Scientists across the globe are developing live dashboards to study the natural world in unprecedented detail - ushering in a new age of opportunities and ethical dilemmas.
A glance at one satellite map of the Peruvian Amazon is enough to grasp the scale of devastation humans are causing to one of Earth's most precious ecosystems. The digital shots show with precision where the forests have been cleared for timber or illegal gold mining, yellow or pink scars amid the deep green of intact canopy. Year after year, humans eat away at more forests, pollute vast swathes of ocean and drive more animal species towards extinction. Today, technology is helping us monitor these changes in unprecedented detail, but scientists believe that it can go further –and actually help protect our planet from future threats.
Humans are experiencing a Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which biological, physical and digital spheres are merging. "Non linear changes are already underway in our systems, we therefore need to match non linear response by humans and technology," says Ben Combes, artificial intelligence (AI) expert with the professional services network PwC. He adds, "we now have the opportunity to accelerate exponential solutions with things like artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the internet of things which are gearboxes of this revolution."
What Combes calls ‘non linear response’ is the capacity of artificial brains to radically change not just what we know about a problem, but crucially the way we approach it. While conventional computers are capable of accumulating a great deal of knowledge, AI can deliver those ‘eureka moments’ previously thought to be the exclusive realm of human lateral thinking.
As we cover the planet with sensors capable of computing more data than ever before, computer programmers, data scientists and life scientists are now working together on a dashboard that will monitor the pulse of the entire globe, from the most remote mountain peaks to the depths of the ocean. It might sound more sci-fi than science, but "it’s highly possible, and in fact, it's highly probable," says machine learning expert Steven Brumby, who works on the data analytics tool Resource Watch.
Not only are these tools able to capture the present and reconstruct the past, but they can also build models that accurately forecast future trends. For example, Combes says, "they can track deforestation before it even happens," identifying new roads being constructed in the thick of a forest to usher in the bulldozers. And he adds that once this information is out in the open, countries will face greater public scrutiny. With sufficient data from the ground, artificial intelligence can learn to tag photos, acoustic recordings, and genetic information with species names. This, in turn, can teach us a great deal about how animals and plants adapt to new environmental conditions or react to human interference.
Is this revolution going to end up in the hands of a small group of big corporations with access to a wealth of sensitive data they can use for their profit? The expansion of artificial intelligence at a planetary scale is still in its infancy, and there isn't a coherent legal framework to regulate it. Collecting data in the open is not illegal, and what results from their analysis would be owned by whoever did the work. Private ownership of the data could get tricky, Brumby concedes. "Companies could become able to estimate the value of land better than their owners, observing how much a region is developing," he cautions.
That is why it is extremely important for the governments around the world to stay involved in the collective effort to create an interactive map of the world. "The public sector must ensure that environmental data collection platforms continue to be produced, and that the data are made available in formats easily ingestible by AI algorithms," says Lucas Joppa, a chief environmental scientist at Microsoft. He believes that where governments lead the way with funding and logistic support, the tech industry and the non-profit sector will rally around and come up with solutions that are not only scalable but also more transparent.
Countries such as the UK, the US, and Mexico, among many others, have already developed a national AI strategy aimed at regulating the complex relationship between public bodies, research institutions, and businesses. But when it comes to international diplomacy, the conversation is still in its infancy. The EU’s European AI Alliance is the first example of a regional cooperation framework which facilitates AI research and businesses across the Union while setting ethical boundaries to protect citizens’ rights. And while measures such as the General Data Regulation Protection (GDPR) have encountered some resistance among companies that had to rethink their data collection policies, we can expect to see more similar laws curbing the unfettered use of sensitive information obtained through new technologies across the world in the future.