8 October 2019

The use of technology to solve environmental issues featured strongly at Microsoft’s Future Decoded conference this year. It’s a highly relevant topic.

Multiple sources show that to slow the effect of climate change and continue to support an ever-growing population, we need to act now.

It is a topic that will profoundly affect many aspects of the lives of the workforce of the future. During the Day 1 morning keynote, Dr Lucas Joppa, Chief Environmental Officer for Microsoft, gave businesses three priorities to consider:

  •     Minimise the risk of environmental issues to your business;
  •     Minimise your contribution to the problem; and
  •     Focus on building scalable solutions that can help the world avert some of the worst environmental problems.

It’s this final point that is of particular interest to Curo Services. As technologies such as AI mature, there is an increasing potential for the technical world to be a real, genuine force for good.

Which species should we rescue? Should we be supporting a growing population, or taking action to reduce its impact?

Of course, Microsoft can’t do this on their own, but they’re making a great start. Step up some of the partnerships in Microsoft’s “AI for Earth” initiative. It’s a five year, $50m commitment by Microsoft in deploying AI tools to help change the way data is used for environmental solutions.

An informal poll of hands in one of Future Decoded’s sessions showed very few businesses were beyond the experimental stage with AI. However, the partnerships exhibiting at the conference were pretty inspiring.

AI in the field

Take “Wild Me” for example, who are using AI and data analysis to identify animal species that are on the verge of extinction. Computer vision and deep learning algorithms are used to scan and identify individual animals and species. Thankfully leopards can’t change their spots, as images of their spots are now being used to tag them.

Or look at Silviaterra, who are using satellite and other data to recognise and count tree canopies. This reduces the manual fieldwork needed to manage forests, enabling landowners and conservationists to make better decisions.

What next? How is the data used? Well, there are other unrelated businesses in existence using drones to plant trees in otherwise inaccessible places, potentially allowing a mass re-forestation.

These examples show the emerging power of technology to make a real, tangible change. The power of data analysis may be the only way to persuade some of the sceptics that there is a real issue to solve.

Will AI be playing God?

However, it also opens up further ethical questions. Which species should we rescue? Should we be supporting a growing population, or taking action to reduce its impact?

Ethical data analysis is key to answering these considerations in an informed way. This is where it gets complicated, crossing the line from tech and business into politics. Those who have seen the recent Netflix series on Bill Gates will have seen the profound effect a political decision can have on a project.

Learn more…

Are you feeling inspired, but don’t know where to start? Microsoft believes that budget and education shouldn’t be a barrier to those who want to solve problems in this area, so they have lots of support available.

AI for Earth already has 430+ innovation projects that have been given grants, education and help in 70+ countries. If you want to work in this area but need to learn AI there are lots of online resources, including Microsoft’s AI School. Part of the AI School is the AI Business School – which business leaders can use to gain specific, practical knowledge to define and implement an AI strategy.

More specifically, the next round of a Microsoft programme called the “AI for Good Accelerator” was announced on 1st October 2019. It’s a programme for 12 start-ups looking to work in any of the four AI for Good pillars, of which AI for Earth is one.

A four-month programme, it can support start-up businesses in the areas of business development, marketing, technical support, social impact and innovation. If you’re interested, you need to apply by 15th November 2019.

To paraphrase a final thought from Dr Joppa’s keynote: “If AI can’t be used for good, what good is it for?”

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