How can artificial intelligence help save the planet?

These are the three most possible applications of AI in the battle against climate change.

Martin Spano at TEDx TrenčínMartin Spano at TEDx Trenčín (Source: Juraj Majerský)

When I was a young boy, I was very ill. My immune system was not working as it should. I felt sick after meeting other children, so I had to live in isolation. I was coughing so severely that on a few occasions, I almost fainted. My loving parents tried everything to help me, consulted every health practitioner. I was prescribed strong medications that left me numb and without energy. The situation had seemed desperate when a friend of ours suggested treatment in nature. I repeatedly visited a treatment facility in the hills, breathing fresh air and moving a lot between green trees and wild torrents. Surprisingly, the stay in nature cured me completely.

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A few years ago, I hit bottom again. I had a terrible burnout. The excessive workload had been combined with an unhealthy lifestyle and disharmony in personal life. I felt very sick again, and my weight dropped significantly. I isolated myself, and my prospects were not rosy. Fortunately, I remembered what helped me last time and started to spend more time in nature again. I became a passionate hiker, hiking each day after work, and most weekends. Astonishingly, this unusual treatment gradually combated all my problems.

Giving back to nature

Twice in my life, nature had saved my life. Now I would like to help nature as much as I can because it needs our help. I am a computer scientist. I specialise in artificial intelligence. You may now be imagining me building a Terminator at home. However, AI is just a different paradigm of how to program computers; instead of instructing them on what to do, we let them learn from data in a process called machine learning. AI gives computers the ability to see, hear, read, and comprehend everything.

Okay, now it really sounds like building a Terminator. With such a skillset, AI can intelligently solve narrowly defined tasks that previously could be performed only by humans. Maybe you are now asking: What has AI done for me lately? I mean, how do these robots or computers affect my life? Apart from planning a global apocalypse. Don’t worry, just kidding—hopefully.

The answer depends on the level of your technological enthusiasm, but your day might look like this: You get up and grab your phone to check your email. Your email provider filters your spam messages using AI. You check the newsfeed of your favourite social network created for you through AI. If you commute by car, the ideal route to work is suggested to you using AI. If you visit an online shop, you get offers for similar products once again thanks to AI. As you can see, AI has brought significant advancements in a multitude of industries. Yet, at this very moment, it seems that it is nature that needs it the most.

Many human activities like transportation or deforestation produce gases like carbon dioxide and methane as a side effect. These gases accumulate in the atmosphere and trap heat, causing global warming. Global warming harms the Earth’s climate, causing extreme weather. Floods, tornadoes, or heatwaves occur more often and cause more harm than ever. Warming also causes the melting of ice sheets on polar. The corresponding rise in sea level threatens many cities in the world to be flooded and to disappear under the sea eventually. You might be surprised to hear that AI can help. For this reason, let’s look at the three most possible applications of AI in the battle against climate change.

Robots can recycle

Most of you probably know the movie Wall-E. It is about a robot sent to Earth to help people clean the planet from the garbage. Although it is a science-fiction, the idea from the movie strongly resonates with the present day. Each day, we are producing more than one billion tons of waste. Burning this waste in landfills produces twice as much CO2 as the whole aviation sector. It is, therefore, necessary to think about the best strategies on how to most effectively manage such a vast amount of waste.

The solution lies in recycling, which has numerous positive effects on climate. It saves energy because you do not need to extract new materials and the production from recycled materials uses less energy. For example, when producing recycled paper, you need only one fifth of the water and one fifth of the energy needed to produce new paper. Recycling also reduces deforestation; for a ton of paper produced, it saves around 20 trees. However, most of the waste in the world is not recycled. For example, the United States recycles one-third of the trash, Slovakia even less. The best situation is in Germany and Austria, where almost two-thirds of waste is recycled.

Wall-E comes to the rescue, or at least a version of it. Landfills have started using robots to sort the trash. Robots are trained to recognise all possible trash categories and all possible contamination levels using computer vision and machine learning. Waste moves through conveyor belts, while robotic arms pick up and sort it into categories, guided by cameras. Researchers are working on these systems not only to be reliant on computer vision but also to sense the sort of materials by their fingers, further improving the sorting efficiency. Robotic sorters have numerous benefits over their human peers. They are faster, currently twice as fast as humans, and this is yet to improve. They are tireless and can work 24/7 without a break. They lower the health hazards at landfills. They will gradually help us reach the goal of a zero-waste economy.

The prediction machines at work

One of the direst consequences of climate change is the intensification of natural disasters. However, we do not have to sit and wait until disaster strikes. The earlier we know about the disaster coming, the more lives and property we might save.

In ancient Greece, when someone wanted to see the future, he or she went on a dangerous pilgrimage to a place called Delphi where he or she asked priestesses called Oracles kept in a drug-induced state. The pilgrim usually got a mysterious answer that was, as you might guess, not very useful.

Times have changed. When there’s one field in which AI is good at, then it is the prediction. Some researchers call AI, therefore, the prediction machines. AI can predict the stock prices, which is a very tricky task as there are a lot of variables that must be dealt with. Why not use them for the prediction of natural disasters? These systems are trained on past data from extreme weather events. They analyze data coming from various sensors present in the environment and see patterns in them that match the ones they already saw in the trained data. The earlier and more accurate the warning gets to the authorities and the people themselves, the more lives and property might be saved.

Detecting the chainsaw roar

A saying goes: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Well, if we want to save the planet, it should. World’s forests are in danger. Each year we are losing around one hundred thousand square kilometers of wood, about the size of South Korea, making deforestation one of the most significant contributors to climate change. Most of this activity is, according to the United Nations, not allowed. Preventing this activity is a very tedious task taking place on the ground, consuming a lot of human resources. Fortunately, once again, AI can help. The first approach constitutes distributing the system of sound detecting sensors in vulnerable areas. These sensors are hidden, solar-powered, and able to withstand extreme conditions. Sound is uploaded to the cloud, where AI algorithms detect any sign of chainsaw and notify local authorities.

Another approach combines the use of satellite imagery and computer vision. AI analyzes satellite images and searches for a familiar pattern that points to a possible deforestation preparation, such as building new forest roads. This way, local authorities are able not only to see deforestation when it happens but predict it before it even starts.

These are just three possible uses of AI in the environmental field.

Technology saved us before

Climate change looks like an almost unsolvable problem right now, but we faced something similar before. In the late nineteenth century, nearly every large city in the world had a big problem. The transport system in these cities depended on horses, dozens of thousands of them moving goods and people around the cities. Can you imagine how much horse manure one horse produces? Ten kilos a day. These cities were drowning in horse manure.

In 1894, The Times newspaper predicted that in a few decades, all the towns would be buried under three meters of these horse products.

It is now more than one hundred years after that, and there is practically no more horse manure in the cities. What the people at that time could not imagine was the arrival of a disruptive technology called a car. Motorised vehicles replaced horses on the street, and the problem disappeared.

Similarly, as car solved the problem with horse manure, disruptive technology like artificial intelligence can solve our current issue. Therefore, do not despair. On the contrary, when you come home, think about our planet because the solution to climate change might be only a few genial ideas apart. Meanwhile, until we have these technologies, your behaviour plays a crucial role in preventing climate change. Protect nature in any way you can. Recycle as much as possible. This Earth is the only home we have and, at least for our generation, the only home we will ever have.

Martin Spano is the author of Artificial Intelligence in a Nutshell, a book that explores the mystified subject of artificial intelligence (AI) with simple, non-technical language. This is the talk he delivered at a TEDx event in Trenčín.

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