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  • Writer's pictureJeff Steele

How Can AI Save The Planet?

We've just reached a technological tipping point that could usher in a new era of sustainable living! All we need now is an eco-tech company to bring it to fruition.

Every technological leap, from the steam engine to the smartphone, has enhanced people's lives, but at a cost. In the classic tragedy of the commons scenarios, the price of personal gain from these innovations is environmental degradation. 

Steam engines were adopted ubiquitously, but ushered in an era of unprecedented air pollution. These engines allowed us t

o move huge quantities of raw resources to where they were most valuable, incentivizing environmental destruction like never before. 

The electric age demanded a massive uptick in open-pit copper mining, along with a new reason to burn fuels. The digital age hinges on rare minerals, the extraction and processing of which leave a trail of severe ecological toxicity.

All these advancements created problematic circumstances that the technology itself was, of course, helpless to solve. 

Self-Solving Systems

AI requires the same rare minerals as all digital technologies, but unlike any innovation before, it has the potential to overcome the problems created by its own wake.

We've been shrinking digital technologies at an astounding rate, which will only increase with the help of AI. Perhaps we could use AI to reduce the need for these elements further and help us recycle them efficiently, so we don't need to extract more from the planet. Maybe AI can help us invent a way to move beyond needing these compounds at all. Maybe AI could act as a neutral expert to reconcile the disparity between environmental degradation and economic success - between human rights & ecosystem requirements - to create a new era of sustainability.

AI could offer novel solutions to rectify the very issues arising from its own utilization. We can also use it to steer humanity away from the existential cliff we're heading towards, which could lead to the deaths of billions of people.

Doomsday ecology

To appreciate the gravity of the situation, let's look at it through the eyes of an ecologist. Ecologists think in terms of populations and their resources. 

To be sustainable, a population must find some kind of equilibrium with their material needs. If a population increases faster than it can increase its required resources, it can lead to disastrous circumstances. Even extinction.

Consider the relationship between coyotes, rabbits, and grass. The coyotes prey on the rabbits and the rabbits on the grass, but they create a stable ecology together. If something happened to the coyotes, like overhunting, the rabbit population could swell & eat the grass faster than it can regrow.

When the rabbits, or any species over consumes its resources, the population starts fighting over what's left and scrambling for survival. When this happens, the rabbit and grass populations could locally drop to zero.

When we examine our human populations and the resources we depend on, ecologists start to panic.

We have quadrupled our numbers in the past century. In that time, we've used up the resources that were easiest to extract and degraded the natural world's capacity to produce as much as it used to. We're like rabbits without predators eating the grass faster than it can regrow. 

We've already burnt the petroleum easiest to extract, depleted the most fertile lands, polluted the most convenient water supplies, overfished all accessible waters, and dismissed biodiversity at every turn. Besides the ethical implications, this depletion makes it harder for us to get what we need, which makes life more expensive. And these diminishing returns cause the bunnies to feel on edge.

Now we have AI to help us reach our goals, whatever they are, with industrial robots right around the corner. If we use these technologies to continue maximizing profits via environmental exploitation, we will only accelerate humanity's demise.

But if we use these technologies to their full potential, we could clean up the mess we've already made, regenerate ecosystems, and increase the availability of renewable resources.

Sustainability Made Easy

An abundance of sustainable solutions exists for every challenge we face. Many of them are exceedingly simple.

How do we stop plastic from getting into the ocean? We pick it up before it gets there. 

How do we green the desert? With plants. The trick is, planting the right species in the right place and watering them until they're mature enough to take care of themselves.

The basic solutions are often very simple. We don't implement them because they're tedious & inconvenient. We don't live sustainable lifestyles because it takes too much time and effort. We don't clean up pollution because we got other things to do. 

But now, it's possible to automate these tasks.

The Future is Here

In 50 years, we'll think of computers and smartphones as a stepping stone to what happened next. 

We're approaching Star Wars-level technology. Not in terms of intragalactic colonization yet, but the droids are right around the corner.

For the last several decades, only sophisticated factories owned by powerful conglomerates could afford automated robotics. These systems require specialized hardware and teams of programmers, but the result is unparalleled production power brings great wealth to the owners of these systems.

In the age of mass-produced actuators, self-writing software, and cheap sensors, the components for advanced robots are affordable to the masses!

We already have bots helping us clean our floors and cut our lawns. Before too long, we'll all be outsourcing our toils to a flock of bots designed to do our bidding. Like Luke Skywalker's uncle, even struggling desert farmers will have a team of droids helping out before too long.

In this new era, the concept of labor-intensive tasks will be redefined, as we delegate these duties to an assembly of sophisticated, task-oriented robots.

This ability to do more work is similar to when engines became a part of our lives. The obvious danger is that this increased ability to do work will result in more of the same resource extraction and environmental pollution that's highlighted the last century, but at a faster pace. 

We've already degraded the natural world too far. Before we amp it up further with ethicless drones that operate 24/7, we could really use some cleanup and remediation drones.

Regrowing Nature

There are incredible examples of biodiverse ecological systems planted by people that produce a huge amount of food and useful materials without any maintenance. They are eco-friendly, harvest-only farms, as self-sustaining as any natural ecology.

There's a planted oasis in the Moroccan desert that has been feeding families for over a thousand years. There are estate gardens in Asia that have provided food, materials, and medicine for dozens of generations without much input. We recently realized much of the Amazon was planted by indigenous folk using one of the most complicated horticultural systems ever documented! 

That's the problem: these systems are complicated. They're designed to mimic natural environments, which are generally considered chaotic.  Setting up these plant systems is site-specific, often requires a succession of planting, plus a thorough understanding of how each species will interact with its neighbors. Then they take decades to mature.

It would be fair to assume some of these ancient horticultural systems were just a lucky arrangement in favorable conditions. Although the systematic methods used by the Amazonians would require centuries of trial and error development, if that's how they figured it out. 

Perhaps they used shamanism to tap into the supercomputer we call the subconscious mind, which can process magnitudes more data than the rational mind, and used this "intuition" to develop their horticultural methodologies.

That's all beyond the typical modern farmer who spends enough time hoping a single crop grows successfully. They're not interested in making things more complicated with a dozen more crops. Especially in the same field. There's not a tractor for growing a food forest. 

We know biodiversity increases ecosystem health and resilience. But biodiverse farming is just too complicated for the rational human mind. And that artsy subconscious stuff is simply not scientific.

Science is about measuring discrete variables with laboratory controls. Nature is a continuous, uncontrollable, holistic variable. Science doesn't do "holistic". It'll study all the parts, but studying a complex system as a whole is beyond the scope of science.

The need for a holistic perspective has been recognized, but we fervently deny ourselves serious access to our data-crunching supercomputer that is our subconscious, so what do we do? We mechanize the functions of our subconscious into an artificial intelligence. 

AI overcomes the limitations of science by being capable of analyzing systems holistically. It’s made to identify patterns in complexity, so it’s perfectly capable of helping us understand and revitalize complex ecosystems.

AI Can Save The Planet

Leveraging affordable hardware and cutting-edge open-source AI, we can simplify the transition to sustainable living.

Not since the era of Edison has so much unrealized technological potential been up for grabs to the most innovative. In the late 1800s, capacitors, resistors, and electric generators had been invented, but folks were still trying to figure out how to put these components together in useful ways. Neural networks, computer vision, and fuzzy logic are now just like these early electrical components when their applications were still in their infancy.

These advancements are about to land us in a whole new world! We’re like Dorothy Gale asking the scarecrow, "What would you do with a brain if you had one?"

Cuz you can download an artificial brain from GitHub.

We could while away the hours, conferring with the flowers, consulting with the rain. Because AI will show us how to regrow the natural world and the bots will do the busy work.

But first, how about some bots to pick up trash?

AI for Pollution Reduction

Specialized robots could clean beaches by sifting sand for microplastics, removing litter from waterways and delicate ecosystems, and autonomously responding to oil spills. We can create AI for ecosystem restoration, optimizing for biodiversity, ecosystem services, and renewable resources. We could have bots that water plants all day, extending riparian zones, greening the deserts, maintaining parks, and watering your yard without any further irrigation infrastructure.

It’s been hypothetically possible to automate these tasks for a while now. The current technological tipping point comes from projects like Open Computer Vision. This technology allows any visual data to be searched for specific contents. It is an open-source project, so this technology is already available to everyone. And even beyond its availability is how it's programmed.

Traditionally, programmers might work in groups coding for tedious weeks to develop sophisticated software. The way these new algorithms work, the term “programming” is no longer used. “Programming” has given way to “training”. With OpenCV, the algorithm is trained on images it's meant to identify. 

A trash-collecting robot would be shown thousands of pictures of trash, along with thousands more pictures of objects it should not collect, like rocks, benches, and shoes people are wearing. You can train an AI-powered bot on the visual difference between sand, shells, and bits of plastic, and release it to clean up a beach, meticulously.

AI for ecosystem restoration

Whether it's about rainforests, reefs, wetlands, or urban green spaces, ecosystems around the world could use some love. Often, all that's needed to restore an environment is to establish the appropriate vegetative biodiversity. 

To know what plants should be planted on a given piece of land, it's recommended to first monitor the land through all the seasons. Temperature, light, rain, drainage, and wind, should be tracked along with changes of vegetation and movement of animals & insects. This data is compiled with the results of soil testing to create a holistic map, from which we can choose appropriate plant communities to reestablish a natural order.

Even when such comprehensive planning has been performed, restoration projects face major hurdles. Many plants that would mature on their own in a healthy ecosystem, will struggle in the disturbed environment. Without protection from a mature ecology, young plants could easily become too dry or be overgrown by invasive species.

Right now, the solutions to watering and weeding are irrigation systems and gas-powered weeders. The cost of these not-so-eco-friendly solutions is measured by the square meter, so the area over which they're applied will always be limited.

The other restoration solution is to start with the most hearty drought-tolerant plants, let them mature for a few years, and then begin planting more biodiversity once moisture levels have stabilized. Of course, if there are brambles, kudzu, English ivy, or any number of other invasive species nearby, you still must ensure they don't overwhelm your restoration project. Which is to say, restoration projects are complicated and can easily go wrong.

A comprehensive examination of over 200 restoration projects from all over the world found zero had restored 100% of the natural biodiversity. The average level of biodiversity restoration was 44%.

Our current approach is not good enough. The methods and tools we are using are insufficient. But with AI and simple hardware, we can now build the tools to understand nature's complexity and help her regrow.

Eco Droids

Imagine an automated garden cart that spends much of the day filling its tank from a local water source and delivering measured amounts to young plants. It constantly monitors for invasive species and eliminates them with laser precision as soon as they emerge from the ground. It could also have an arm so it can pick up trash.

With the right training, an AI could develop an algorithmic understanding of nature's complexities far beyond the rational human mind's understanding. A comprehensive, site-specific restoration plan could be as simple as feeding a year of time-lapse images and environmental data to the right AI.

We can also apply this technology to our parks, schools, and yards to design and maintain beautiful, productive gardens. Then we can have harvesting bots that make sure every last berry, beet, and brussel sprout is plucked at peak ripeness and delivered to those who need it most.

We could build bots to monitor sea life and use AI to create a comprehensive plan to repopulate the oceans. If sea life could be brought back to abundance, a well-managed system could revitalize fishing communities around the world.

We could create objective and incorruptible droids to monitor and ensure resource extraction projects, which often have little oversight, operate to specified ecological standards. We can have bots that clean up areas too toxic for humans to safely deal with, like tailing ponds from mining operations.

We can use AI to help us plan communities that don't rely on vehicles and manage logistics to reduce transportation requirements. We can use this robotics revolution to help us produce goods locally, cheaper than goods shipped from continents away. We can use AI to help us find ways to produce the luxuries of life from abundant, local, renewable resources, so that we can truly take responsibility for our material world.

Becoming Sustainable

We still have time to stop behaving like overpopulated rabbits and start planning for the future. Cleaning up the mess we've already made is a huge amount of work and few are volunteering. But we're about to receive the kind of help we need to get these jobs done. 

AI technologies are poised to change our lives in the 21st century as much as electricity changed our lives in the 20th century. We must use this technology to secure our future by protecting and revitalizing the natural resources we depend on.

Who else thinks the world is ready for an eco-tech company?

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