super power we’ve all been waiting for that’s going to end world hunger and shape our sustainable future? Or is it the technology that is a one-step too far and likely the end of human life as we know it?

As a bit of a tech geek, these are questions that I find fascinating. Personally, I believe in the former, but you’d be forgiven for being in the second camp.

Reading about AI in 2017 often brings on feelings of impending doom; of super intelligent AIs enslaving the human population, leaving us unemployed, second-class citizens. The importance of ethical implementation of AI should absolutely not be overlooked. Are we however, through all this worrying, overlooking some pretty big benefits that AI can bring to our society? In the areas of sustainability and ecosystem services the positives appear to be outweighing the negatives.

Take the environmental sector; here AI are being employed to do jobs that humans simply cannot complete, opening amazing new opportunities. AI can work in deep water and extreme weather and environmental conditions, going to places that are just too dangerous for humans. This is essential in clean tech industries such as offshore wind, where robots are performing subsea inspections, and dangerous clean-up operations like the radioactive Chernobyl nuclear site. They can also do a better job when it comes to promoting improved use and recycling of natural resources, detecting and cleaning pollution and protecting the environment. For example, underground aquifers, the warming climate or animal migration.

AI is also helping to improve knowledge and understanding of the sustainability issues in our world. It is an exceptional tool for collecting and managing big data. We can take this quickly accessible and easily digestible information and use it to make better decisions. Currently this is in the form of AI’s like Amazon’s Alexa and chatbots that all help us, the average consumer, easily find more information and knowledge on sustainability and other related issues. In the future, we’ll be able ask Amazon’s Alexa anything from where our groceries were shipped, to what minerals were used in our new phone’s supply chain.

Thinking even bigger, AI are also using their data analysis power to map and analyse global biodiversity loss and create new corridors for wildlife at speeds and scale that we humans just couldn’t even begin to attempt. Something that is crucial at a time when biodiversity loss is accelerating year on year, with many experts believing that we are heading towards environmental catastrophe if we do not make scalable changes, now.

They can also use big data to create high-res land cover maps. These maps provide an unprecedented view of what is where, and how it is changing. Helping governments, organisations and researchers make more informed decisions about when, where and how to most effectively deploy conservation efforts for the greatest impact. This is a virtuous cycle of learning, as all this information can then be fed back to the AI, making them smarter.

AI are also improving innovation, efficiency and productivity of natural resource use, demonstrated by projects like ARIES (Artificial Intelligence for Ecosystem Services) that is redefining ecosystem service assessment and mapping natural capital and processes to make the extraction of natural resources more efficient, cost effective and cleaner. 

And I could go on, this is a topic I am passionate about. These are just some of the ways that AI are making scalable inroads in the field of sustainability. I truly believe that, rather than doomsday predictions of the ‘rise of the machines’, with careful planning and ethical implementation AI is an essential asset when forging our sustainable future.