Every year, on April 22nd, more than 193 countries come together to celebrate Earth Day. The goal of this movement is to demonstrate support for environmental protection and raise awareness to the ways we can reduce pollution, carbon footprint and waste. Our planet is 4.543 billion years old (give or take 50 million years), so it’s important, now more than ever, to make a conscious effort in the way we treat it.

Technology has been enemy #1 to most environmentalists for a number of reasons: manufacturing technology creates a tremendous amount of dangerous waste, machinery technology has increased development projects which has led to the extinction of many plants, birds and animals and our excessive power consumption is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions.

It isn’t all doom and gloom though, because as it turns out, AI has a green thumb and it’s been used to develop technology that can help prevent and in some cases even restore the damage we have done.

If human beings continue to refine technology and make a serious stand in protecting the environment, AI will become the planet’s biggest ally.

Here’s how they’re already doing it:

Fishing – how AI will help

Experts say that up to 26 tonnes of globally fishing is illegal, unreported, or unregulated. Sadly, this is equal to a third of all fish that are caught legally.

Illegal fishing may be conducted with prohibited gear and result in overfishing, resulting in damage to coral reefs, seamounts, and other vulnerable marine ecosystems. 55% of the world’s reefs are threatened by excessive and destructive fishing. In South Asia, nearly 95% of all reefs are affected, and it is believed that most of the remote coral reefs in the world are overfished.

Other times, illegal fishing may result in the capture of protected species like the Atlantic salmon, which is endangered, or non-target species like sharks and turtles.

Fishing is an incredibly difficult industry to monitor, but some organisations are leveraging AI to tackle this problem. Last year, The Nature Conservancy instigated a challenge on Kaggle, a data science competition platform, to source a model that could detect when protected fish were caught. The software would then flag the portions of the video suspect of illegal fishing to be reviewed by a human. It currently takes 6 hours for an officer to review 10 hours of fishing footage, so this technology would increase the scrutiny placed on fishermen.

Nectar Device
(Nectar)

Bee-keeping will keep the Earth alive

The bees are dying, the bees are dying! Colony collapse disorder is when a majority of worker bees in a colony die, leaving the queen bee alone in the hive without sustenance. This has been a massive problem in recent years — in 2016 beekeepers in the US lost 44% of their colonies. Since most plants rely heavily on bees for pollination, their absence is strongly felt throughout the entire ecosystem. There are many speculations about why colony collapse disorder is happening, such as overuse of pesticides, but to this day no one is quite sure what the reason is.

Even if we don’t know how to prevent bee colonies from collapsing, we can still focus on keeping the ones we have healthy! Startups like Nectar, based out of Montreal, are developing IoT solutions powered by AI to help beekeepers maintain healthy colonies. Nectar is building an apiary management platform, so that beekeepers can use data rather than intuition to determine what bees need and when they need it. The technology is even able to predict what events will occur in a hive and when, depending on many factors such as the temperature and season.

Deforestation

Rainforests contain half of all life on Earth’s land mass and produce 20% of our oxygen, despite only covering 2% of our planet’s surface. However, they are disappearing at an alarming rate. It is estimated that up to 90% of all deforestation in tropical rainforests is illegal, wreaking havoc on the diverse animal and plant life that call the rainforest their home. One of the biggests drivers for this has been agriculture, as cattle ranchers transform the land to be used to raising livestock. Sadly, deforestation is difficult to detect and about a fifth of the Amazon rainforest has been lost in the last 50 years.

One of the reasons that it’s difficult to protect the rainforest is its size. The Amazon Rainforest is 23 times larger than the United Kingdom, making it impossible to monitor manually. It’s for this reason that organisations like The Rainforest Connection are turning to AI. The Rainforest Connection has combined solar panels and cells phones to create a cheap and rigorous acoustic monitoring system. They call these Guardian devices, and use AI to monitor for sounds of logging, such as chainsaws and vehicles, that are far away and imperceptible to the human ear. When these sounds are detected, the device alerts authorities in real time to intervene.

Planting trees

Agriculture

Soil is the foundation of agriculture, without clean and healthy earth all we are left with is dirt. Much of the soil found on earth is unusable or inaccessible since it’s found underneath bodies of water (the ocean, rivers, lakes), therefore the formation of quality soil is critical for agriculture. There are multiple factors that can influence the quality of soil, namely parent material, climate, location, the chemicals and substances found in water, human and animal interaction, etc. It feels like you almost need fate, or luck on your side for all of these elements to align, but then there is also the time factor. It takes 500 years for an INCH of topsoil to form.

Increased human activity has led to urban development pollution, landfills and climate change, causing the amount of farmable land to decrease despite population being at an all time high. Companies like Trace Genomics have developed technology that can improve soil management. The process is fairly simple: you collect a sample of your soil and send it in for genome sequencing, computational analysis, and data science to analyse and measure your soil health. Afterwards, Trace Genomics provides you with custom recommendations for how you can improve your soil health and crop yield.

Water

You might have seen initiatives like aqua drones and jelly fish filters cleaning our oceans, or desalination and wastewater treatment technologies being used to help curb the freshwater crisis.

One area where AI is making vast improvements is in the development of smarter cities. Fracta is a company that uses machine learning to plan water main replacements. In order to avoid something they call “pipeaggedon” they are analyzing large data sets in order to shed light on what’s really happening with a city’s infrastructure. The technology can also accurately predict the possibility of water main failure for the fraction of the cost in a fraction of the time. Not only does benefit the city itself, but the taxpayer who would suffer the consequences of dirty (or lack of) water and ultimately be responsible for the cost.

Let’s avoid being the clichéd people that don’t realize what they have until it’s gone. Until Elon Musk starts selling weekend trips to Mars, we only have one planet to live on. Technology can and will improve the dire circumstances we find ourselves in and artificial intelligence will play a key role in that, but the person with the ability to invoke immediate change is the one you’re looking at in your screen.