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The power of artificial intelligence to mitigate climate change. Interview with Alma Cárdenas

"We need to transform how we understand nature and how we understand earth ecosystems."

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Alma Cárdenas has over 20 years of experience in technology across multiple disciplines, including software development, consulting services, product engineering, and business performance. She holds a BS in Computer Engineering from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and completed post-graduate courses from Stonybrook University and Pace University in New York.

In 2010, she joined Microsoft where she has managed global incubation programs—building capabilities and helping Microsoft partners and customers adopt innovative technologies to build successful businesses in the cloud. Alma now serves as a Senior Program Manager for Microsoft’s AI for Earth initiative. This five-year and $50 million investment program is designed to democratize the use of cloud and AI technologies to resolve critical environmental challenges in the areas of agriculture, biodiversity, climate change and water.

You have years of experience managing different Microsoft programmes, from the financial side to applied incubation, and now in the field of Environmental Sustainability. What has this process been like so far?

When you work at Microsoft you have the opportunity of learning a lot, and I had the opportunity of doing something we have never done before… like sustainability. 

You’re the Program Manager of AI for Earth. Can you tell us about the initiative? Where did it come from and what are the key goals?

Al for earth came from Microsoft sustainability. We introduced a carbon fee in 2012 and each business unit based this carbon fee on their consumption of energy. So what this allows us to do is to have a fund and put money in towards innovation for the environment.

What are some of the major challenges you have faced as a Senior Program Manager for AI for Earth?

I want to ensure that we have the impact, that the projects that we work with are actually delivering the impact that they promise. 

During your participation in COP25 you discussed how the digital revolution can help us advance action on climate change. How do you think tech developers and programmers can be encouraged to be more involved with developing systems for Environmental Sustainability?

People want to work on something that matters and what matters more than helping us resolve the environmental challenges that we have? 

We are pushing the planet towards a ‘point of no return’. How is AI for Earth helping to stall or tackle the current environmental crisis?

The digital revolution is about information and, if you think about it, the information that we have about earth systems, it’s really not enough.

So we want to bring technology in to start digitizing what we know about our earth systems, and bring perhaps our best tool, which is technology and artificial intelligence, to help us solve that problem.

Are AI for Earth’s technology and frameworks open to the public? If so, what are the requisites and processes a company (or university) has to go through in order to have access to your technology and knowledge?

Our goal with the AI for Earth initiative is to democratize the access to cloud and AI technologies. So AI for Earth is available for all kinds of organizations.

We have four opportunities a year to apply for a grant. What we require is that organizations provide a proposal of what is the environmental problem that they want to solve and how they plan to use artificial intelligence to solve it.

 

Can you explain a little bit about the relationship between AI and big data?

AI cannot exist without data.

We are at a point in which there is the inflection of three major technologies. We have big computing, which is the cloud that allows us to have infinite capacity to process an infinite amount of data. And we have modern algorithms, which is artificial intelligence.

So the inflection of these three points, big compute, big data and artificial intelligence is what makes artificial intelligence a reality today.

Biodiversity is one of the key areas of focus for AI for Earth. How can AI help with the protection of biodiversity?

AI is now being used to help us track animals and species and understand the health of ecosystems. How do they move, where do they go? How long did they live? This kind of information has not existed before.

We are said to be facing an agricultural revolution. In what key ways will AI and Machine Learning change agriculture as we know it?

We can use technology to help us identify exactly the amount of water that is required to grow healthy plants, for example. We can also understand where water comes from and when this resource will no longer be available.

AI for Earth collaborates with initiatives like FarmBeats. How can AI and IoT improve efficiency when it comes to farming?

We now have sensors that can allow us to understand the soil needs better. We can move to precision and data-driven agriculture where we are just using the resources needed to maximize the yield of production. We can also take advantage of satellite imagery.

To what extent do challenges and competitions such as Microsoft’s AI for Good Idea Challenge lead to genuine results with lasting impact? Can you give us a specific project success story?

We have done ideation workshops where we bring multidisciplinary teams, where we have people from government, people from universities, academics, startups… and when you put a multidisciplinary team together, they start ideating. The governments, for example, can provide direction on what are the problems that have priority, that need to be solved. Academy can use knowledge and science, while startups can make that a reality. 

How important is technology when it comes to environmental sustainability?

Right now we have the technological innovation that is helping us transform industry.

We need to transform how we understand nature and how we understand earth ecosystems.

Tech may play a big part in the solution but it has also played a big part in the cause. Are we too late to change our current linear system of ‘take, use, waste’?

We are never too late. We really need to get this right and find ways in which circularity can become part of our daily lives. 

We continue to do that at Microsoft, exploring mechanisms in which we can actually become a circular company.

To what extent do you think it is the responsibility of the big tech companies, such as Microsoft, to lead the pack when it comes to environmental sustainability?

It is our great responsibility. Our data centers are energy hungry and they use a lot of resources and have a lot of impact. So it is not only our responsibility, but at the same time technology can help us resolve this problem so we have a tremendous opportunity. Firstly to address our responsibility and make sure that our technology does no harm, but then working out how our technology can contribute to the solution as well.

AI is a field that has shown such exponential growth that even most engineers didn’t expect we could reach in such a short time. Given the speed of it’s development so far, do you think it has the potential to solve the current climate crisis we are facing?

I think technology has the ability to disrupt what we know about earth systems. If we think about it, we know so much about so many things. We know, for example, how many steps you take a day. How many calories you take, your financial potential. We can forecast finance, yet what we know about the earth is really minimal. So I think that we have a great responsibility and a great opportunity to use the same technologies that have made our economy better for the environment.

We are at a critical time where we really as humans need to bring the best we have to solve perhaps one of the most critical problems that we have ahead.