To keep tabs on things that can’t yet be seen from space—or to follow up on interesting sightings—some activist groups are deploying drones into the skies and oceans. Last winter, autonomous sailing robots built by Saildrone set off from South America to circumnavigate Antarctica. The months-long mission gathers data for scientists at NOAA and CSIRO on how fast the Southern Ocean is absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere, a crucial variable in global climate models. The floating drones are also mapping the abundance of phytoplankton and krill, which form the base of the marine food web.
Also in 2018, biologists reviewing satellite images of the Danger Islands off the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula spotted what looked like a previously unknown megacolony of Adélie penguins. Researchers sailed to the islands and flew drones over the colony, confirming the discovery of 750,000-plus breeding pairs.
One of the biggest challenges in environmental surveillance has been digging through haystacks for elusive needles. “Society already struggles with too much data, not enough information, Amos says. “And this is certainly happening in remote sensing as well.”
After many years of false starts, artificial intelligence finally seems ready to help solve this problem. In southern Africa, for example, the Lindbergh Foundation’s Air Shepherd program had high hopes that, by flying surveillance drones equipped with infrared scanners over elephant and rhino habitats, its teams could catch poachers before the poachers caught their prey. But the monitoring teams found it hard to stare for hours on end at shaky, grainy, night-vision video. Hunters often slipped past them.
So the group linked up with engineers at Microsoft, Carnegie Mellon, and UCLA to train an AI neural network to detect both poachers and wild animals in their recorded videos. Once they got the system working well in the lab, they tested it in the field in South Africa. It worked so well that they are now using it in national parks in Botswana and other African countries.
Global Fishing Watch has used AI to distinguish fishing vessels from cargo and naval ships. A research team at Stanford reported in April that it had fed aerial photos of North Carolina farmland into a deep-learning system to find almost 600 industrial livestock farms that manual mapping had missed. Such concentrated feeding operations are a major source of freshwater pollution, in part because 60 percent of them operate without discharge permits, according to the EPA. In principle, regulators could use the AI to survey other states as well and to identify new operations as they pop up.
All of these examples, and many others like them, are tremendously encouraging. They tempt us to envision a happier future in which the instrumentation of nature draws humans into a more synoptic, and yet more intimate, connection to our home planet—one where Gaia itself gains a voice and a Facebook account. These systems could help people routinely band together to watch over ecosystems and organisms they care about deeply, despite never having experienced them directly.
Yet Mariel Borowitz, a space-policy researcher at Georgia Tech and author of the book Open Space, sounds a note of caution. The corporations building these technologies “are creating new kinds of data, new use cases, new users. But they are companies, so they are selling that data to make a profit.” And the revenue generated by environmental protection projects shows up on their books as little more than rounding error.
We should take care not to overestimate the protective power of public awareness nor underestimate how the technology will amplify the power of big industry and bad actors. That is essentially the mistake we made with social media.
Beneath the silver lining, a dark cloud
In the 20 years since Amos founded SkyTruth, his team has exposed rampant fracking activity, illegal gas-flaring, a decades-long oil spill, illegal fishing around Easter Island, and numerous other kinds of violations. Some of those exposés have triggered official responses. Yet the latter half of SkyTruth’s “If you can see it, you can change it” motto remains mostly aspirational. “Although we’ve been effective at raising public awareness about certain issues,” Amos says, “we haven’t had a big impact in altering corporate behavior.” Environmental exploitation remains highly profitable, and profitable businesses find ways to protect themselves.
The same can be said of the technology industry. Among the tech giants, “everyone wants to be central, essential, and in control of your world,” security expert Bruce Schneier writes in his recent book Click Here to Kill Everyone, because “control equals profits.”
Google and Baidu became behemoths by erecting themselves as the gateways to the Web; Amazon and Alibaba as the gateways to commerce; Facebook as the gateway to friends and family. How much more valuable would it be to occupy the position of gateway to the planet?
That idea seems not to have escaped Amazon and Google—which, according to Borowitz and Woods, have been downloading essentially all the Earth observations that NASA, NOAA, the European Space Agency, and other agencies make available to the public. Amazon is even building a global network of 24 large antennas to download data directly from some of the satellites that gather it.
Planet Labs has been open about its long-term commercial strategy. CEO Will Marshall said last year that “Planet will index physical change on Earth the same way Google indexed the Internet.”
Not to be left out, Facebook’s AI team has been combining space imagery with public records to map the population of every community on Earth. That effort would seem to serve the company’s long-held goal to get the billions of people who currently lack Internet access online—and on Facebook.
None of this is necessarily a bad thing. Who could resist the convenience of Amazon’s Alexa observing from orbit that your roof needs replacing or your windows could use washing, and offering to schedule the work? If Google noticed you heading out on a backcountry hike and offered to automatically summon help if you appear to get lost or injured, would you refuse? There will be countless ways that the tech giants can use the view from everywhere to make our lives slightly safer, cheaper, or more convenient. Most have not yet been conceived.
But let us pause to remember that Amazon, Google, and Facebook grew to become the third-, fourth-, and fifth-most valuable companies in the world by pitching ads directly at the people most likely to act on them. Inference equals influence: the product that the tech companies sell to their customers is their ability to infer how we live, where we go, what we do. Imagine the value added to that product when it also captures our interactions with the physical world.