Can Google’s AI Save the Planet? – Updated

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Can Google’s AI Save the Planet? Google thinks so.

Here’s what Google’s EU head of sustainability had to say about some of the new ways their AI will help move the global temperature needle down.

Maybe I read too much science fiction as a child or watched too many movies as a teen, but I have always been slightly afraid of AI. I could not fathom why people would risk our collective future by creating artificial intelligence that would quickly surpass our own species’ intellect and abilities.

But here we are, and it is already commonplace around us. Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies expert Timothy Shoup estimates that 99 percent to 99.9 percent of the internet’s content will be AI-generated by 2025 to 2030. Even now, much of the ad copy or promotional literature you read has been created by a bot, maybe with a little human oversight. In its best form, it is relevant, grammatically correct, and can write better sales copy than most humans.

At its best, it can currently be used for environmental protection, to increase the health and welfare of developing nations and help bring medical advances. At its worst, it can be used for misinformation and will spread the personal biases of its creators, negative or otherwise. It is already being used in almost every facet of modern life, and given the fact that we are still only in the early days, there is no doubt that it will change the human experience greatly. 

This may seem frightening, but it need not be all bad. The truth is that we humans have already messed things up pretty well with unchecked greed and capitalism.

The AI genie is out of the bottle, so how about we use it for good? This is what the strategists at Google are proceeding with at a corporate-wide level. I attended a recent presentation at Sustainability Live London, where Google EMEA Head of Sustainability Adam Elman explained how the company uses AI leadership and vast computing resources to help fight climate change. 

It would appear they are all in, with applications and resources to enable all levels of human activity, from individuals trying to find the most efficient route to work each day to large corporations and cities that have the ability to move the needle in a meaningful way with simple, direct action. 

Some highlights from the presentation were: 

Environmental Insights Explorer (EIE). Focussed on urban areas like cities, the number of trees and tree canopy as a percentage of area is just the beginning. It also can instantly generate data on how much solar power generation a city could install. Using available information, the modelling application can accurately estimate the number of emissions within a city’s boundaries and break them down by type; for example, the amount from cars and trucks or the amount by industry. It can also be used to predict the air quality of a region and then offer ways to improve the situation. There are thousands of cities in their database and you can try it yourself.

In some areas, Google’s AI is being used to help cities plan infrastructure upgrades. For example, in Dublin, Ireland, AI is used to help determine the routing and effectiveness of proposed bike paths and will enable residents to cycle to their destinations instead of driving a car. It is a valuable tool in the civic decision-making process, as bike lane advocates can use this data to persuade less progressive counterparts that it is the correct path forward.

Google Flood Forecasting. Climate damage has already been done, and unfortunately, much of the resources needed in the future will need to be dedicated to mitigating and adjusting to this new normal. AI can help policymakers determine what regions and areas will be most affected by climate change. With detailed GPS data and highly accurate climate modelling, the application can provide a nuanced view of what can be expected and where. Low-lying areas with great population density are highly vulnerable to even small sea-level changes. The ability to predict where and when these people need to relocate and where they will go will allow everyone involved to effectively plan for the future using science-based criteria. 

UN Surface Water for SDGs program. Google and the UN have teamed up to help with the COP21 SDGs, specifically the monitoring and protection of the world’s fresh surface water. As the climate crisis continues, access to fresh water will become more important. Google’s AI is able to monitor and predict threats to surface water and help local and international governments enforce the laws that support the SDGs. 

Global Fishing Watch. Google partnered with Oceana and SkyTruth to use big data and machine learning to monitor fishing vessels at sea, looking for harmful and illegal activity. Ocean fish feed billions worldwide, but large declines in stocks of certain species make the need for active monitoring greater than ever. Using various input sources and AI, Global Fishing Watch identifies the areas under the most pressure and may be used to help prosecute those fishing illegally and without regard for sustainable practices. 

Global Forest Watch allows real-time monitoring of the world’s forests, looking for deforestation from illegal mining, agriculture and forestry. The program allows concerned citizens to understand where proposed logging will occur in relation to important wild areas and geographic features. For policymakers, it allows an accurate picture of the current state of forests on a global, country, or civic scale. They can then use this information to make science-based decisions to help maintain biodiversity, ground cover and carbon sequestration and help meet the UN’s SDGs. 

Corporate users like Lush, Unilever and others are now partnering with Google using their robust technology to decrease energy consumption and reduce carbon emissions. In the case of UPS, adding Google’s software to its delivery fleet reduced its fuel consumption by 10 million gallons each year. This type of program is essential to move forward with climate action; big companies want to do the right thing and will do so to comply with the law, but going beyond the bare minimum is also essential. In the case of UPS, savings of 10 million gallons of fuel could equate to 30-40 million dollars annually. 

Speaking of money, the Impact Challenge on Climate Innovation encourages a variety of innovators to bring forward the next big ideas in climate action. The $30 million fund provides grants of $5 million each to innovative, transformational projects with tangible results. Beyond money, the selected organizations also receive support from Google in management, planning and access to the computing power of Google’s AI engine. 

But beyond big flashy projects, Google aims to help 1 billion people make more sustainable choices by surfacing consumer information and making available science-based decisions. For example, Google Travel will now provide the carbon impact of various flights and hotels. The ubiquitous Google Maps now provides the lowest carbon or eco-friendly routes in North America and the UK. Since it was rolled out just eight months ago, it has saved 500,000 tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere by showing consumers how they can make a difference in their daily activities. 

Carbon offsets are another way Google can help. Often derided as a way for polluters to simply pay for their indiscretions, many others understand that human activity will always have a carbon footprint. If used sparingly, offsets are an important part of the climate solution. But only if they are trustworthy, reputable, and credible. Google is helping validation organizations like the Gold Standard and Voluntary Carbon Markets Integrity Initiative (VCMI) measure, quantify and validate the effectiveness of carbon offset programs. An effort that is arguably the most important part of offset programs.

But they don’t end there; what about their own operations? Despite being one of the largest data center operators in the world, Google has committed to operating completely on 100% renewable energy by 2030. Their integration of circular design principles in its operations has allowed the smart and effective reuse, repair and maintenance of its vast equipment resources. Google is also focused on influencing products they have less direct control or influence on, such as consumer products. In these cases, they take action first by extending the lifespan and repairability of the items and second by increasing the recyclability of these same items at the end of life. 

Oh yeah, that AI will soon create 99 percent of the content on the web? Maybe not so soon; Google has a plan there too. Websites that use AI to generate content are now being penalized for its use. This will undoubtedly have a cooling effect on its spread as ranking on the Google search engine is the one sure way of getting your information to the masses. Not many business managers would be willing to risk harm to their ranking on it.

Google is now one of the largest companies on the planet, with revenue and resources to rival some of the biggest economies. I may not want AI in every aspect of my life, but the genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and there is no going back to pre-AI days.

I am very glad that the companies who control such important resources are taking their position of power and responsibility seriously and helping accelerate action on climate change that is so desperately needed. 

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