Microsoft Corporation

04/16/2019 | News release | Distributed by Public on 04/16/2019 07:34

Lucas Joppa on AI for Earth: ‘We need to do some radical things and we need to do them now’

'My project focuses on developing a deep‐learning framework to emulate key wave characteristics (necessary to account for wave interactions with the ocean and atmosphere) in an accurate and cost‐effective way by reducing the number of calculations once the machine learning model is trained with a large amount of data.'

He added that Microsoft's computing power would provide huge benefits to his study.

'The AI for Earth programme allows easy access to powerful, cloud‐based computers. It's a great way for scientists to access the Microsoft Azure platform and experiment with it to assess its potential for future use. I knew immediately that it could provide access to new infrastructure that was not yet available at the National Oceanography Centre.'

All the grant recipients are building on Microsoft's 35-year work with AI, which aims to 'assist humanity and augment our capabilities', according to Harry Shum, Executive Vice-President of AI and Research at Microsoft. As a result of work at sites such as the Cambridge Research Lab, Microsoft is currently one of the world's leading experts in AI technology.

'People forget that Microsoft has been investing in AI research for the past 35 years; this isn't new for us,' Joppa says. 'AI for Earth represented the first cross-company effort to deploy those 35 years of investment in research and technology in a key area of societal importance. It's focused on agriculture, water, biodiversity and climate change, and acknowledges the fact that, as a global society, we have to figure out how to mitigate and adapt to changing climates, ensure clean water supplies, sustainably feed people around the world, and stem the global loss of biodiversity. We have to tackle all that together, and in the face of growing human populations. I'm not that old, and there are twice as many people on planet Earth as the year I was born. That growth is expected to continue on up to 10 billion people.'

Joppa points out that one of the few things matching the exponential rise of negative human influence on the planet is the development of technology and innovation.

'We think there is going to be a significant role to play for AI in general and machine learning in particular in building solutions there,' he adds. 'The AI for Earth grantees are making significant progress and I'm excited about the growing, global nature of the programme.'

The Committee on Climate Change agrees that it will take more than legislation to address the problem, and 'will involve a combination of new technologies, processes and human behaviour'.

As such, Microsoft is uniquely positioned to help; it has the staff, the set-up, the reach and the financial strength. It is also leading by example by being carbon-neutral since 2012, putting a formal price on carbon and building a net-zero-water campus in California. Joppa believes the company's involvement could be a game-changer.

'One of the great ironies of our day is that we often ask the organisations with the fewest resources to do the most - environmental non-profits, academics, under-funded governmental agencies. They're the ones tasked with solving one of humanity's greatest ever challenges?! That's absurd - we need absolutely everyone leaning in right now.

'I want to make sure we are able to give the grants to organisations, whoever they are, as long as they are taking a machine-learning-first approach.'

However, simply giving organisations access to cutting-edge technology is not enough; the people who work for those institutions need to know how to use it effectively. Environmental experts are not computer scientists; they will need training and education programmes to attain the skills needed to help them with their projects. Those experts might know how to log data, collate it and study it, but they may not know how to interpret huge amounts of data that have been subjected to Microsoft's powerful AI algorithms.

'Just because you give people technology, it does not mean they know how to use it,' Joppa says. 'Everyone is an expert in something, so how do we empower people to take what they are good at and use that in the world of environmental sustainability, with AI accelerating their contribution. What are the education and skill programmes we need to deploy to ensure that those people who run environmental non-profits or are environmental faculty members or work in these government agencies … we recognise that they were often not the ones getting their degrees in computer science. But if we want them to be able to use our technology as effectively as possible, we need to help them get those skills.'

Microsoft has put together an AI for Earth team that is helping grantees and partners across the world to build the applications that can help the planet. The aim is to create a connected and seamless digital world that can be used by everyone involved in Microsoft's programme, whether they are just about to apply for a grant in the US or conducting experiments in a field in Africa.