U.S. Seeks to Regulate Artificial Intelligence 1:14

(CNN) -- Tomato growers in central India are increasingly concerned about the volatility that extreme weather events have brought to the region. In much of the area, the past decade has been punctuated by severe droughts that led to significant crop losses, affecting the livelihoods of local farmers.

On the other side of the world, Silicon Valley startup ClimateAi is developing an artificial intelligence platform to assess the vulnerability of crops to warming temperatures over the next two decades. The tool uses data on the climate, water and soil of a particular location to measure the extent to which the landscape will be viable for cultivation in the coming years.

Maharashtra, India, was one of its first case studies in 2021. Farmers could access the ClimateAi app and enter what seeds they grew and where they wanted to plant them.

Using that data, ClimateAi ran simulations and found that extreme heat and drought would lead to an approximate 30% drop in tomato production in the region over the next two decades. He warned producers that they needed to change their strategy.

The results were decisive: tomato growers adjusted their business plans by switching to more climate-resistant seed varieties and modifying planting times. Finding new growing sites often takes time for farmers affected by climate change, but "now it can happen in a matter of minutes, and it also saves them a lot of costs," according to Himanshu Gupta, who grew up in India and is co-founder of ClimateAi.

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"We think that artificial intelligence (AI) multiplies the time and effectiveness of solutions to climate change," Gupta told CNN.

Better assessing future risks to agriculture is just one of the ways AI technologies are being used to address the climate crisis.

AI first burst into the public consciousness this year thanks to popular consumer-facing AI tools such as ChatGPT, and experts say the technology is set to revolutionize countless industries. But climate researchers have been thinking for years about how AI — computer programs capable of quickly analyzing huge amounts of data and performing complex tasks similar to how a human would — could help them better understand and address climate change.

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Now, experts say AI is poised to accelerate everything from reducing pollution to improving weather models.

"AI is very good at optimizing decisions and resources," says Fengqi You, a professor in Cornell University's College of Engineering. "It's a system that has a very strong predictive capability that could be tremendously useful in many domains, from small-scale molecules ... to broader climate systems to help us fight climate change."

With the breakneck pace at which the planet is warming, it is crucial to accelerate the speed at which the world deploys and implements solutions. But for all the promise of AI, the infrastructure that supports the technology — data centers filled with rows of powerful, energy-hungry computers — could itself be a burden on the environment. Experts say software engineers need to work closely with climate scientists to find a balance.

"It's something to keep in mind," says Kara Lamb, a research associate in Columbia University's Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering. Still, "the positives outweigh the negatives when it comes to applying it to these types of approaches."

An artificial intelligence platform developed by ClimateAi is helping tomato growers in India adapt to extreme weather. (Credit: Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Technology That Accelerates Discoveries

Artificial intelligence is a broad term that refers to various digital tools trained to perform a wide range of complex tasks that previously might have required the intervention of a real person. Overall, what these technologies have in common is their ability to quickly process and find connections between large amounts of disparate data.

This makes AI particularly well-suited for forecasting and simulations. And, unlike traditional software, AI tools can continue to learn over time as new data becomes available or systems receive new feedback on the quality of their results.

While scientific discoveries used to rely on the human ability to gather, observe, and analyze evidence, now computers can process large data sets, identify patterns, and run digital experiments in a fraction of the time it would take human researchers.

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"In the case of climate models, we're fundamentally trying to solve these equations ... of how these atmospheric models interact, and it takes a long time to figure it out," You explained. Similarly, research into new energy-conducting materials, such as those in solar panels, could require countless hours of testing that can now be accelerated using AI.

"In the past, people used to need trial and error, we would need ... investigators working day and night," You said. "Now, thanks to AI, which doesn't need sleep, only needs electrical power, it could continue to work 24/7, and it can become very useful in accelerating discoveries."

AI will probably not replace humans in the fight against climate change. But it could do its job faster and more efficiently.

Researchers who want to restore shorelines by replanting seagrasses, for example, are using AI to model the best places to target those replanting efforts, said Dan Keeler, director of communications at impact investment firm Newday, which is involved in charitable efforts to support coastal restoration.

An AI algorithm trained to tackle the problem could take into account everything from toxins in the water or problematic shipping lanes to the impact replanting could have on nearby marine life or even coastal tourism.

"It's very difficult to bring all of that together in a single model with conventional methods, but AI makes it much more possible," Keeler says.

AI 'does the dirty work' in climate research

According to scientists, the Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet. Rising temperatures are melting sea ice, thawing permafrost and causing wildfires in what should be one of the coldest regions on Earth.

Climate experts say what happens in the Arctic is a barometer for the rest of the world. But climate models, which scientists use to predict long-term changes, don't reflect the rate at which it's warming.

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With the help of AI, Anna Liljedahl, a scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, can forecast permafrost on a seasonal timescale, rather than the typical 100-year one, giving her and other researchers a better picture of the rate at which the Arctic is melting.

"AI is doing the dirty work," Liljedahl told CNN. "But AI isn't perfect, so we see it as a first tool, and then the human will come later and really check and make sure things make sense and explore the things that the AI suggested."

Technology can also be used for solutions. A 2019 Google DeepMind project trained an AI model on weather forecasts and historical wind turbine data to predict the availability of wind energy, helping to increase the value of the renewable energy source for wind farmers. AI can also help predict when and where energy demand is going to be greatest, allowing grid operators to "make sure that they have power online, ready to supply demand, and also that they don't have energy that's just being produced and going to be consumed, because that's obviously a tremendous waste," Keeler said.

Artificial intelligence can be used to help better predict the supply and demand of renewable energy sources. (Credit: Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images)

ClimateAi's Gupta says the problem is how to integrate renewable capacity into a grid dominated by fossil fuels. AI can identify in real-time which renewable energy sources are available in areas where consumers need them, thereby optimizing demand and supply for renewables.

AI is also being used to research materials that can effectively recapture carbon from the atmosphere, and to model and predict major floods to help local government agencies better prepare for and react to potential emergencies.

The Cool Down, a media company that aims to help consumers better understand the climate crisis and its potential solutions, plans to launch an AI tool early next year that will answer users' questions about how to live a more sustainable lifestyle. according to Anna Robertson, co-founder and head of content and partnerships. The tool will use data from its website about what type of climate information consumers are most curious about to direct users to the information, including answering questions like "What can I do with my old jeans?" or "I want to change my laundry detergent, where should I start?"

"Part of the problem is that the issue itself has become so overwhelming and mostly dominated by pessimism and not the solutions we have at our fingertips," Robertson told CNN. "We want to make it easier for people to make better decisions."

Finding the Right Balance

All this computing power has its downside: Running AI models is power-intensive, and many data centers operate in areas that are still heavily reliant on fossil fuels, Cornell's You explains. Data centers also often need water for cooling, an increasingly scarce resource in some of the places where this activity takes place, such as the western United States.

For now, the amount of energy used to power the AI is relatively small compared to what is consumed by transportation or buildings. "But this is going to grow very fast, and we have to be very careful right now before it grows exponentially," You said.

A study conducted in October by Dutch researcher Alex de Vries estimated that, in a "worst-case scenario," Google's AI systems could consume as much electricity as the country of Ireland each year, assuming large-scale adoption of AI in its current hardware and software. Developers should be advised "not only to focus on optimizing AI, but also to critically consider the need to use it in the first place, as it is unlikely that all applications will benefit from AI or that the benefits will always outweigh the costs," the study concludes.

Data center operators like Google are already thinking about how to reduce the resources needed to power the computing behind their AI models. (Credit: Alex Kraus/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Some data center operators are already beginning to address these concerns.

Amazon Web Services (AWS), the cloud computing arm of the online shopping giant, pledged to be "water positive" by 2030, meaning the company will "give more water back to the communities where we have our data center infrastructure than we take in," the company's CEO said. Adam Selipsky, to CNN in an interview in October.

In Oregon, for example, where drought has put the pedal to the metal in recent years, AWS supplies local farmers with the water used to cool their data centers free of charge.

Companies that build and manage data centers to carry out AI workloads can also think about strategically locating them in areas where they need fewer natural resources to operate, You says. If data centers are built in colder areas of the world, for example, less water will be needed for cooling; Scandinavia has become a popular location for data centers, bolstered also by its relatively robust availability of renewable energy sources.

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Lawmakers in the U.S. and elsewhere — which in recent months have increasingly focused their attention on developing barriers to AI — should consider both the potential benefits of the technology in the fight against climate change and its environmental impact when making policymakers. You added.

"Regulators, decision-makers and policymakers need to keep this in mind when analyzing the growth of the AI industry," You said. "The growth of the industry is not only about software, tools, among other things, but also about the way these data centers operate."

Tech experts also warn that AI needs to be affordable and accessible to low-income nations, particularly those in the global south that are on the frontlines of the climate crisis and yet contribute the least to global pollution, something Gupta hopes to address as it expands ClimateAi's resources.

"When it comes to applying AI to climate change," Gupta says, "I think we're just scratching the surface of the potential that exists both in terms of the impact it could create for businesses, and the impact it could create on humanity."

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