• Catherine Brenan

How artificial intelligence is saving our world


As technology becomes more advanced, scientists are developing new ways of using artificial intelligence to combat environmental issues.

Artificial intelligence is perceived by society as futuristic machines that will soon take over humans and the world. Unlike most robotic movies such as Terminator or the Mat

rix, artificial intelligence can also be seen as machine learning, where systems can automatically improve and learn through experience without being specifically programmed. These machines sort through big data and can predict outcomes that can help solve for example, the problem of species conservation. Computational Sustainability is a new field of science where researchers are combining computer science to help solve some of the most challenging problems related to sustainability.

At Cornell University research into computational sustainability has been used to solve the decrease in bird populations. Due to the loss of habitat from the increase in cities and towns, most migratory birds have no resting stops, rendering them unable to migrate, and resulting in the drop of many bird species populations. To solve this issue, scientists have created a cell-phone application called eBird. This application allows the public to submit data on the birds that they have spotted in their area. Since the app was introduced Cornell has received over 300 000 volunteers, equating to over 22 million hours of field work. With the combination of field work and the labs own observational research, the information predicts where there will be changes in habitat for certain species and the paths along which birds will move during migration. This information can be provided to conservationists who can find ways of protecting the bird’s habitat. In Wheatland, California, the Nature Conservatory has been using this information to create the program Bird Returns. In this program the company pays rice farmers in the bird’s flight path to keep their fields flooded with irrigation water from the Sacramento River as migrating flocks arrive. The prices are determined by reverse auction, in which farmers bid for leases and the lowest bidder wins.

NASA is also using machine learning in order to understand the distribution of phytoplankton in the world’s oceans. Phytoplankton are found on the surface of the ocean and can be seen from space as vibrant blue spirals. These organisms provide a significant fraction of oxygen that we breath and are essential for the oceanic food web. Phytoplankton also contribute to the consumption of anthropogenic carbon dioxide. Using satellite imagery and computer modeling, NASA scientists can predict the total number of phytoplankton that live on Earth and how that population is changing over time.

Finally the EarthCube is a new 3D model produced by the Natural Science Foundation. It uses machine learning to measure the hydrosphere and lithosphere. The cube will be able to model different conditions and predict how the planet’s systems will respond. With this information, scientists will be able to suggest ways to avoid catastrophic events and plan for those that can’t be avoided such as flooding or rough weather.

These are just a small number of examples of how artificial intelligence is continuously changing our lives for the better. So the next time you are watching Terminator don’t view machines as enemies but instead, as the future to the long term sustainability of the world as we know it.