Managing sustainability in the age of intelligent machines

Profile picture for user jbowles By Jerry Bowles May 8, 2019
The coming decade will be a time of unprecedented change for humans and the planet we inhabit. Can emerging technologies like AI and IoT help save us

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The United Nations’ first comprehensive report on biodiversity released on Monday is sobering evidence that human economic development has created a crisis that threatens the extinction of over 1 million species of plants and animals on earth in the coming years.

Species loss—driven mainly by climate change, loss of habitat, overfishing, deforestation, pollution and other man-made activities--has accelerated at a rate that is tens to hundreds of times faster than in the past, the report said.  

In a telephone interview, Osvald Bjelland, chairman of the Oslo-based business advisory firm, Xyntéo, which advises global leaders on high performance and sustainability issues, said:

This is not a crisis that is somewhere far off in the future. This is something that is happening right now.  The UN report is clear:  nature is in the worst shape it has been in history. If we don’t act immediately, we are in danger of losing forever vital parts of our living planet. And that threatens our own extinction.

We have the technology, capital and talent we need to create a more sustainable world; what we need is for business leaders, scientists, policymakers and ordinary citizens to come together to develop a growth model that works for mankind and for the planet.

How technology can help

The latest alarming warning from Mother Earth comes at a time when the high tech industry is itself in the midst of a paradigm shift that many analysts are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Basically, the term applies to a convergence of emerging cognitive technologies—centered around artificial intelligence (AI)—that will reshape entire industries, accelerate and enhance human decision-making, and automate or replace much work now performed by people.  

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the systems it helps power, like the Internet of Things  (IoT), machine learning, robotic processes automation, deep learning and virtual assistants, will soon touch every facet of how people work and live and has the potential to radically transform their lives for the better.  Or, without strong ethical and wise leadership and the proper safeguards, it could also make their lives worse.

The good news for environmentalists and global sustainability advocates is that these new technologies—especially AI and the IoT--profoundly enhance mankind’s ability to manage environmental factors like climate change, agriculture, biodiversity, water quality, natural disaster prediction and much more.  As Microsoft President Brad Smith explained when the technology giant launched its ambitious “AI for earth” program:    

There are few societal areas where AI can be more impactful than in helping address the urgent work needed to monitor, model and manage the earth’s natural systems. Data can help tell us about the health of our planet, including the conditions of our air, water, land and the well-being of our wildlife…AI can be trained to classify raw data from sensors on the ground, in the sky or in space into categories that both humans and computers understand. Fundamentally, AI can accelerate our ability to observe environmental systems and how they are changing at a global scale, convert the data into useful information and apply that information to take concrete steps to better manage our natural resources.

Here's an example of AI + IoT in real life.  Farmers and growers around the world are at the mercy of the one factor they can’t control—weather.  The Yield, an agricultural technology company based in Australia, uses sensors, data and artificial intelligence (AI) to help farmers and growers make informed decisions related to weather, soil and plant conditions.

Sensors in the company’s end-to-end solution measure 12 factors including soil moisture, leaf wetness, light, wind and rain and uploads the data to the Microsoft Azure Cloud platform. Using Microsoft AI, The Yield applies advanced analytics and predictive modeling to create a 7-day weather forecast for a farmer’s specific microclimate. An intuitive mobile application helps farmers use the forecast to determine how, when and where best to plant, irrigate, protect, feed and harvest their crops.  The result?  Less spoilage and more food for the planet. The bonus is that the software learns from its mistakes and gets smarter the more it is used.

There are literally thousands of uses for AI technologies across old and new industries that address the environment and other quality of life issues.  Cisco estimates that by 2030, 500 billion such devices and objects will be connected to the internet. The arrival of 5G will hasten this adoption.  

This has enormous implications for both society and technology, ranging across the wide-range of IoT applications: smart agriculture, ocean monitoring, wildlife protection, water supply monitoring, optimized sensor-based air purifying systems, extreme weather monitoring and prediction, early natural disaster warning, smart energy data center management and thousands of other applications that are to come.

One positive indicator; the World Economic Forum conducted an analysis of more than 640 existing IoT deployments, in collaboration with IoT research firm IoT Analytics, and found that 84% of existing IoT deployments can address its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

My Take

Artificial intelligence and the Internet of things have the potential to drive unprecedented growth that respects and protects the environment, reduces the expanding human footprint that threatens wildlife and natural habitats, and improve human and animal health through better air, water and a reliable food supply.

They also have the potential to make already deadly weapons even more deadly, enable total surveillance of individuals by authoritarian regimes in ways that are easier and more intrusive, and make autonomous decisions that do not reflect the best of human “values” or meet democratic standards of fairness and justice.  They have the power to automate and make redundant many tasks now performed by humans which could be a disaster for humanity if not mitigated in ways that urgently require planning now.

Two of America’s most prestigious institutions—Stanford and MIT--have addressed those questions and others by launching major interdisciplinary programs committed to studying, guiding and developing AI technologies and applications that are ethical and remain “human-centered.”

I agree with Osvald Bjelland’s earlier comment; what is needed most to guide the development of the most powerful technologies that mankind developed to date is leadership.  We need leaders of government and industry who are wise, fair and committed to the fundamental values of human freedom, autonomy and privacy.  

My personal view is that the sustainability imperative does not apply just to the physical environment but also to issues like the world’s rising income inequality gap, the political drift toward authoritarianism, and the inevitable job losses that automation will engender.      

If guided properly, AI could have a profound, positive impact on people’s lives: It can help mitigate the effects of climate change; detect and prevent disease through early detection; deliver quality medical care to more people;  provide better access to clean water and healthy food; personalize education and job training and; lift millions of people out of poverty and help solve many other challenges we face.  

Intelligent Machines are only as smart and wise as we let them be.  Creating a better future requires that people in government, academia, business, society, and other interested stakeholders come together to help shape the future.