Can Artificial Intelligence help us combat climate change?

Visualising Climate Change (Photo - Mila AI Institute)

“We are wired to respond to the danger that we can see. AI can help us, by providing visual images of the effects of climate change, including flooding, droughts and smog,” says Sasha Luccioni, the director of Scientific Projects at the Mila AI Institute.

Luccioni and Andrew Zolli, the Vice President of Global Impact at Planet Labs, spoke last Friday at the AI for Good Global Summit, a conference organised annually by the International Telecommunication Union and Xprize Foundation in Geneva, which aims to identify practical implications for AI and scale solutions for global impact. Due to the COVID - 19 pandemic, the conference took place virtually.

Why does this matter?

“One of the main reasons for which we are not tackling climate change effectively is because we can’t see the immediate threat,” said Luccioni, at The Future of Earth, AI + The Environment session.

“AI can also be used to provide reliable data about the effects of climate change in the present day and it can make predictions about the future.”

By helping us understand the effects of climate change, AI gives institutions and local communities the chance to make more environmentally–friendly choices, Zolli added.

Planet Labs, for instance, uses satellite imagery to map out changes on earth, at sea and in the atmosphere on a daily basis. “This allows us to know where air pollution is happening. We can track carbon utilisation and we can map out the size and location of coral reefs in the sea,” said Zolli. AI can also be used to make future predictions: “This data also allows us to estimate how much food will be available in the future, and how climate change will affect different areas over time”.

“AI can allow institutions to make data-driven decisions which protect the environment. It makes change visible, accessible and actionable,” concludes Zolli.And it is not only large institutions that AI hopes to target: “There are a lot of people who are trying to solve 21st century problems with 19th century tools,” he points out, “AI data can help indigenous communities as well, by providing them with the tools and information to protect themselves and their land.”

So can AI also help respond to the Covid - 19 pandemic?

“Absolutely!” says Zolli, “This period will allow us to understand that there are problems bigger than us. The power and importance of technology in predicting and preventing such disasters is now obvious. We understand why decisions need to be made based on data.” Luccioni agrees, suggesting that: “This has shown us the importance of AI, but it has also shown us that we need to do more work. We need better technology to prepare for such events in the future.”