How AI is helping to save the Amazon
Did you know that artificial intelligence is on the frontline of saving the rainforests? Machine learning gets a bad rap, but when harnessed for good, it can supercharge environmental work, writes Martin Wright
Are we headed for a data-driven dystopia? One where artificial intelligence (AI) gradually colonises every aspect of our lives, to all our detriments? There is no shortage of gloomy predictions as to what untamed algorithms might bring about. You know the sort of thing: sweeping job losses; the obliteration of privacy and personal choice; even autonomous weapons systems unleashing killer bots from the sky. I could go on…
As clouds on the horizon go, it’s a big one. But that doesn’t mean it’s entirely shorn of silver linings. Far from it. The power of AI to harvest and process the vast amounts of data that litter the world’s servers can be harnessed for good. It can, in short, help us see the wood for the trees.
Quite literally, in some cases.
AI is on the frontline of the fight to save the rainforests, with data from satellites and cloud-piercing radar combining with on-the-ground monitoring to detect and track threats right down to the level of a single tree. Previously, it might take months or even years before an illegal logging operation or incursion by cattle farmers was spotted. Now, these can be picked up before the first whine of the chainsaw. In the Brazilian state of Acre, deep in the Amazon, where deforestation is running rampant, indigenous forest agents from the Shanenawa people are using drones and GPS monitoring in collaboration with a sophisticated AI tool. Developed by Microsoft and Brazilian non-profit Imazon, it helps predict where incursions look likely to occur, allowing local people to nip them in the bud.
This kind of detailed observation is now being used by companies under pressure from activists, consumers and, increasingly, investors and governments, to prove that their supply chains are ‘deforestation-free’. When it’s a commodity like palm oil, with tens of thousands of smallholders involved, that’s easier said than done. But AI tools can drill down through a huge range of data – from satellites, radar, on-the-ground monitoring, and more besides – to spot where an individual farmer on a remote plot of land in Borneo, say, might be starting to clear forest for palm, allowing time for prompt intervention.
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