AI and Sustainability: Policy Lab, 4 September 2018

We hosted a policy lab to deliberate the ways in which AI based technologies could both address and exacerbate sustainability challenges.

In a recent provocative and much-cited paper, Designing Autonomy: Opportunities for New Wildness in the Anthropocene , Cantrell, Martin, and Ellis have evaluated the possibility of an AI that would automate decision-making with minimal human intervention to protect wild spaces. The “wilderness creator” would devise its own strategies for protecting nature and wildness — perhaps deploy drones to exterminate invasive species or robots to clean up litter or catch poachers. While much of this is speculative — even if the ‘green-robots’ become technically feasible, the political, ethical and social dimensions of self-learning and autonomous intelligence systems are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

But the application of AI to sustainability concerns is receiving global attention today., Scientists in Australia have developed the COTBots to cull starfish in the Great Barrier Reef and protect corals. A combination of environmental sensing, machine learning, predictive modeling, and robotics is being applied for intelligently controlling river ecology and systems. As bees decline, robotic bee drones are being deployed to pollinate flowers to improve crop yields. A range of possible AI applications could be deployed to address climate change, preserve biodiversity, and assist in water management through improved systems for monitoring, prediction, and data collection.

What are the most critical sustainability challenges in India – and can AI be useful in addressing them?

Can AI systems be used to foster sustainability practices around mobility, energy, and waste, and help better plan development zones and create early warning systems?

What systems can be built to encourage citizen participation for solving sustainability problems, and increase the transparency and accountability of municipal governments?

What are the likely ethical conundrums, and plausible unintended consequences of the use of AI for sustainability??

Technology and sustainability interact through a complex dynamic: on the one hand technology-driven changes have precipitated a range of sustainability challenges, but increasingly new technological possibilities are enrolled to address some of the most pressing challenges. Successful climate response, for example, is linked to development and deployment of not just cleaner energy technologies but even technologies for re-engineering the earth itself, which are currently being tested. The ‘AI for All’ narrative has propped up AI as a transformative tool that can solve some of the most complex problems and challenges faced by humanity. Undoubtedly, AI could provide greater data analysis, pattern recognition, and automation and augmentation potential to enable more effective and complex sustainability solutions, but it is unlikely to be a silver bullet. How does AI help imagine new relationships between the natural world and human activities? Does it create new and unpredictable risks? Are there unique governance challenges?

  • Aalok Khandekar, IIT Hyderabad
  • Aaron Savio Lobo, Conservation practitioner
  • Abinand K Reddy, Nature Conservation Foundation
  • Akanksha Rathore, Center for Ecological Sciences
  • Anna Warrington, Forum for the Future
  • Bharati Chaturvedi, Chintan
  • Clinton Vaz, Waste management entrepreneur
  • Craig D'Souza, Researcher & Data Analyst
  • Debasis Den, Microsoft
  • Gokul Shrinivas, Minions
  • Joyojeet Pal, Microsoft Research
  • Kamlesh Yagnik, Surat Municipal Corporation
  • Katie Shaw, Open Apparel Registry
  • Mohd Anul Haq, NIIT
  • Nikhil Kaushik,Graviky Labs
  • Pankaj Singh, IIITB
  • Puja Jawahar,Urban Emissions
  • Rohan Shivkumar, Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture & Environmental Studies
  • Sarath Guttikunda, Urban Emissions
  • Shweta Mohandas, Center for Internet & Society


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