In the popular imagination, artificial intelligence (AI) has often heralded our doom. Terminator’s AI defence network, SkyNet, initiates a nuclear holocaust. Intelligent machines in The Matrix ensnare humanity in a VR simulation whilst harvesting its bioelectricity for energy. Even outside the realm of fiction, AI is regarded with suspicion. We read that workers are under constant threat of being replaced by automated AI machines. Even the humble tech journalist is said to be endangered.
A 2018 report from Forum & PwC suggests we should be more optimistic. In fact, its findings argue the very opposite of received opinion. Rather than destroy it, perhaps AI could save the planet.
Autonomous vehicles (AVs) could reduce carbon emissions
Every day, thousands of cars cram onto LA’s freeways as commuters make their way into the city. This horrendous traffic has become so iconic that it set the scene for the opening number of the 2017 musical La La Land. But it has a darker side. As well as being eternally frustrating for those forced to live with it, these cars’ combined carbon emissions contribute to climate change in an innumerable way. The worst part is, it’s totally avoidable.
In any commuter city around the world, many carbon-emitting vehicles have five seats, but just one person inside—the driver. Filling those empty seats could, in theory, take four additional cars off the road and eliminate fuel waste. What does all this have to do with AVs? According to the PwC-Forum report, AVs could provide bespoke public transport on demand, using AI to calculate optimised travel routes, a system known “eco-driving”. Since so many commuters work in such close quarters, it would hugely reduce vehicle emissions if self-driving cars to map out a route that transports the largest number of people using the least amount of energy.
Business owners looking to run fuel-efficient vehicle fleets already use eco-driving algorithms in green fleet management software. Self-driving cars are being tested all over the world, and startups like Uber are already pioneering modern AV carpool systems. Combined, these elements could create an AI-driven solution to one of the world’s biggest and most unnecessary causes of pollution.
AI disaster relief could save lives
It’s a field more crowded than an LA freeway, but one of Donald Trump’s most shocking failures as a president so far is his handling of Hurricane Maria’s devastating effect on Puerto Rico. The initial storm claimed over a dozen lives, and left the island with no power, and dwindling food and water supplies, putting thousands of residents in danger. Rather than send immediate aid to this US territory, Trump waged a war of words with Puerto Rican politicians via Twitter, and went on a four day golf holiday, leaving no directives for his ill-equipped administration to help. To this very day, Puerto Rico is still without power.
The lack of response to Hurricane Maria is due to a number of factors, Trump’s almost unparalleled incompetence and lack of empathy included. But even more skilled and caring politicians can struggle in the face of a natural disaster. That’s where AI can help. By analysing weather, infrastructure and social media activity in disaster zones, AI has the potential to give politicians and aid workers informed strategies for minimising danger and providing relief. Combined with machine learning, programs like these could revolutionise the way we respond to disasters, and save millions of lives in the process.
AI-powered smart agriculture could feed (and save) the planet
Though jam-packed freeways are more obvious signifiers of global warming, the agricultural industry is one of the biggest polluters on the planet. Every day, millions of gallons of water is used to sustain animals and crops, and tons of food waste is thrown away for being spoilt or damaged before it even reaches households.
As well as causing it, agriculture is hugely impacted by climate change. Areas of arable land can become infertile due to variations in weather conditions, leading crops to spoil and an increased need for pollutant fertilisers and pesticides which damage local ecosystems.
AI algorithms could help farmers plant crops only in areas of fertile soil, and help isolate and avoid areas of plant disease, thus lowering the need for fertilisers and pesticides. AI could also tell farmers how much they need to produce to feed those living nearby, transforming the way we distribute food, and reducing greenhouse emissions from food transportation.
Some may still view the AI-ridden future with apprehension. But applications like these prove the technology can be used in ways that benefit humanity and the world around us. Far from destroying the planet, as it does in works of fiction, AI could help save it.