Tech Trend Focus 2024: Can AI Play a Central Role in Saving a Struggling Planet?
AI is often cast as a menacing technology that has the potential to run amok and take down the human species. In fact, several leading AI pioneers, including Sam Altman of OpenAI and Demis Hassabis of Google DeepMind, have signed a statement (opens in a new window) on the Center for AI Safety’s website that reads, “Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.”
But if you talk to environmental scientists, you may be swayed to believe that AI is the planet’s best hope for survival. No matter how you have been influenced about AI’s potential or dangers, you should know that AI is currently at the forefront of addressing climate change and dire environmental issues in myriad ways, including:
- Optimizing energy generation and demand in real time
- Tracking illegal deforestation
- Monitoring ocean health
- Implementing smart waste management systems that are efficient and environmentally friendly
On a national and global scale, AI can improve outcomes of environmental decision-making by analyzing vast amounts of data that improve climate change models and by making more accurate predictions about extreme weather events and their consequences.
As an environmental technology, AI can address all defining categories put forth on the U.S. International Trade Administration website (opens in a new window) . Those categories are defined by industry as services that:
- Foster environmental protection and physical resource efficiency in industrial settings
- Generate compliance with environmental regulations
- Prevent or mitigate pollution
- Manage or reduce waste streams
- Remediate contaminated sites
- Design, develop and operate environmental infrastructure
- Afford the provision and delivery of environmental resources
To follow are examples from the World Economic Forum (opens in a new window) of how AI can be deployed to help solve some of the planet’s most pressing environmental issues.
- Autonomous and connected electric vehicles
AI-guided autonomous vehicles (AVs) will enable a transition to mobility on demand over the coming years and decades. Substantial greenhouse gas reductions for urban transport can be unlocked through route and traffic optimization, eco-driving algorithms, programmed “platooning” of cars to traffic, and autonomous ride-sharing services. Electric AV fleets will be critical to deliver real gains.
- Distributed energy grids
AI can enhance the predictability of demand and supply for renewables across a distributed grid; improve energy storage, efficiency and load management; assist in the integration and reliability of renewables; and enable dynamic pricing and trading, creating market incentives.
- Smart agriculture and food systems
AI-augmented agriculture involves automated data collection, decision-making and corrective actions via robotics to allow early detection of crop diseases and issues, to provide timed nutrition to livestock, and generally to optimize agricultural inputs and returns based on supply and demand. This promises to increase the resource efficiency of the agriculture industry — lowering the use of water, fertilizers and pesticides, which damage important ecosystems — and increase resilience to climate extremes.
- Next-generation weather and climate prediction
A new field called “climate informatics” is blossoming; it uses AI to fundamentally transform weather forecasting and improve our understanding of the effects of climate change. This field traditionally requires high-performance energy-intensive computing, but deep-learning networks can allow computers to run much faster and incorporate more complexity of the real-world system into the calculations.
- AI-designed intelligent, connected and livable cities
AI could be used to simulate and automate the generation of zoning laws, building ordinances and floodplains, combined with augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR). Real-time city-wide data on energy, water consumption and availability, traffic flows, people flows, and weather could create an “urban dashboard” to optimize urban sustainability.
- A transparent digital Earth
A real-time, open API, AI-infused, digital geospatial dashboard for the planet would enable the monitoring, modeling and management of environmental systems at a scale and speed never before possible — from tackling illegal deforestation, water extraction, fishing and poaching to air pollution, natural disaster response and smart agriculture.
As AI progresses, it will be an increasingly important tool in our efforts to mitigate the extensive environmental damage imposed upon the planet. However, it is important to note that AI alone cannot be the sole resource for solving complex climate and environmental issues but should be used in conjunction with a holistic, ethical and multidisciplinary approach that considers the complex and multifaceted nature of environmental issues.
Following are some Washington State businesses and organizations that are using AI to address climate change and other critical environmental issues:
Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies (opens in a new window) is a biotechnology company located in Seattle that uses AI to develop microbial products that enhance crop resilience and reduce the need for chemical inputs, contributing to sustainable agriculture.
Amazon (opens in a new window) is committed to becoming a net-zero carbon company by 2040. The company has been actively investing in AI to optimize their supply chain, transportation and energy management to reduce their carbon footprint. For example, they are working on autonomous delivery vehicles and AI-powered energy-efficiency systems for their facilities.
Boeing, (opens in a new window) the aerospace giant headquartered in Washington State, is using AI to optimize the design and manufacturing of more fuel-efficient aircraft. This helps reduce carbon emissions in the aviation industry, which is a significant contributor to climate change.
The Clean Energy Institute (opens in a new window) at the University of Washington conducts research on clean energy technologies, including AI applications in energy storage, grid management and renewable energy integration.
LevelTen Energy (opens in a new window) , headquartered in Seattle, operates a platform that uses AI and data analytics to match corporations with renewable energy projects. This helps organizations procure clean energy more efficiently, reduce their carbon footprint, and accelerate the transition to renewable energy sources.
Lumen Bioscience (opens in a new window) is a Seattle-based biotechnology company that uses AI and synthetic biology to develop sustainable and scalable bio-based products, including biofuels and specialty chemicals.
Microsoft’s AI for Earth Program (opens in a new window) harnesses the potential of AI for the good of the planet. The program has given more than 200 research grants to teams applying AI technologies to planetary health in one of four areas: biodiversity, climate, water and agriculture.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) (opens in a new window) is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory located in Washington State. They conduct research on clean energy and environmental science. AI is used in various projects, including optimizing power grids, understanding climate change impacts, and developing energy-efficient technologies.
Seattle Clean Energy Fund (opens in a new window) is a program that aims to accelerate clean energy solutions in Seattle. AI is employed in various ways to optimize energy usage, grid management and energy storage to reduce carbon emissions.
For more information on AI related classes, certificates and degree programs within the Washington State Community College system, please contact:
Center of Excellence for Information & Computing Technology at Bellevue College