THE GATHERING: EARTH EDITION
We need to show people the value in how AI can improve their lives — experts
Artificial intelligence is having its moment. But it’s all about striking a balance when we use AI as a tool to help tackle our climate crisis, experts say.
“AI [Artificial intelligence] is like fire — if you use it correctly, you can benefit from it. But if you use it the wrong way, then it can burn you. It’s about striking a balance.”
This was according to vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg, Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi, who was speaking at Daily Maverick’s first Earth Edition of The Gathering, on Friday. Mpedi was speaking on a panel hosted by Daily Maverick journalist, Zukiswa Pikoli, and aquaponics horticulturist Gugulethu Mahlangu, discussing the pros and cons of using AI as an instrument to tackle the climate crisis.
Mpedi said the positive impacts of the use of AI could potentially be:
- To improve energy efficiency — if deployed correctly AI could be used to predict where and when breakdowns in Eskom’s grid may occur;
- In the farming sector, AI could be used to have real-time insights on crop health; and
- AI could also be used to identify vulnerable regions and in developing strategies for climate adaptation and resilience.
Read in Daily Maverick: AI can help save a planet in peril – we have the intelligent tools to meet the challenge
In agriculture, Mahlangu said AI plays an important role in efficiency and the collection of real-time data or “analysing things as they happen”.
“In agriculture, where time is money, you need AI. It saves you a lot of time, a lot of money because you’re able to make decisions before the worst possible scenario can even take place, she said.
Mahlangu said she would trust AI to look after her agricultural operations, including leaving a farm unsupervised by a human.
“Absolutely, when you look at smart farming… AI is something that really helps us be at ease,” she said.
Ahead of the panel discussion, Daily Maverick journalist Rebecca Davis interviewed Himanshu Gupta, the CEO and co-founder of ClimateAI, a tech company focused on using machine learning and AI to address climate change.
In addition to its use in the agricultural realm, Gupta explained that AI presents enormous opportunities to pre-empt climate risk and also adapt to it.
“Using machine learning or AI we can identify patterns of least climate risk that impact a specific locality or a country, in ways which human eyes cannot do,” said Gupta.
Mpedi cautioned that we need to be aware of bias in AI data collection by big companies.
“Most of the data is collected by big corporations elsewhere, it may not be representative of the region… So this calls us to play a role in protecting our data and ensuring that we collect our own data that we use, that would reflect our own challenges and be relevant to our situation,” he said.
‘Upskilling and reskilling’
While some people say AI technology can divide us, we need to show people how it can uplift communities, said Mpedi.
“Yes, there will be challenges — AI can divide us — but if you show the world that there is a positive side; that if we come together, we partner and have these public-private partnerships then we can transform lives.”
Mpedi believed that with the introduction of AI, it would be a given that jobs are going to be lost in the process. However, this provides us with a unique opportunity to move with the times, and invest in the upskilling and reskilling of workers on a massive scale.
Read in Daily Maverick: The future of jobs in the age of AI, sustainability and deglobalisation
“We must look at the bigger picture. Those who lose jobs and who remain unemployed will be those who refuse to be reskilled or to be upskilled,” he said.
Mpedi said that while jobs will be lost, the introduction of AI will present even more opportunities.
“We need to capitalise on the positive side,” he said.
Mahlangu concurred, and reinforced that the use of AI requires a “change of outlook.” The more we interact with AI, the more we need to remind people of the benefits and how their lives can be transformed. DM