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Trees are a low-tech, high-efficiency way to offset much of humankind’s negative impact on the climate. What’s even better, we have plenty of room for a lot more of them.
A new study conducted by researchers at Switzerland’s ETH-Zürich, published in Science, details how Earth could support almost an additional billion hectares of trees without the new forests pushing into existing urban or agricultural areas. Once the trees grow to maturity, they could store more than 200 billion metric tons of carbon.
Great news indeed, but it still leaves us with some huge unanswered questions. Where and how are we going to plant all the new trees? What kind of trees should we plant? How can we ensure that the new forests become a boon for people in those areas?
Answers to all of the above likely involve technology.
Math + Trees = Challenges
The ETH-Zürich research team combined Google Earth mapping software with a database of nearly 80,000 existing forests to create a predictive model for optimal planting locations. In total, 0.9 billion hectares of new, continuous forest could be planted. Once mature, the 500 billion new trees in these forests would be capable of storing about two-thirds of the carbon we have emitted since the industrial revolution.
Other researchers have noted that the study may overestimate how efficient trees are at storing carbon, as well as underestimate how much carbon humans have emitted over time. However, all seem to agree that new forests would offset much of our cumulative carbon emissions—still an impressive feat as the target of keeping global warming this century at under 1.5 degrees Celsius becomes harder and harder to reach.
Recently, there was a story about a Brazilian couple who replanted trees in the valley where they live. The couple planted about 2.7 million trees in two decades. Back-of-the-napkin math shows that they on average planted 370 trees a day, meaning planting 500 billion trees would take about 3.7 million years. While an over-simplification, the point is that planting trees by hand is not realistic. Even with a million people going at a rate of 370 trees a day, it would take 83 years. Current technologies are also not likely to be able to meet the challenge, especially in remote locations.
Technology can speed up the planting process, including a new generation of drones that take tree planting to the skies. Drone planting generally involves dropping biodegradable seed pods at a designated area. The pods dissolve over time, and the tree seeds grow in the earth below. DroneSeed is one example; its 55-pound drones can plant up to 800 seeds an hour. Another startup, Biocarbon Engineering, has used various techniques, including drones, to plant 38 different species of trees across three continents.
Drone planting has distinct advantages when it comes to planting in hard-to-access areas—one example is mangrove forests, which are disappearing rapidly, increasing the risk of floods and storm surges.
Challenges include increasing the range and speed of drone planting, and perhaps most importantly, the success rate, as automatic planting from a height is still likely to be less accurate when it comes to what depth the tree saplings are planted. However, drones are already showing impressive numbers for sapling survival rates.
AI, Sensors, and Eye-In-the-Sky
Planting the trees is the first step in a long road toward an actual forest. Companies are leveraging artificial intelligence and satellite imagery in a multitude of ways to increase protection and understanding of forested areas.
20tree.ai, a Portugal-based startup, uses AI to analyze satellite imagery and monitor the state of entire forests at a fraction of the cost of manual monitoring. The approach can lead to faster identification of threats like pest infestation and a better understanding of the state of forests.
AI can also play a pivotal role in protecting existing forest areas by predicting where deforestation is likely to occur.
Closer to the ground—and sometimes in it—new networks of sensors can provide detailed information about the state and needs of trees. One such project is Trace, where individual trees are equipped with a TreeTalker, an internet of things-based device that can provide real-time monitoring of the tree’s functions and well-being. The information can be used to, among other things, optimize the use of available resources, such as providing the exact amount of water a tree needs.
Budding Technologies Are Controversial
Trees are in many ways fauna’s marathon runners—slow-growing and sturdy, but still susceptible to sickness and pests. Many deforested areas are likely not as rich in nutrients as they once were, which could slow down reforestation. Much of the positive impact that said trees could have on carbon levels in the atmosphere is likely decades away.
Bioengineering, for example through CRISPR, could provide solutions, making trees more resistant and faster-growing. Such technologies are being explored in relation to Ghana’s at-risk cocoa trees. Other exponential technologies could also hold much future potential—for instance micro-robots to assist the dwindling number of bees with pollination.
These technologies remain mired in controversy, and perhaps rightfully so. Bioengineering’s massive potential is for many offset by the inherent risks of engineered plants out-competing existing fauna or growing beyond our control. Micro-robots for pollination may solve a problem, but don’t do much to address the root cause: that we seem to be disrupting and destroying integral parts of natural cycles.
Tech Not The Whole Answer
So, is it realistic to plant 500 billion new trees? The short answer would be that yes, it’s possible—with the help of technology.
However, there are many unanswered challenges. For example, many of areas identified by the ETH-Zürich research team are not readily available for reforestation. Some are currently reserved for grazing, others owned by private entities, and others again are located in remote areas or areas prone to political instability, beyond the reach of most replanting efforts.
If we do wish to plant 500 billion trees to offset some of the negative impacts we have had on the planet, we might well want to combine the best of exponential technology with reforestation as well as a move to other forms of agriculture.
Such an approach might also help address a major issue: that few of the proposed new forests will likely succeed without ensuring that people living in and around the areas where reforestation takes place become involved, and can reap rewards from turning arable land into forests.
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Convergence is accelerating disruption… everywhere! Exponential technologies are colliding into each other, reinventing products, services, and industries.
As AI algorithms such as Siri and Alexa can process your voice and output helpful responses, other AIs like Face++ can recognize faces. And yet others create art from scribbles, or even diagnose medical conditions.
Let’s dive into AI and convergence.
Top 5 Predictions for AI Breakthroughs (2019-2024)
My friend Neil Jacobstein is my ‘go-to expert’ in AI, with over 25 years of technical consulting experience in the field. Currently the AI and Robotics chair at Singularity University, Jacobstein is also a Distinguished Visiting Scholar in Stanford’s MediaX Program, a Henry Crown Fellow, an Aspen Institute moderator, and serves on the National Academy of Sciences Earth and Life Studies Committee. Neil predicted five trends he expects to emerge over the next five years, by 2024.
AI gives rise to new non-human pattern recognition and intelligence results
AlphaGo Zero, a machine learning computer program trained to play the complex game of Go, defeated the Go world champion in 2016 by 100 games to zero. But instead of learning from human play, AlphaGo Zero trained by playing against itself—a method known as reinforcement learning.
Building its own knowledge from scratch, AlphaGo Zero demonstrates a novel form of creativity, free of human bias. Even more groundbreaking, this type of AI pattern recognition allows machines to accumulate thousands of years of knowledge in a matter of hours.
While these systems can’t answer the question “What is orange juice?” or compete with the intelligence of a fifth grader, they are growing more and more strategically complex, merging with other forms of narrow artificial intelligence. Within the next five years, who knows what successors of AlphaGo Zero will emerge, augmenting both your business functions and day-to-day life.
Doctors risk malpractice when not using machine learning for diagnosis and treatment planning
A group of Chinese and American researchers recently created an AI system that diagnoses common childhood illnesses, ranging from the flu to meningitis. Trained on electronic health records compiled from 1.3 million outpatient visits of almost 600,000 patients, the AI program produced diagnosis outcomes with unprecedented accuracy.
While the US health system does not tout the same level of accessible universal health data as some Chinese systems, we’ve made progress in implementing AI in medical diagnosis. Dr. Kang Zhang, chief of ophthalmic genetics at the University of California, San Diego, created his own system that detects signs of diabetic blindness, relying on both text and medical images.
With an eye to the future, Jacobstein has predicted that “we will soon see an inflection point where doctors will feel it’s a risk to not use machine learning and AI in their everyday practices because they don’t want to be called out for missing an important diagnostic signal.”
Quantum advantage will massively accelerate drug design and testing
Researchers estimate that there are 1060 possible drug-like molecules—more than the number of atoms in our solar system. But today, chemists must make drug predictions based on properties influenced by molecular structure, then synthesize numerous variants to test their hypotheses.
Quantum computing could transform this time-consuming, highly costly process into an efficient, not to mention life-changing, drug discovery protocol.
“Quantum computing is going to have a major industrial impact… not by breaking encryption,” said Jacobstein, “but by making inroads into design through massive parallel processing that can exploit superposition and quantum interference and entanglement, and that can wildly outperform classical computing.”
AI accelerates security systems’ vulnerability and defense
With the incorporation of AI into almost every aspect of our lives, cyberattacks have grown increasingly threatening. “Deep attacks” can use AI-generated content to avoid both human and AI controls.
Previous examples include fake videos of former President Obama speaking fabricated sentences, and an adversarial AI fooling another algorithm into categorizing a stop sign as a 45 mph speed limit sign. Without the appropriate protections, AI systems can be manipulated to conduct any number of destructive objectives, whether ruining reputations or diverting autonomous vehicles.
Jacobstein’s take: “We all have security systems on our buildings, in our homes, around the healthcare system, and in air traffic control, financial organizations, the military, and intelligence communities. But we all know that these systems have been hacked periodically and we’re going to see that accelerate. So, there are major business opportunities there and there are major opportunities for you to get ahead of that curve before it bites you.”
AI design systems drive breakthroughs in atomically precise manufacturing
Just as the modern computer transformed our relationship with bits and information, AI will redefine and revolutionize our relationship with molecules and materials. AI is currently being used to discover new materials for clean-tech innovations, such as solar panels, batteries, and devices that can now conduct artificial photosynthesis.
Today, it takes about 15 to 20 years to create a single new material, according to industry experts. But as AI design systems skyrocket in capacity, these will vastly accelerate the materials discovery process, allowing us to address pressing issues like climate change at record rates. Companies like Kebotix are already on their way to streamlining the creation of chemistries and materials at the click of a button.
Atomically precise manufacturing will enable us to produce the previously unimaginable.
Within just the past three years, countries across the globe have signed into existence national AI strategies and plans for ramping up innovation. Businesses and think tanks have leaped onto the scene, hiring AI engineers and tech consultants to leverage what computer scientist Andrew Ng has even called the new ‘electricity’ of the 21st century.
As AI plays an exceedingly vital role in everyday life, how will your business leverage it to keep up and build forward?
In the wake of burgeoning markets, new ventures will quickly arise, each taking advantage of untapped data sources or unmet security needs.
And as your company aims to ride the wave of AI’s exponential growth, consider the following pointers to leverage AI and disrupt yourself before it reaches you first:
Determine where and how you can begin collecting critical data to inform your AI algorithms
Identify time-intensive processes that can be automated and accelerated within your company
Discern which global challenges can be expedited by hyper-fast, all-knowing minds
Remember: good data is vital fuel. Well-defined problems are the best compass. And the time to start implementing AI is now.
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