Exploring the Potential of AI for Good: My Learning Journey Begins

What if the key to solving the world’s most pressing challenges is the same technology that powers our Netflix recommendations?

In the 15 years I’ve been working in sustainability, I’ve seen countless proposed solutions for addressing our most urgent environmental and social challenges – from renewable energy to regenerative farming. But lately, one powerful tool has been increasingly catching my eye. But it’s such a dirty phrase that I almost daren’t utter it: artificial intelligence (AI). Shhh…

I’ll be honest: my understanding of AI is limited to say the least. (It’s got something to do with powerful computers, complex algorithms, and robot overlords, right?) I don’t have a technical background, and I’ve been as skeptical as the next person of the hype and potential risks surrounding this terrifyingly-rapidly-evolving technology.

But here’s the rub: I’ve also seen glimpses of its incredible potential to help solve problems that feel impossibly complex, from accurately modelling climate change to designing more sustainable products.

Well, my curiosity has got the better of me. I’ve decided to embark on a journey to learn as much about AI as possible, specifically focusing on its intersection with sustainability. One of my goals is to separate the hype from the real possibilities. And don’t worry: this post itself isn’t hype. I’m fully committed to taking this learning journey seriously.

In addition to conducting my own research, talking to leading experts in both fields, and experimenting with AI tools, I have also enrolled in the Oxford Artificial Intelligence Programme at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. Today is Day 1 of the course and, all being well, I will have completed it by the end of May.

I’m not just a curious citizen who wants to learn how AI could help us create a more sustainable, equitable world. I’m also a business owner who wants to understand the implications of AI on my company. Gaining a deep, well-rounded understanding of AI feels essential on both fronts – personal curiosity and professional necessity.

So why does AI matter so much for sustainability? It all comes down to the scale and complexity of the challenge…

Decoding the Earth: how AI can help us understand and protect our planet

One of the fundamental challenges of sustainability is figuring out how to meet the needs of a growing population while living within our planet’s ecological boundaries.

But in my view it’s not just about saving ourselves, and it annoys me when sustainability is described in such an egotistical way. For me, a truly sustainable future must also preserve Earth’s biodiversity and the rich abundance of life that makes our planet so unique and precious. Don’t other species have as much right to exist as we do? Doesn’t the value of biodiversity stretch far beyond just meeting human needs?

The creation of a better world for all species is an immensely complex problem that involves understanding the intricate interconnections between natural and human systems on a global scale.

Traditional approaches to sustainability have relied heavily on human analysis and decision-making. But the scale and complexity of the challenges we face demand more sophisticated tools. I think this is where AI could play a role.

AI excels at analysing vast amounts of data, identifying patterns, and generating insights that humans might otherwise miss. Even with my limited understanding, my initial research suggests that AI could have significant potential in several key areas of sustainability, such as:

  • Optimising renewable energy systems: AI could help predict energy production and demand, allowing for more efficient use of renewable resources.

  • Monitoring and protecting biodiversity: Machine learning algorithms could analyse satellite imagery and sensor data to track changes in ecosystems and identify areas at risk.

  • Improving sustainable agriculture practices: AI-powered tools could help farmers optimise irrigation, fertilisation, and pest control while minimising environmental impacts.

  • Designing smarter, greener cities: AI could help urban planners simulate and optimise city designs for energy efficiency, walkability, and green space. (As the CEO of Avery & Brown and a staunch advocate for a sustainable and regenerative built environment, I’m especially excited to learn more about this one.)

  • Enabling more efficient circular economy systems: AI could help identify opportunities to reduce waste, optimise resource use, and close material loops.

I’m sure these examples barely scratch the surface of AI’s potential in the sustainability realm. I hope that AI’s ability to crunch massive datasets and uncover hidden patterns could help us understand the complex web of environmental and social systems in entirely new ways.

Of course, as with any powerful technology, AI also comes with risks and challenges that will need to be carefully navigated. The ethics surrounding AI is already making headlines, and I’m committed to examining its potential pitfalls as I dive deeper into this space. But for now, my goal is simply to embark on this learning journey with an open and curious mind.

Together, let’s discover how AI can help create a better world

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African proverb

While I could explore the intersection of sustainability and AI on my own, I know the journey will be far richer and more impactful if I share it with others who are equally curious and passionate about creating a better future. So, please consider this an open invitation to join me on this journey of discovery.

Whether you’re a sustainability expert, an AI enthusiast, or simply a curious soul who cares about the future of our planet, I’d love you to join me and to hear your thoughts, questions, and insights.

Here are a couple of ways you can get involved:

1. Subscribe to my newsletter, Pathwai, for summaries of my latest posts, insights, and discoveries. The link to subscribe is in my site footer, below.

2. Follow me on LinkedIn for thought-provoking posts, articles, and discussions.

That’s a wrap on my first post about AI for good. If you’ve made it this far, maybe you’ve also just taken your first step on this journey to discover how AI can help create a sustainable future.

You know, before the replicants ruin it for us.

“Within cells interlinked, within cells interlinked…”