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Monday, June 24, 2019, 14:50
New technology a critical tool
By David Wallerstein
Monday, June 24, 2019, 14:50 By David Wallerstein

AI-based solutions can help a growing global population meet its food, energy and water needs

As the world combats climate change, it is important to envision strategies for how humanity copes with the mounting challenges, and the primary factors that cause climate change in the first place. Ensuring that humanity meets its food, energy and water (FEW) needs in balance with Earth’s ecosystems must therefore be a top global priority.

With the world’s population racing toward 10 billion by 2050, up from 7.7 billion today, next-generation technologies such as artificial intelligence can play a key role in driving the necessary transitions, by raising efficiency and boosting productivity — that is, by doing more with less.

Due to the interplay of water, agriculture and energy, greater efficiency in one of the three areas could help to reduce risks in another. Water, for instance, is a fundamental survival requirement, as well as a critical input to agriculture and thermoelectric power generation such as coal-fired plants. In the United States, agriculture and thermoelectric power generation respectively comprise about 40 percent of national freshwater withdrawals — that is 80 percent of total water use. The risks from not addressing the challenges are significant; so are the potential returns to all the interdependent parts if the FEW “nexus” becomes more efficient.

Fortunately, the technology industry is beginning to explore the opportunities, and innovations offer meaningful possibilities to address the challenges. AI-based solutions can raise efficiency and productivity with comparatively low-cost software and cloud solutions that analyze large amounts of data to identify patterns and discover better efficiency strategies. Instead of replacing physical infrastructure wholesale, AI solutions can be rapidly deployed, entail very little capital infrastructure upgrading, and are likely to be cheaper than the other options.

In terms of food, AI can analyze relevant data including plant health, temperature, rainfall, soil health, pest and disease presence, commodity prices and more. This can significantly decrease water use and other inputs, increase crop yields and help agricultural practitioners target optimized production plans. Furthermore, crop planning can be more responsive to global market dynamics.

In a recent case involving indoor agriculture, it was demonstrated that under certain conditions, AI is better than humans at mastering the optimum environmental conditions for growing cucumbers.

AI is also being applied to outdoor agriculture with tangible results. Data shows that through an AI system developed by an Israeli technology company for outdoor agriculture, 20-40 percent of water inputs on average can be saved and productivity can be raised by roughly 10 percent with this system. About 60 percent of tomato growers and 40 percent of corn growers in Israel are currently using this system.

Similar gains have been made in the application of AI to water utilities, where operating costs can be cut by 25 percent as energy consumption is reduced, resource expenditures are optimized, and stresses on capital equipment are minimized. Such application is particularly powerful for energy-intensive forms of water treatment, such as desalination.

The application of AI to the energy sector is in its infancy, but it may lead to a new internet of energy era. The application of AI could contribute to sustainable development and the fight against climate change by limiting inputs of resources like fossil fuels and water, and balancing consumer demand and renewable energy availability.

FEW challenges are starkly evident in China, where the per capita arable land and fresh water resources are much lower than the world’s average. China should find more ways to demonstrate how the fruits of global technological revolution can directly improve every citizen’s quality of life in a primal and fundamental way — ensuring a constant enhancement in the quality and security of FEW resources. In this process, there will be many important lessons to be learned for the rest of the world.

Economic development and modernization bring various gains and improvements, but at the end of the day, every citizen must get enough access to the constantly improved FEW resources, and this is about fundamentally upgrading the infrastructure and sophistication of a nation. It cannot be solved with generalized economic advancements, such as rising personal incomes, alone. FEW resilience is the mouse that the nation must catch.

It is also important for entrepreneurs, experts and governments around the world to embrace new innovations such as AI as critical tools in the global challenge to meet human fundamental needs, augment human resilience against climate change, and turn “FEW” into “abundance” for the current and future generations.

The author is the chief exploration officer of Tencent. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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