Microsoft Planetary Computer initiative to tackle biodiversity challenge

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Next steps in AI for Earth programme dedicated to building new platform



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21 April 2020 | 0

In the next phase of its sustainability commitments, that has already seen it make a carbon negative pledge, Microsoft has said it will turn its attention to biodiversity.

Brad Smith, Microsoft president, describes the new biodiversity initiative as being “multi-faceted”, as it aims “to put data and digital technology to work”. This will encompass a programme to aggregate data from multiple sources, to “put it to work in a new ‘Planetary Computer.’”

“We will combine this with new work to enable partners and customers to use the resulting output to enhance environmental decision-making in their organisational activities. We’ll also use it to speak out on ecosystem-related public policy issues and take responsibility for Microsoft’s own land footprint,” said Smith in a company blog.




Diversity threats

Smith cited the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), responsible for monitoring the health of the planet, that last year issued its first Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which reported that a quarter of the planet’s species are threatened with extinction, while wetlands, coral reefs, and various key species are all under threat. The specific threat to certain insect species, the foundation of many food chains, was also highlighted.

As part of a principled approach, Smith said, Microsoft was adopting four principles to guide its work in helping achieve global biodiversity goals, namely: putting data and digital technology to work; empowering partners and customers around the world; using its voice on ecosystem-related public policy issues; and taking responsibility for its land footprint.

Multiple data points

The Planetary Computer proposal is for a “platform that would provide access to trillions of data points collected by people and by machines in space, in the sky, in and on the ground and in the water. One that would allow users to search by geographic location instead of keyword. Where users could seamlessly go from asking a question about what environments are in their area of interest, to asking where a particular environment exists around the world. A platform that would allow users to provide new kinds of answers to new kinds of questions by providing access to state-of-the-art machine learning tools and the ability to publish new results and predictions as services available to the global community.”

Smith argues the Planetary Computer would provide insights into critical questions that scientists, conservation organisations and businesses are already asking, contributing to greater understanding in areas such as tree density, land use and size of forests, with implications for biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation too.

Organisations often conduct expensive “on-the-ground” surveys or build customised solutions to understand local forests. The Planetary Computer, for example, will provide satellite imagery, state-of-the-art machine learning tools, and user-contributed data about forest boundaries from which forest managers will have an integrated view of forest health.

Urban planners and farmers depend on forecasts of water availability and flood risks to make educated guesses about land management, says Smith. The Planetary Computer will provide satellite data, local measurements of streams and groundwater, and predictive algorithms that will empower land planners and farmers to make data-driven decisions about water resources.

Combating climate changes requires organisations to measure and manage natural resources that sequester carbon, such as trees, grasslands, and soil. The Planetary Computer, said Microsoft, will combine satellite imagery with AI to provide up-to-date information about ecosystems, and provide a platform for leveraging predictive models to estimate global carbon stocks and inform decisions about land use that impact our ability to address climate change.

AI for Earth

Microsoft said the next phase of its AI for Earth programme is dedicated to building this Planetary Computer platform through dedicated investments for infrastructure development.

“We will provide our AI for Earth community – more than 500 grants in 81 countries – access to the world’s critical environmental datasets, and a computing platform to analyse those datasets on. We will also further invest in specific environmental solution areas like species identification, land cover mapping, and land use optimisation. We’re starting with a new AI for Earth collaboration with the Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network. This $1 million AI for Earth grant will support projects that strengthen efforts to monitor Earth’s biodiversity and create useful measurements required for the study, reporting, and management of biodiversity change that inform conservation decisions across the globe.”

The company said it will deepen partnerships with other technology providers to further the programme.

“The clock is ticking on our ability to measure and manage the planet’s natural resources,” said Smith.

“We must work together to determine how we maximise the benefits that nature provides to people while minimising the environmental harm of our activities. It won’t be easy, but it is possible if we put the pieces together. It is time to accelerate our work.”

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