Microsoft ramps up biodiversity efforts through new 'Planetary Computer' initiative

The 'second step' for the company's sustainability efforts for 2020 focuses on preserving and protecting the biodiversity and health of the world's ecosystems.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Microsoft has announced a new biodiversity initiative, which aims to "put data and digital technology to work" by aggregating environmental data from around the world and making it available through a "Planetary Computer."

The initiative, announced by Microsoft president Brad Smith, would see the company provide its AI for Earth community with access to environmental datasets from around the world and a computing platform to analyse those datasets on.

"We will use the Planetary Computer to develop and deploy the digital technology that helps our partners and customers with environmental decision-making in their organisational activities," Smith said.

See also: The Internet of Wild Things: Technology and the battle against biodiversity loss and climate change (TechRepublic cover story) | Download the free PDF version (TechRepublic)

AI for Earth, launched in 2017, provides artificial intelligence (AI) tools and skills that are focused on solving global environmental challenges. According to Microsoft, AI for Earth was designed to "harness technology to help mitigate and adapt to changing climates, ensure resilient water supplies, sustainably feed a population rapidly growing to 10 billion people, and stem the ongoing and catastrophic loss of biodiversity".

According to Smith, the AI for Earth community requires much greater access to data, more intuitive access to machine learning tools, and a greater ability to share their work and build on the work of others.

"Our community needs a new kind of computing platform -- a Planetary Computer. A platform that would provide access to trillions of datapoints collected by people and by machines, in space, in the sky, in and on the ground and in the water," he said.

"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."

Further investments will also be made in specific environmental solution areas, such as species identification, land cover mapping, and land use optimisation, Microsoft said.

Smith added that Microsoft would start by creating a new AI for Earth partnership with the Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network. The grant, worth $1 million, aims to support projects that strengthen efforts to monitor the Earth's biodiversity and "create useful measurements required for the study, reporting, and management of biodiversity change that inform conservation decisions across the globe".

See also: These 10 technologies are most likely to help save planet Earth

"This Planetary Computer is incredibly complex, and we cannot build it alone. We must continue to learn from the work and demands of our grantees, while partnering with the organisations best suited to advance global environmental goals," Smith said.

To that end, Microsoft said it has expanded its partnership with Esri, which Smith called a market leader in geographical information system software.

"Microsoft and Esri share the goals of making geospatial data and analysis -- meaning the gathering, display, and manipulation of information about Earth systems -- available to every sustainability researcher and practitioner around the world and ensuring that every conservation organisation can contribute its local data back to that global repository," he said.

"We are deepening our partnership around the development of the machine-learning-based geospatial solutions that are the foundation of the Planetary Computer."

Microsoft said it would also make "key" geospatial datasets available on Azure and accessible through Esri tools later this year. It also hopes to provide further grants to give conservation organisations access to the datasets, compute, and other resources.

"Maintaining nature for the benefit of current and future generations is one of humanity's greatest challenges. Deploying technology to support this global effort is one of ours," Smith said.

Wednesday's announcement follows Microsoft in January launching its carbon initiative. The company hopes to be carbon negative by 2030, and anticipates that by 2050, it will have removed from the environment all the carbon that has been emitted by its business -- directly and by electrical consumption -- since it was founded in 1975.


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