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Could AI provide the answers to climate change?

Climate change is undoubtedly one of the biggest global challenges we face. It affects us now and it will certainly impact the lives of many generations to come. These are challenges we all must work together to solve. Artificial intelligence and the revolutionary technological advances it offers, could provide innovative solutions to a wide variety of problems ranging from cancer treatment to self-driving vehicles. Is it possible, that AI might also provide the answers to climate change?
– “AI alone won’t be enough. However, an ever-increasing amount of talent and resources are being devoted to AI solutions for overcoming a variety of climate challenges. In fact, applied AI could very well provide the shortcut we need for doing just that,” says Sverker Janson, Research Leader at RISE.

The possible impacts of climate change are so serious that they are difficult to even comprehend.

– “Global warming of just a few degrees may not sound like much, but it is, in fact, enough to result in melting polar ice, rising sea levels, a much higher frequency of both heatwaves and hurricanes, loss of biodiversity and the depletion of entire ecosystems. All of this, has enormous consequences to billions of people,” says Sverker Janson.

Stop emitting greenhouse gases

We must completely transform society if we are to limit global warming to 1.5 C. Doing that requires that, by 2050, we no longer emit gases from the combustion of fossil fuels. Furthermore, by 2070, we must no longer have any greenhouse gas emissions at all. So, what do we need to do to achieve that?

– “There are no simple answers or single solutions. We need to make changes across all sectors of society and in all industries. However, when we start zeroing on the specific challenges in any particular area, that’s when see ways in which AI might help. A report issued by more than 20 researchers from major universities and private companies explains how AI and machine learning might facilitate the transition required in the transport sector, farming and with energy efficiency. It encourages researchers in the field of machine learning and AI worldwide to collaborate on climate change issues,” says Sverker Janson.

Climate Change AI is a group of volunteers from academia and industry who believe in using machine learning, where it is relevant, to help tackle the climate crisis.

At RISE, we are currently working on many of the areas mentioned in the report

Huge benefits possible

The potential benefits of AI stem from using the technology to both identify and exploit patterns, new opportunities and values contained in enormous quantities of data on a level that we humans aren’t even close to being able to achieve. By allowing AI to create smart models based on data, we can identify ways of optimizing our use of resources and more quickly developing new materials and fuels. In the food industry in particular, AI could help us significantly increase productivity.

– “At RISE, we are currently working on many of the areas mentioned in the report. One of our projects, for example, is focused on optimizing freight transport in Gothenburg. Our assessment is that the number of freight transports could be reduced by 40 % if we simply utilize full capacity and stop transporting air. More than 20% of the world’s carbon emissions is attributable to the transport sector so significant benefits, both financial and climate-related, can be derived from making changes there,” says Sverker Janson.

Robot for precision farming

More efficient food production

Another area where AI can play a big role is farming, and increasing the productivity of food production. Sustainable intensification in agriculture, which involves adapting cultivation to the conditions in the field, has proven capable of increasing yields by as much as 20 %. Food production is currently responsible for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of water consumption. Accordingly, it’s an area where improvements, like those possible using AI technology, can make a significant difference.

– “For example, drones and sensors can be used to monitor the status of crops. Based on that information, both irrigation and use of pesticides can be adapted accordingly. AI can also be used for decision support. But the big gains to be had in this area still lie a bit further in the future,” says Sverker Janson.

We’re therefore working very hard to find more efficient algorithms and smarter ways of designing, constructing and running data centers

Photo: Holger Elgaard

Individual buildings and entire cities

There are also many ways in which the property sector can derive benefits from AI and machine learning. For example, data from buildings can be analysed to discover patterns showing where renovations will be needed, along with what needs to be done. RISE is conducting such studies on the “million homes” buildings constructed in Sweden during the 1960s and 1970s.

– “Opportunities for using AI exist not only with individual buildings. Entire cities can benefit by developing smart, data-driven solutions that can lead to higher energy efficiency, lower carbon dioxide emissions and better living environments,” says Sverker Janson.

Energy efficiencies lower the climate impact

Energy efficiency is an area where machine learning and AI are expected to have a particularly large impact. Heating, cooling and ventilation systems used in the property sector and industry require enormous amounts of energy. Accordingly, smart control systems that increase energy efficiency can generate enormous financial savings and also significantly reduce the climate impact.

Data center efficiency in particular is one area where AI can really make an impact, in that energy consumption is a top consideration for data centers everywhere. This is important, because we will increase our use of data centers as we continue finding new applications for AI. According to a report from OpenAI released in November 2019, the computing power required to train AI is now rising faster than ever before. In fact, it has doubled every 3.4 months since 2012. Data centers already consume a great deal of power, but it is estimated that their need for electricity will increase to almost 8 % of the total global electricity production.

– “AI and data centers consume a huge amount of energy. We’re therefore working very hard to find more efficient algorithms and smarter ways of designing, constructing and running data centers. RISE has its own data center in Luleå, which holds the unofficial world record on energy efficiency. Of course, it’s all controlled by AI too!” says Sverker Janson.

Staying on earth

AI’s potential for helping us solve climate issues is huge. And, even though the challenges are difficult and much progress remains to be made, Sverker Janson is optimistic.

– “I’m convinced that AI will play a very important role in how we solve climate issues in the future. There’s even talk of AI helping us colonize other planets. The most important task however, is using AI to ensure that life on earth can continue and thrive.

Published: 2019-11-27
Sverker Janson

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