Artificial intelligence’s future value in environmental remediation

Photo credit: Gianna Guirgis

Artificial intelligence is enabling us to rethink how we integrate information, analyze data and use the resulting insights to improve decision-making. The power of AI is revolutionizing various industries, and environmental science is no exception.

With increasing threats of environmental stressors, AI is emerging as a powerful tool in detecting, mapping and mitigating these effects for the future.

As AI increasingly drives innovation and becomes a facet of everyday life, fears about its capabilities are growing.

It doesn’t help that the media and pundits are stoking those fears, suggesting that AI could take over the world, lead to losses of control and privacy and devalue the importance of humans in the workforce.

According to Business News Daily, 69% of people worry that AI could take over their jobs entirely, while 74% predict that AI will eliminate all forms of human labor. However, its potential to remedy environmental problems can be a beneficial use of the technology.

From monitoring air and water quality to predicting the spread of pollutants, AI is already playing a crucial role in safeguarding our environment and public health.

As 2030 quickly approaches, the agreed deadline for hitting climate targets, the world is on track to achieve only 12 percent of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with progress plateauing or regressing on over half of the set goals.

“How can we use artificial intelligence – the technology that is revolutionizing the production of knowledge – to actually improve lives; to make the world a little bit safer, a little bit healthier, a little bit more prosperous; to help eliminate poverty and hunger; to promote health and access to quality education; to advance gender equity; to save our planet,” said Secretary of State of the United States Anthony Blinken, at the 78th Session of the United Nations’ General Assembly.

The most prominent applications of AI are currently in detecting, mapping and mitigating environmental toxins and pressures, which can help engineers and scientists gather more accurate data, but its uses are constantly growing and developing.

AI can help automate the process of taking and analyzing samples, and recognizing the presence of specific toxins in water, soil or air, so it can report real-time status. In delicate ecosystems, such as coral reefs and wetlands, including those around Florida, studying the parameters of the environment can alert to harmful conditions and propel action.

AI models can also create analytical maps based on historical or statistical data to understand trends and trajectories regarding toxin levels, weather patterns, human activities and other relevant factors. Those models can also evaluate satellite imagery to identify areas where specific conditions may be present and be trained to recognize patterns or changes, which can be extremely important in forecasting future dangerous weather events, enhancing agricultural productivity to combat hunger, responding to disease outbreaks, and addressing other imminent climate change threats to Earth.

These technologies can be also used to identify the sources and pathways of toxins and optimize mitigation strategies, crucial for effective mitigation and intervention, while monitoring the success of mitigation efforts.

If these practices for AI are deployed effectively and responsibly, they can drive inclusive and sustainable growth for all, which can reduce poverty and inequality, advance environmental sustainability and improve lives around the world.

However, real concerns exist that the developing world is being left behind as AI advances rapidly. If not distributed equitably, the technology has the potential to exacerbate inequality.

Countries must work together to promote access to AI around the world, with a particular focus on developing countries. Industrialized nations should share knowledge that can advance progress toward achieving SDGs, as AI has the potential to advance progress on nearly 80 percent of them.

To succeed in directing AI toward achieving the SDGs, complete support and participation from the multistakeholder community of system developers, governments and organizations, and communities is required.

Meanwhile, the need for AI governance is imperative, and support from federal and state governments as well as corporations is crucial to this transition. As AI’s footprint grows and nations work to manage risks, we must maximize its use for the greater good and deepen cooperation across governments to foster beneficial uses for AI.

The United States is committed to supporting and accelerating efforts on AI development, hoping to foster an environment where AI innovation can continue to flourish. Secretary Blinken mentioned the U.S.’s creation of a blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights and Risk Management Framework at the UNGA, which would guide the future use, design and safeguards for these systems.

The US has announced a $15 million commitment, designated to helping more governments leverage the power of AI to drive global good, focused specifically on the SDGs. Commitments and contributions have been made by other countries and large corporations, such as Google, IBM and Microsoft.

We are at an inflection point, and the decisions we make today will affect the world for decades to come, especially when it comes to AI and climate change. AI has the potential to accelerate progress, an immense responsibility to be taken by governments, the private sector, civil society and individuals that must consider the social, economic and environmental aspects of sustainability.

Lia Mussie is a senior majoring in ecosystem science and policy and political science with minors sustainable business and public health.