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 July 28, 2020
Will AI save us from ourselves?

 It is the year 2050. The world population is roughly two billion people, just 25% of what it was thirty years ago. Back in 2018, the United Nations had predicted that we were approaching the point of no return on climate change. Unfortunately, by the time humanity took serious, meaningful action to the threat, it was too late. The Earth's temperature spiked destroying agriculture, triggering massive worldwide flooding, creating incredible natural disasters, and forcing people to migrate north... or underground. In conjunction with climate change, an explosion of pandemics ravaged the Earth. The sheer volume of disease was too much for humanity's medical heroes as health systems around the world crumbled. However, climate and disease were just the start. The global economy collapsed as people desperately foraged for food, water, and shelter. Civilization crashed and burned, and even society shattered as people fought each other for the basic necessities of life.

Sounds apocalyptic? While we think this will never happen, this possible reality is much closer to happening than most people realize. Humans are wired to deal with immediate threats like that what's that moving in the bushes. However, for long-term threats like climate change, people suffer from cognitive bias that often make us discount the extent threat or turn us into bystanders as we wait for someone else to deal with the problem. We need to look no further than the current Covid-19 pandemic as an example. How many times have people now said, "Why didn't we do something sooner when we had the chance?" It has been incredible to see our medical heroes and front-line workers in grocery stores, food services, retail, delivery services, and so forth help keep society going. It also has been amazing to see how much has been invested from our global community to find a vaccine. However, this only occurred when Covid-19 went from a long-term threat to a full-blown pandemic and immediate threat. Imagine what might have happened if we tackled the pandemic as a global society back in December 2019. It definitely would be a different world today.

So, if humanity can't manage long-term threats well, who can we turn to help us? Well, we have a very powerful ally in artificial intelligence (AI.)

Consider the tale of SnotBot R. Ocean Alliance is combing the power of drones, analytics, and AI to assess the health of the local ocean ecosystem. SnotBot R is a drone that follows whale pods. When a whale "blows its nose" (i.e. uses its blowhole), the drone swoops in. Petri dishes on the drone collect the whale mucus (i.e. snot), and then machines take the plethora of information which includes whale DNA, bacteria, hormones, water, etc. Aggregating this information together, we get information on the health of the whale and insights about the overall health of the local ocean ecosystem. This becomes an indicator into other key measures like pollution, water temperature, and so forth. While Ocean Alliance is getting some great insights about what Is currently happening, AI is helping to study long-term effects. With a "photographic memory", the AI system can start discerning subtle pattern changes even on a day-by-day basis. If we teach the AI systems about long-term problems like climate change and pollution, it will keep a watchful eye on how these problems progress. If we take it a step further, AI can even identify solutions to mitigate these threats, or, perhaps, even solve them before they become a danger.

Picture a future where AI can identify a new virus and help people create a vaccine before the virus actually occurs. Valuable? In the article Lost In The Covid-19 Shuffle: 5 Key Areas That Need AI Help, we see how medical researchers can leverage AI and generative design to do exactly this, and we already have the technology and experience from other industries to make this a reality. We have the power to prevent epidemics let alone pandemics. So how close are we? Unfortunately, not that close yet in large part because of two key challenges. First, pooling our resources together to make sure we have enough good data to teach the AI system. Second, making the commitment to invest people and money to a solution that has a long-term return on investment. This is a big challenge because not only are people wired to immediate threats, but businesses are laser focused on short-term gains. This may be a lethal combination.

Thankfully, there are some organizations that are focused on the long-term investments people should be making into AI. Consider the company Dendra which is focused on reforestation. The World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that 27 football fields of forest are lost every minute due to deforestation, and Dendra plans to combat this by planting 500 billion trees by 2060. Using satellite images, Dendra identifies key areas for reforestation. Using drones armed with special seedpods (filled with the germinated seed and nutrients), the army of drones fire the seedpods at a rate of 120 per minute! Dendra estimates that they could help governments restore forests 150 times faster and for only 10% of the current cost. As Susan Graham, Dendra CEO, shared, "it represents a new step-change in how we think about global ecosystem restoration."

Also leading the charge is Planet Home, an organization dedicated to planetary solutions and building a community of people taking micro-actions. Antony Randall, co-CEO of Planet Home, states, "we talk a lot about moonshots, but we also need Earthshots to help focus on the challenges of people and planet as well." For Planet Home, it is critical to connect people with micro-actions, small changes people are willing to make that create a positive social impact. While they are small, in the aggregate, they add up to really move the needle on our global problems. Consider house plants. If one person adopts a house plant, it will absorb, on average, 2 pounds of carbon per year and scrub 87% of pollutants (in its room) within 24 hours. Now consider that this person and another one million people adopt a houseplant. That really adds up! This is what Planet Home wants to do. Encourage people to take these micro-actions and share the aggregate benefit its community is creating for people and the planet. It is a very long-term goal with a huge investment, but as Randall testifies, "we only have one planet so let's make the commitment to preserve it."

So, will AI save us from ourselves? Only if we commit the time, money, and resources to enable AI to do so. It is easy to say yes but incredibly difficult to do. Humans are wired for short-term immediate threats. Businesses are focused on short-term goals. However, these hurdles are not insurmountable. Even with a small group of people and enterprises dedicated to a cause, they can move mountains by tapping into the potential and power of AI and other emerging technology. By making the commitment to using AI for our big global challenges, AI can save us from ourselves.