Getting back to nature with AI: Why Microsoft and National Geographic Society are working together to advance conservation science with computer science

Camper sitting at creek with night sky above
Photograph by Devlin Gandy/National Geographic

By Dr. Jonathan Baillie, chief scientist at National Geographic Society, and Dr. Lucas Joppa, chief environmental scientist at Microsoft

Yesterday, Microsoft and National Geographic Society announced a new, joint grant program that will equip explorers working on the most challenging environmental issues of the 21st century with the most advanced technologies available today. “AI for Earth Innovation” grants will fund new solutions that leverage AI and cloud technologies to monitor, model and manage Earth’s natural resources. Application forms are available today, here, to anyone working at the intersection of computer science and environmental science, especially in the areas of agriculture, biodiversity, climate change and water.

As scientists that have spent our entire respective careers focused on conservation, we’ve come to believe that increased adoption of technology, including AI, is critical to make the progress needed – and at the pace needed – to protect our planet. From producing the foundational estimates on how rapidly species are going extinct to determining the effectiveness of our current conservation efforts, we realized that progress was slow or impossible without deploying scalable technology solutions.

There have been some notable success stories – including those we featured in a book we jointly published on the role of protected areas in conservation. But they are, frustratingly, the exception to the rule.

Now, in our roles as chief scientists at global organizations (for science and exploration and innovative technology, respectively), we hope to solve the root cause of that frustration. That is the goal of this partnership, and why Microsoft and National Geographic Society are bringing $1 million and access to our experts and technology together in this new partnership.

While different, both organizations are focused on pushing the boundaries of science and exploration for the benefit of the planet. National Geographic is synonymous with science and exploration. For 130 years, the organization has opened minds to the natural world, challenged perceptions of what is possible and set the stage for future exploration. For more than 35 years, Microsoft, too, has explored and pushed forward the boundaries of what technology can do, and what it can do for people and the world.

Our organizations have a unique combination of expertise in conservation and computer science, capacity building and public engagement, providing incredible potential to drive fundamental change. We will work together to empower people everywhere to respond to some of the most challenging environmental issues of the 21st century.

We realize that to some, it may seem counterintuitive to try to protect the planet with technology. It’s true that past industrial revolutions and technology development has directly contributed to our current climate crisis. Certainly, we recognize it’s not a panacea. But we’re fundamentally optimistic, because over the course of human history, every solution to a major societal challenge has been the result of human ingenuity and new technologies. It’s been the combination of scientific exploration and technological advances that has fueled new discoveries and led to major breakthroughs in our understanding of the planet and life on Earth. It’s as true today as it was when National Geographic Explorer Bob Ballard discovered new forms of life at the bottom of the ocean using then-cutting edge underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) technology.

Lately, innovation in technology has far outpaced anything imaginable before, but scientific knowledge isn’t keeping pace. We have often imagined a future where that is no longer the case, and our individual organizations have worked tirelessly to change this, too.

By partnering, we’re ready to move from imagining to enabling. With AI and the cloud, researchers can stay focused on new discoveries, rather than data collection and sorting. Their findings can more easily be shared with other researchers around the world, creating new economies of scale that accelerate and improve the state of conservation science in near-real time.

While there are only a handful of grants, the program is structured to provide exponential impact. By ensuring that all models supported through this grant follow an open source approach and are publicly available, we will allow environmental researchers and innovators around the globe to take advantage of these new innovations immediately and directly in their own vital work.

For the health of our planet and our future, we all need to get back to nature with the help of technology. Microsoft and National Geographic are ready to put our tools and skills to work for researchers working to make that more sustainable future a reality. Come join us!


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