20 May 2019   |   Network Updates   |   Update from Microsoft
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Microsoft’s Chief Environmental Officer reveals why he thinks the world of AI for Earth

On October 8 last year, the United Nations published a report that called for global warming to be limited to 1.5 degrees centigrade over the next 12 years. Failure to do so will significantly worsen the risk of drought, floods and poverty for hundreds of millions of people, scientists warned.

The research made for grim reading and laid bare the challenge that mankind faces in creating a healthy and thriving planet that future generations can live on.

Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s Chief Environmental Officer and the man behind the company’s $50m AI for Earth programme, is honestly blunt when asked about the UN’s findings during a visit to London recently.

“There are two conclusions you can take from the report,” he says. “One is we are finished; but I’m not a fatalist, so I try not to take that route. If you reject that conclusion, which I hope human society does, you are left with only one other – we need to do some pretty radical things, and we need to do them now.”

Three weeks later, the WWF published a report stating that global wildlife populations have fallen 60% since 1970.

Decades of climate change, pollution and the overuse of natural resources led the conservation organisation to conclude that “the variety of life on Earth and wildlife populations is disappearing fast”. From a financial perspective, economic losses in the US alone from extreme weather and the health costs of air pollution will hit $360 billion annually in the coming decade, according to a reportby the Universal Ecological Fund.

Those are big statements. The even bigger question is who can solve what many consider to be the greatest crisis the world has ever faced?

“It requires everybody to lean in, and some will have to play almost disproportionate roles,” Joppa says. “Governments need to do their part and every person has to do their bit. But the tech space has a major role to play in deploying technologies, human resources and expertise. We have a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it in.”

With an announcement of a bolder ambition from Microsoft President Brad Smith, calling for a tech-first approach to sustainability and the embedding of sustainability as a core value across all business units, it’s clear that Joppa is far from alone in that belief at Microsoft.

Even if you somehow manage to brush off the potentially catastrophic UN and WWF reports, you can’t ignore Joppa’s first-hand experience and knowledge in the environment sector. He holds a degree in Wildlife Ecology and Zoology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison – close to where he grew up – and a PhD in Ecology from Duke University; he’s advised the UN, been a member of the Science Advisory Board at Natural England, is an Honorary Conservation Fellow at the Zoological Society of London, and has sat on numerous boards, including the Federal Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment in the United States. He also spent time in Malawi, volunteering with the US Peace Corps.

Joppa joined Microsoft in 2009 as a Computation Ecologist, based at the company’s Research Lab in Cambridge. Five years later he moved to Microsoft’s global headquarters in Redmond, in the US, and took on his current role in July after creating the AI for Earthinitiative that was launched by Brad Smith, company President, last year. It’s a new position for him, and Microsoft, which shows how seriously the company is taking the issue of climate change.

There are two conclusions you can take from the report. One is we are finished; but I’m not a fatalist, so I try not to take that route. If you reject that conclusion, which I hope human society does, you are left with only one other – we need to do some pretty radical things, and we need to do them now.

Joppa’s aims are clear: “We ask ourselves: ‘Are we doing what is needed to address the defining environmental issues of our time? Are we driving down emissions and our negative environmental impacts? Are we using our buying power and partnerships and technology to accelerate positive environmental change outside of our four walls? And we don’t stop until the answer is yes.”

Those are daunting objectives, even for one of the largest technology companies in the world, but Joppa is fully aware of the task ahead. After moving back to the US he wrote a memo outlining how cutting-edge technology could be used to tackle some of society’s most pressing problems. That idea grew into AI for Earth – a programme offering cloud and AI computing resources, training and grants to researchers across the world who are trying to create a more sustainable future.

The demand for that programme was so big that an initial $2m, one-year commitment that was unveiled in London on July 12, 2017 turned into a $50m, five-year programme announced at the One Planet Summit in Paris in December 2017.

“We did that [launch with $2m] to see if our intuition was correct, which was there was going to be a lot of demand for this,” Joppa says. “The response in the first couple of months was extraordinary, and it was coming from all over the world, from all sectors. People were excited and wanting to get involved.”

More than 230 grantees in over 60 countries have received grants so far, covering every continent – a feat Joppa calls “truly extraordinary”.

Seven of those organisations are in the UK, and some of the projects include: in Cornwall, AI is being used to identify seals; in Shropshire, one company is deploying machine learning to understand the perfect time to pick coffee beans across the world; the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is monitoring wildlife in Sierra Leone and Liberia; and The University of Edinburgh is using Microsoft’s cloud platform to help animal researchers and volunteers communicate more effectively.

Joppa believes the UK is “an exceptionally special place” for research because of the concentration of talent, enterprise and education in such a relatively small area. It also helps that the UK has a history of exploration, a juxtaposition of traditionalism and modernism, he adds, the clash of the natural world and cutting-edge technology.

The National Oceanography Centre in Southampton is using a grant to try to predict wave sea states in the North Atlantic by using deep learning.

Dr Nicolas Bruneau, a Scientist at the organisation, said: “Wave dynamics are a key part of our global Earth system; however, current global climate models don’t directly take waves into account as solving them deterministically is complex and computationally expensive.

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