An initiative by Microsoft puts AI tools in the hands of people working to solve global environmental challenges.
According to many, we are now in the Era of AI, a new stage in history which could give us hope for more sustainable practices on Earth. And Microsoft seems to be the company currently pushing the idea farthest ahead with its new AI for Earth initiative.
Launched last year at the Paris climate event, the five-year program “puts Microsoft’s cloud and AI tools in the hands of those working to solve global environmental challenges,” the tech giant says. Anyone with the idea of how to use Microsoft’s AI toolkit can apply for funding to use the software to conduct research and implement novel sustainable solutions for agriculture, climate change, biodiversity and water.
The program is on the move and has quickly become a landmark for applications of AI to address critical sustainability challenges. With a $50 million overall budget, the project has so far awarded 139 grants to recipients from over 45 countries.
Last week seven more companies from India were selected to receive funding. The focus on India, the third largest recipient of AI for Earth grants after the US and Canada, is not arbitrary. Lukas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental scientist, explains: “I think what’s special about India is that it has a large workforce that has the technical skills to take advantage of the tools that we’re trying to put in people’s hands.”
The recipients have been chosen based on their potential to provide significant benefits to large populations and will have access to Azure Cloud and AI computing resources, education and technology training on the tools, as well as additional support for project development.
Selected projects boast some amazing initiatives. For example, the Indian Institute of Technology and International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, together with the Technical University of Munich, are developing a cheap tool for plant health monitoring in developing countries with scarce resources.
The initiative aims to use Microsoft cognitive services and cloud computing to improve pest forecasting and prediction models, as well as introduce farm consulting services to support sustainable agriculture production. Meanwhile, the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, a biodiversity grant recipient, is developing an AI-enabled tool to monitor and assess the rich habitats and biological resources.
Among other recipients are the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, which is working on a tool for locating monkeys in cities to improve their population control, and Symbiosis Institute of Technology, Pune, which is developing an AI-enhanced smart data analytics tool for household energy management, as well as larger systems to monitor and predict water, air and soil conditions for diverse smart city applications. In similar fashion, the India Institute of Science is using data analytics and machine learning to provide equitable water distribution for India’s large cities.
The many other projects chosen by Microsoft have also done much good so far, from helping to save snow leopards and endangered Puget Sound-area orcas through advanced AI image recognition and sorting techniques to iNaturalist app, which utilizes citizen science for biodiversity conservation and making valuable contributions to global wildlife data-sets. Joe Gaydos, science director at the SeaDoc Society, says: “it’s going to be a paradigm shift for the management of wild populations.”
The AI for Earth grants are issued four times a year. They are not large sums (mostly around $5,000-$15,000), yet this is often sufficient for start-up projects to get off the ground. Larger sums may be awarded to bigger or more ambitious projects. The whole list of projects is available on Microsoft’s website. “I want an Information Age that encapsulates all information about life on Earth,” Joppa notes.