Discussions on ethical dilemmas surrounding the emergence and evolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are prevalent in today’s mainstream media. However, could plans to limit, or even eradicate, the use of AI systems, such as ChatGPT, be hindering our potential to mitigate the effects of climate change? Is the government unintentionally blocking Earth’s most adaptive, and potentially powerful, ally? 

A recent publication in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), argues that the convergence of AI and ecology could be both instrumental in the race against climate change, and in advancing the capabilities and stability of AI systems. Barbara Han and researchers from the Cary Institute of Ecosystems Studies (CIES)present the concept of AI utilisation in complex ecological modelling; addressing issues such as the biodiversity crisis and disease outbreaks, and how ecological models could simultaneously be used to enhance, tune, and improve AI performance. 

The implications of a successful convergence go beyond advancing ecological disciplines or achieving an artificial general intelligence—they are critical for both persisting and thriving in an uncertain future.

Barbara Han, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, co-lead of the 2023 paper.

The use of AI processing in the ecological sphere is already in action. AI has been found to succeed in finding patterns in large datasets and at calculating accurate statistical predictions- especially with regard to finding interactions between different variables which cannot be easily measured. This is particularly notable when considering the unpredictability of nature, and trends in environmental data. 

Over the past two decades, there has been a notable surge in the exploration and evaluation of ecosystem services, particularly in the context of climate change, and ensuing conservation initiatives. The majority of these studies leverage remote sensing techniques, facilitated by advancement in AI systems. The progress in satellite imaging technology standards, made feasible through AI, has significantly enhanced spatial, spectral, radiometric, and temporal research. In turn, this has enabled greater observation and classification of the Earth’s surface vegetation, highlighting changes in habitats and loss of biodiversity. This is just one example of how AI is working as Earth’s green accomplice; AI may find missing links or propose unique hypotheses which lead to new lines of research. 

The use of AI in ecology has the potential to transform the way we study and understand the natural world and to provide valuable insights and tools that can help us better protect and preserve the environment.

Sajjad Reyhani Haghighi, 2023

The potential synergy between AI and ecology emerges as a beacon of hope in the face of climate crisis.

Envisioning AI’s contribution to the field of ecology may be easier than contemplating the reverse. How can ecological models advance a machine’s ability to perform cognitive functions? Han and researchers from CIES propose that processing mechanical data from resilient ecosystems will inspire more robust and adaptable AI architectures, especially in addressing mode collapse (the generation of limited or repetitive outputs, rather than capturing the full data diversity). Underpinned by ecological resilience theory, AI may be able to adopt mechanisms from resilient ecospheres to effectively manage and respond to more extreme pressures and demands, involving skills of resistance and recovery. 

Researchers suggest that independent developments in ecology, such as species adaptation in response to the warming Earth, and artificial intelligence could intentionally collaborate; yielding advancements in both fields. However, one consideration to note is that despite both disciplines visualising theory through predictive modelling, their languages and vocabularies are entirely independent of each other. Additional questions arise regarding the primary functions of both disciplines: the scientific field of ecology emphasises ‘understanding,’ whereas artificial intelligence is programmed to be performance focused – not to mention ethical considerations, such as data protection and security issues. 

There is still a long road ahead – as they say, Rome wasn’t built overnight. But, as society grapples with the ethical dimensions of AI, the potential synergy between AI and ecology emerges as a beacon of hope in the face of climate change- offering a promising trajectory toward a more sustainable future. 

While ChatGPT results may still yield high plagiarism scores and Amazon’s Alexa might occasionally mishear your instructions, can we truly fault AI for minor errors when it may be carrying the weight of climate change mitigation on its shoulders? It’s got bigger fish to fry (well, sea temperatures to cool). 

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