Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) look set to transform the way all industries approach their business, from optimising production and energy systems, to how scientists analyse and use data on everything from predicting climate change and crop failure to understanding ecosystems.
The optics of young people making impassioned calls for action at last month’s UN Youth Climate Summit are hard to ignore. Society faces a huge environmental challenge, and actions taken today will shape how we adapt to a changing world, how we preserve natural resources and the quality of life for future generations.
New technology, together with advances in machine intelligence are one bright spot in a gloomy environmental picture. Thanks to faster, more powerful computers AI-fed systems can process large volumes of data (‘big data’) to go deeper into the planet’s natural processes and better understand what is happening at the ecosystem level, from our use of resources to changing meteorological patterns and the role of human behaviour in all of this.
For example, the artificial intelligence built into today’s smart thermostats can analyse the habits of people who live in a house and adjust the temperature accordingly, saving up to 25% on energy bills, according to the EU’s new Coordinated Plan for Artificial Intelligence, ‘Made in Europe’ (see memo).
The business world is upbeat about technology’s potential green dividend. An Intel study found that 74% of tech leaders believe artificial intelligence can help solve long-standing environmental challenges; and 92% think predictive analytics will help organisations detect issues and develop new solutions, providing cost and regulatory hurdles can be overcome. In another study by Microsoft on AI in Europe, 89% of companies surveyed expect it to generate business benefits by optimising their operations and boosting resource efficiency.
Aware of the regulatory issues, the EU is leading (see EP Resolution) calls for a comprehensive industrial policy on artificial intelligence and robotics. Artificial intelligence, the European Parliament notes, can help energy suppliers move from preventive to predictive asset management, and help energy-intensive sectors identify and improve their performance. It can pave the way for greener, smarter transport networks, and autonomous vehicles. It can tackle food security issues, predict food-borne disease and famine, as well as improve the sustainable management of land, water and other environmental resources critical to wider ecosystem health.
“Artificial intelligence can intervene at critical points along the food system value chain, from production to consumption, and enhance our capacity to fundamentally alter the way we produce, process and buy food by better informing land-use planning practices,” notes Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy.
A leading force
Europe is a leading force in AI research – it is home to 32% of AI research institutions worldwide. EU backing for AI initiatives has been growing steadily with each long-term research funding programme. For the next budget under Horizon Europe (2021-2027), the EU has proposed to invest at least €7 billion in AI-related research.
Indeed, secure investment and strong cooperation through public-private partnerships in research and innovation are needed to further strengthen Europe’s position in this emerging technology. Here, initiatives like AI4EU, an online platform for exchanging AI tools and resources, and EU-backed projects like InDeal (see ‘The mother of invention’) look very promising.
Environmental challenges typically involve complex processes that scientists have struggled to fully grasp. But the predictive power of machine learning and AI provides fresh insight into fundamental environmental processes geared towards solving the planet’s most pressing challenges, including climate change, clean energy, healthy ecosystem and sustainable transport.