World Environment Day Feature: In The Fight To Save The Environment, AI Emerges As The New AgniAstra

World Environment Day Feature: In The Fight To Save The Environment, AI Emerges As The New AgniAstra

by Anand Parthasarathy - Monday, June 5, 2023 03:31 PM IST
World Environment Day Feature: In The Fight To Save The Environment, AI Emerges As The New AgniAstraThe UNEP's World Environment Situation Room leverages AI to analyse complex climate situations around the world. (Photo Credit: UNEP).
  • New AI tools like ChatGPT have made advanced tools available to make sense of a mountain of environment-related data

    It has facilitated global monitoring of pollution and other by products of warming on a massive scale

    Wireless monitoring of sensors embedded in trees, help prevent illegal felling

    Smart buildings in India have significantly reduced their carbon footprint

    Monitoring crop health with solar-backed soil sensors has been perfected by multiple Indian state agricultural universities

Management guru Peter Drucker said it succinctly, decades ago: “If you can't measure it, you can't manage it”, an adage that dovetails with a more modern mantra: “Data is the new oil”.

In the global fight to save the planet and arrest the degradation of the environment, there has been a perennial problem: How to accurately assess the dimension of the challenge — be it global warming, rampant pollution, rising sea levels or exploding waste generation.

How to make sense of unstructured data and how to interpret it in meaningful ways has been a central challenge. Now it seems, help is at hand: Artificial Intelligence (AI).

AI as a science has been around for almost fifty years — but it is only in recent years, even months, that it has reached the touchy-feely state: Now — thanks to what is being called generative AI and its early avatars like ChatGPT — the rest of us, not just the boffins, can experience and leverage AI in a myriad ways.

And this has led to some of the most massive examples of crowd sourced  study, where thousands of agencies, in government, corporate and civil society spheres are able to leverage publicly available global data and use AI tools to bring up some local learnings.

On 4 June, the eve of World Environment Day 2023, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) released the 8th annual edition of "The State of India’s Environment in figures” (e-book, CSE, Rs 200). 

This has become the de-facto source of India-centric information for many agencies and NGOs, working on environment-specific challenges. Say the editors:

“The book was born out of the belief that processing data and information is the new way to communicate today. This is critical as today data is overflowing and information is available from so many sources and so fast that sometimes we end up not making any sense of the happenings.”

Harnessing such data, and processing it with AI tools, has seen many environmental issues addressed with new meaning and vigour.

Environment Situation Room

The UN Environment Programme's (UNEP) World Environment Situation Room (WESR), launched in 2022, is one such digital platform that leverages AI's capabilities to analyse complex, multifaceted datasets.

WESR curates, aggregates and visualizes the best available earth observation and sensor data to inform near real-time analysis and future predictions on multiple factors, including CO2 atmospheric concentration, changes in glacier mass and sea level rise.

It also acts as a global public database of empirically verified methane emissions. Reducing the energy sector’s methane emissions is one of the quickest, most feasible, and cost-effective ways to limit the impacts of climate warming, says UNEP.

Another global monitoring programme is the GEMS Air Pollution Monitoring platform, the largest global air quality information network in the world. 

It aggregates data from over 25,000 air quality monitoring stations in more than 140 countries and leverages AI to offer insights on the impact of real-time air quality on populations and help inform health protection measures.

The burgeoning use of cloud computing services has seen the creation of massive data centres world-wide and India’s insistence — for sound strategic reasons — that data created in India should be physically held in data centres within the country, has created at least one unintended consequence — the large use of water for cooling.

The glib response is to say: You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. But technologists are already addressing the challenge of achieving a data storage environment with minimal impact on resources like water — not least by using more efficient, less heat generating microprocessors. 

The AI-centred Aum processor under development at C-DAC could well be a harbinger of such energy efficient practices.

Detecting illegal tree felling

Solar-powered sensors can record chainsaw noise up to 1.5 kilometers away. (Photo Credit: Rainforest Connection).
Solar-powered sensors can record chainsaw noise up to 1.5 kilometers away. (Photo Credit: Rainforest Connection).

The Chipko movement which attained global fame in 1973 for tree-hugging villagers in a small chunk of what is today Uttarakhand, was an exemplar of people-driven ecological action. 

Today in a tech update of Chipko, solar powered acoustic sensors attached to trees feed data back wirelessly to an AI-driven computer model which can recognize the characteristic sound of illegal tree felling or logging.

Spearheaded by a US based NGO — Rainforest Connection — such sensors are in use in 35 countries where other bio-acoustic sensors monitor the health of the forest’s precious flora.

While the Silent Valley in Kerala remains a notable example of conservation, ever since it was formally designated in 1985, with little or no loss due to human incursions, it may be timely to consider such AI driven tools to preserve mainland India’s largest chunk of tropical rain forest.

Smart Buildings Reduce Carbon Footprint

Within Smart City missions, Smart Buildings are a key component where  energy use is kept to a bare minimum through judicious use of resources and 24x7 monitoring of key use parameters.   

In Hong Kong, an app called Neuron from a design firm, Arup, turns smart building data into smarter insights: Using 5G and Internet of Things sensors to gather real-time data from a building’s energy management systems, it then uses an algorithm to analyse this data and optimize the heating and cooling system, as well as make predictions for the building’s future energy demand.

The Bosch Nxt smart campus in Bengaluru: Green inside and out.
The Bosch Nxt smart campus in Bengaluru: Green inside and out.

In India, new buildings to house some top infotech companies have come up with their own innovative AI-driven solutions to reduce their carbon footprint.

A Swarajya article has highlighted some of these smart corporate structures in India.

DripSmart system displayed at a Krishi Mela, monitors soil sensors to send the right dose of water and nutrients to crops. (Photos: Anand Parthasarathy)
DripSmart system displayed at a Krishi Mela, monitors soil sensors to send the right dose of water and nutrients to crops. (Photos: Anand Parthasarathy)

Agriculture, arguably India’s most critical sector of employment, is particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Today, many state agricultural universities have innovated with a variety of  soil sensors, many powered by solar energy to monitor temperature, humidity, radiation, soil moisture etc, process them using machine learning algorithms to boost yield and reduce wasted resources; to regulate sowing, watering and harvesting. 

Krishi melas held in many states, evangelise such smart farming practices. (Swarajya article on smart farming in India here).

From something as elemental as growing food, to as futuristic as designing new energy-efficient microchips, Artificial Intelligence is already making a tangible difference to better, more efficient management of human activity as we face up to the challenges of global weather patterns.

Anand Parthasarathy is managing director at Online India Tech Pvt Ltd and a veteran IT journalist who has written about the Indian technology landscape for more than 15 years for The Hindu.

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