Can the Artificial save the Natural?

In my previous blog, which you can check out here, I explored how AI has emerged as a brilliant accessory for environmental conservation. Ultimately, it's the energy resources we choose and the efficiency of their usage that affect our ecosystems. So how can AI tackle the root of the problem? I've been looking into some specific ways AI is strengthening our fight against global warming, as well as how AI consumers can ensure that the maintenance of their technology is as green as it can be.

Already, our global energy usage is becoming greener; for example, wind power is proving to be an invaluable resource from which we can power communities. AI can ensure that our handling of energy is as efficient as it is green by scheduling usage according to typical demand: making it more predictable and therefore valuable to the grid.

Take Google and Deepmind, for instance. In February 2019, they collaborated to apply machine learning algorithms to 700 megawatts of wind power capacity in the USA, powered by wind farms as part of Google's renewable energy scheme. Deepmind uses AI trained on weather forecasts and turbine data to predict wind power output ‘36 hours ahead of actual generation’, which helps deal with the unreliable nature of wind. They reveal that machine learning has boosted the value of their wind energy ‘by roughly 20 per cent’, and explain how these successes can encourage ‘further adoption of carbon-free energy on electric grids worldwide.’

How we store our energy is increasingly important too. An article published on October 30th (Powering Forward; plans to light up Britain using your car, Lucy Tobin; Evening Standard) investigates how Vehicle to Grid (V2G) software is transforming our energy storage system. AI smart batteries equipped in electric cars are trained to identify usage patterns: a driver may park their car at approximately 8pm each evening, for example. This predictability allows cars to charge up when energy is low-cost, and return the unused energy back to the grid for when it’s in high demand. It significantly ups the appeal of electric vehicles, the carbon emissions of which are around 17 – 30% lower than driving a petrol or diesel car, according to EDF Energy, and gives potential to a future system where our cars become the batteries that supply our homes and run our lives!

So this tech is amazing, but does the benefit it brings outweigh its own carbon footprint? How can we tackle the problem without becoming a part of it? This November, MIT has revealed that the computing power needed to train AI is now rising seven times faster than ever before! There is no use in AI that seemingly benefits the environment if it ultimately causes further damage by being based in data centres that are sat on fossil fuel grids and powered by dirty fuel. My blog hosts, Verne Global provide the best solution here. At Verne's data campus in Iceland, AI hardware is powered by genuinely 100% green energy. This allows for environmental projects worldwide to invest in the newest, most advanced technology that can contribute to the protection of our planet, without the concern of harmful emissions working against them.

There are two sides to the story of saving our planet: solutions and awareness. Projects like Google's and Deepmind's are brilliant examples of AI making manual differences, but technologies like these are only invested in if people are informed enough of their necessity. So how can tech spread climate awareness? An article released this November by the American business magazine Forbes explores how virtual reality helps people better understand the climate crisis. Unbelievably, ‘across countries surveyed by Pew Research, a median of 20% consider global warming only a minor threat.' Compared with the words of top scientists, convinced that Earth is already in the midst of its sixth mass extinction, this ignorance insinuates a serious call for concern.

VR has the perfect ability to encourage empathy and motivation towards the cause through the immersive experience it provides. Viewers can understand what there is to our world worth protecting, and the consequences of our failure to do so.

Tree is an ongoing VR project that has headlined at international festivals since 2017. It exquisitely transforms a player's world into that of a rainforest tree. Put perfectly in the article, it 'aims to educate people in a hauntingly entertaining way, showing equally the beauty of nature and its fragility.' Next up is This Is Climate Change, a current, world premiering VR series in which players embark on four immersive journeys across the world: Famine, Feast, Melting Ice and Fire. The simulation aspires to equally 'educate and shock' participants with its engaging visuals of environmental carnage caused by climate change. For inspiration on more exciting projects, dive into the article here. Maybe even participate in one at a future festival!

I've really enjoyed discovering how our improving AI, when used in the best way, can make a positive environmental difference. We can hope that more innovations like these will become available on an accessible platform in the future, to further enhance the appreciation we have of our world and its needs.

Written by Florence Grist

See Florence Grist's blog

Based in the UK, Florence Grist is a freelance writer who enjoys writing on technology and sustainability issues and especially how AI has the potential to both transform our understanding of the environment and help protect fragile ecosystems.

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