Digitalisation is expected to play an important role in achieving carbon neutrality within the EU by 2050. Can artificial intelligence help fulfil our hopes for achieving a green transition?
Climate change, overconsumption, loss of biodiversity – the topics on the researcher's desk are not light ones. Following the different discussions, research reports and webinars on these topics provokes a great sadness for the future of our planet, and at the same time guilt for having contributed to the current crisis as a consumer. When the anxiety level rises too high during the working day, I try to remember to be grateful for being able to work in an organisation where solving global challenges together with our customers is the starting point for everything we do. Research and development play important roles in slowing down the climate change.
The EU has set targets to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and Finland by 2035. We are talking about a twin transition – moving towards a digital and climate neutral Europe. There is no time to waste, so the question is: how can we utilize technology in speeding up the green transition? In recent years, the biggest digitalisation hype has been around artificial intelligence. Can AI help solve this global crisis? I turn to my colleague Heikki Ailisto, Research Professor in Artificial Intelligence and member of the steering group for the Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence FCAI.
Heikki, how do you see the role of artificial intelligence in EU’s climate actions?
The Horizon Europe funding programme, which emphasises the EU's sustainable development, is already showing that artificial intelligence is present in all areas. This programme is a very good and big step, as it encourages researchers to engage with solving these global problems and calls for the use of artificial intelligence. Above all, I see AI techniques as enabling technologies.
Where is AI particularly useful when considering the task of slowing down the climate change?
One concrete area that I consider to be very important and effective is the transformation of the energy system. Turning to wind and solar power creates large pressures on the energy system because supply varies according to weather conditions – and consumption also varies greatly. The energy system's control methods require AI-based prediction and optimisation: where to produce electricity, how to store it, how to implement consumption flexibility and how to price energy in order to ensure environmentally friendly and sustainable electricity use.
Another important area is modelling the environment and climate: weather forecasts and long-term climate models use AI methods. The mapping of forest and natural resources – which utilises aerial images from satellites and different radar and spectrum images – facilitate land use steering and guidance and may, for example, help to expose illegal logging.
In addition, smart cities and smart mobility are themes that have been discussed for a long time, and in which a lot of development has already happened The use of energy in buildings and for moving people around represents a large proportion of total world consumption – artificial intelligence can make all this more sustainable. Optimisation of transport systems also requires smart guidance, adjustment and prediction. These are precisely the areas where AI techniques can help.
So much is already being done – what about emerging areas which will play a major role in climate change mitigation; how will they benefit from artificial intelligence?
The circular economy is a strongly emerging area full of big opportunities. Rapid progress could be achieved with even relatively small investments. The circular economy system is very much analogous to the energy system – prediction and optimisation is needed for how materials circulate and where they are most beneficial. Logistics is also a large part of this system, and artificial intelligence is of great benefit for that as well. In addition, artificial intelligence can help with the details; machine vision can be used, for example, to identify different fibres in textiles and so facilitate the recycling of materials. Material design is also strongly connected with the circular economy – VTT's ProperTune does not waste time but rather accelerates the design of materials suitable for the circular economy by making use of artificial intelligence. The start-up company Betolar also uses artificial intelligence by modelling the end result and thus speeding up product development in its work to develop raw materials for cement from various side streams.
Another interesting area is sustainable food production, in which VTT is one of the leading research institutes. It would be a good idea to discuss this topic – what would be the possibilities of artificial intelligence here? Artificial intelligence could be used to model, predict and make decisions on what experiments to try out. Guidance is needed first for the test processes and then for the production processes.
But how “green” is artificial intelligence itself? Crunching huge amounts of data requires so much energy that the ecological sustainability of AI solutions becomes a major challenge. Heikki, how can this problem be solved?
One important area is the research on methods that use less energy. One of the objectives of FCAI is data efficient AI, which means energy efficient artificial intelligence. It is also important to select for deployment those methods that are not too massive in scale. In the machine learning arena, there has been a bit too much enthusiasm for using the most efficient processors and then seeking to use rather rough methods that aim to solve problems through their sheer computational power and quantities of data. We should be critically assessing what is really needed and where some solutions could be replaced by smarter methods. If Finnish research groups are able to produce energy-efficient solutions of this kind, it will provide Finland significant competitiveness and export opportunities.
According to the recently published interim report of the Artificial Intelligence 4.0 programme, Finland has an important role to play in exporting ethical and green artificial intelligence to the world, and thus contributing to the goals of sustainable development. There are plenty of opportunities – so how should we proceed?
Today, almost all companies have very strong sustainable development values and goals stated in their strategies. The readiness for dialogue and seeking of solutions is now very high in the business world. I would therefore encourage companies and the research community to seek opportunities for working together!
So as Heikki said – now is the time for rolling up our sleeves and developing Finland’s sustainable competitiveness through AI-based solutions. Hopefully, there are no more AI winters ahead of us, and instead, we are moving towards an AI summer, where AI solutions are being harnessed for driving green growth.
What opportunities does artificial intelligence offer for enabling smarter and greener mobility? Join in and register to the open FCAI Industry & Society webinar on 20 May 2021 from 13.00 to 15.00: https://fcai.fi/calendar/2021/5/20/ai-for-sustainability