Artificial intelligence contributes to sustainability

November 27, 2020

Artificial intelligence contributes to sustainability

Intelligent machines able to learn and interact with the outside world are an all-important resource in today's global challenge to achieve Sustainable Development Goals. 

And not just machines. Tools and systems based on so-called artificial intelligence go far beyond simple mechanical means to help, and to a certain extent emulate, people due to sophisticated algorithms that enable them to learn and act accordingly. It is difficult to provide an unequivocal definition of artificial intelligence, since its meaning is continually evolving. Things are very different today than in 1956 when the expression was first coined. In that year John McCarthy, professor of mathematics at Dartmouth College, in the United States, gathered together a small group of scientists to create the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence. As McCarthy explained when presenting the project, the conference proceeded “on the basis that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can, in principle, be so precisely described that a machine can simulate it”. 

Artificial intelligence benefits people

Regardless of how you define it, one thing is certain: artificial intelligence is now an integral part of everyday life, since its applications cover almost all sectors. This therefore raises a series of issues and problems. First of all from an ethical viewpoint, in respect of protecting people’s privacy and rights. In 2016, great international behemoths including Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple and IBM,came together in the Partnership on AI to Benefit People and Society, a consortium established to provide a forum for discussion and to identify best practice in artificial intelligence to benefit society. “Machine learning and artificial intelligence should augment human abilities enabling incredible new experiences while protecting the privacy of users personal information", says Jerremy Holland, Director of AI Research at Apple, on the partnership website. “Collaboration between people and machines to solve some of the world’s most enduring problems must be trustworthy and beneficial", echoes Francesca Rossi, AI Research Scientist at IBM. Europe is also forging ahead in the field of artificial intelligence, with the Coordinated Plan on Artificial Intelligence presented in 2018 which aims to provide for investment and cooperation to increase this sector in Europe.  

Artificial and Sustainable

How can artificial intelligence help sustainability, particularly in achieving Sustainable Development Goals? Discussions on this topic take place each year in Geneva at the global summit AI for Good. In 2019, the United Nations leading forum on artificial intelligence and sustainable development took place for the third time. “Artificial intelligence is at the forefront in fighting hunger, mitigating climate change and facilitating the transition to sustainable, smart cities” said Houlin Zhao, head of the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU), at the Summit opening. After all, artificial intelligence is now one of the leading technologies in transforming the economy and society, as demonstrated by more than 340,000 patent applications submitted since the 1950s. In a recently published article in Nature Sustainability by Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and other experts, the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution (comprising artificial intelligence and other digital technologies) was cited as one of six measures necessary to achieve Sustainable Development Goals

From Theory to Practice

Words and theories, however well articulated, are not enough. The link between artificial intelligence and Sustainable Development Goals is well defined in this little over a minute-long video published by ITU, and there are many practical examples. Precision agriculture is revolutionizing many aspects of food production by using robots that calculate exact soil and crop conditions, or satellites to understand how much water is actually required, without wasting this precious asset. Manufacturing and food processing industries benefit enormously from using robots and machines to help people, making a number of tasks in processing raw materials much less arduous and more sustainable. People also benefit from the use of artificial intelligence in sales, communication and education. E-commerce, for example, enables “isolated” entrepreneurs to link up to a wider network, while online teaching facilitates education and empowerment of those who live in hard to reach areas. In short, as explained in the article by Sachs and his colleagues, digital technology can increase productivity, and reduce production costs, emissions and consumption of resources in manufacturing processes. It improves efficiency, supports the circular economy, creates zero-carbon energy systems, helps protect and monitor ecosystems and plays a crucial role in supporting Sustainable Development Goals.

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