Technology is undoubtedly an outcome of this rare proclivity for humans to collaborate across locations, specializations and time. How else could we have reached a point where we can predict the possibility of preterm births by analyzing the sequences of free-floating RNA in the mother’s blood? Or consider among plausible vacation destinations a flight into space? Or witness the rollout of vaccines less than a year from the onset of Covid-19?
Using Tech to Improve Lives
Along with the benefits, it is becoming increasingly evident that technology can have a massive adverse impact on the environment. Consider an example from the entertainment industry: When “Despacito” was released in 2017, it became the first music video that hit 5 billion views on YouTube. A researcher for the European Commission-funded Eureca project found that the video’s downloads consumed as much energy as five countries together — Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic — in one year.
However, tech also holds the possibilities for self-correction and the potential to provide smart and life-affirming solutions to some of mankind’s most serious problems. Let us take a closer look at some of these tools to understand the promise of smart tech.
Consider, for instance, what took place at Swedish telecom giant Ericsson during 2020. More than 350 volunteers, including data scientists, data visualizers and writers from across the company’s worldwide locations, came together virtually to respond to an unusual Covid-19 challenge. It entailed leveraging AI and automation techniques to enable medical researchers to access hundreds of thousands of research papers available on the U.S. government’s Covid-19 Open Research Dataset Challenge (or CORD-19) dataset (download), even as more information poured in.
Hitting The Bull’s Eye as a Virtual Team
The Ericsson team submitted a solution within 27 days for all nine tasks listed in the dataset challenge, thus meeting its principal aim: to develop AI tools that enable the medical research community to quickly and correctly address urgent questions arising from the pandemic. It included tools to help derive information regarding the novel coronavirus’s genetic origins, Covid-19’s risk factors, its environmental stability and the possible effectiveness of non-pharma interventions.
Smart tech, when deployed intelligently to meet urgent, complex challenges, can not only meet but also exceed expectations. Smart solutions like those built by the Ericsson volunteers, with the help of AI and automation, prove that they can scour through vast volumes of data and provide required outcomes quickly and accurately.
Protecting Our Planet with Tech from the Skies
Now, let us consider another example of the promise of tech, this time, in relation to climate change. The seriousness with which the issue is being acknowledged and debated at national and international forums has grown.
The World Economic Forum's (WEF) Global Risks Report 2021 (download), for example, places environmental degradation as a leading long-term risk. Classifying climate change as a “catastrophic risk,” the report emphasizes that a move to a "green economy" cannot be put on hold until after the Covid-19 pandemic.
What role can tech play in reducing the threat we face from climate change? Meteorological satellites have been used for years to forecast extreme weather conditions. They also play a key role in recording environmental changes and sending the collected data, including information on sea levels, atmospheric gases and the planet’s changing temperature, among other factors, to decision-makers for assessment and action.
According to the World Economic Forum, there are believed to be more than 160 satellites currently in circulation — all busy measuring various global warming indicators. Now, Space 2.0 and frontier technologies are further addressing climate change.
Driving Better Climate Outcomes with Granular Data
Let us consider a few more examples. For one, scientists are pinning their hopes on next-generation satellites like NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (or ICESat-2) spacecraft to procure more refined forecasts for rising sea levels, as well as global weather and climate patterns. The satellite, which is powered to take measurements every 85 centimeters along its ground path, has been developed specifically to capture granular information on how ice cover changes over a year. It can provide vital data that can be studied to reveal patterns and projections.
Another way that space tech can help combat climate change is by protecting endangered species from unlawful poaching. Poaching has an impact on ecosystems and threatens biodiversity. Some types even threaten the extinction of species, thereby posing a risk of accelerating climate change. This is because bio-diverse forests become vulnerable to dramatic climatic shifts.
Satellites have, for example, been used in Africa to prevent big game poachers from killing protected species. Resolve, an American nonprofit organization, has partnered with a U.K.-based satellite provider, Inmarsat, to create an AI-enabled camera system that is helping Africa’s national parks identify, stop and locate poachers.
As the world deals with the multiple challenges of living through a pandemic, it is time for all of us to pause and consider how we can consciously use smart tech to improve lives and protect our planet — our only home.
(This is a slightly modified version of an article originally published in Forbes. The original article can be found at https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2021/07/01/how-technology-can-meet-the-worlds-current-challenges/?sh=7ec5b5323c0a)