“I want to save the Earth,” he says matter-of-factly. “That seems like a very bold statement. But, I strongly believe that artificial intelligence (AI) can play an important role in monitoring the health of our planet.”
Singapore-born and educated, Wee Hyong has been a data guy and techie all his working life – first in academia, and later with Microsoft in China and the United States where he helped create ground-breaking products in the cloud.
For more than a year now, he has been leading an elite global research team for AI for Earth – a five-year, US$50 million Microsoft initiative that supports, and partners with, environmental groups and researchers. They are tackling some of the world’s most intractable problems by marshaling the immense power of AI, machine learning (ML), and the cloud.
We have limited time to learn how to conserve its resources. Fresh water supplies are being dangerously overexploited. Land is being exhausted and degraded to produce more food for more people in ever-growing cities. Thousands of species are fading fast into extinction as their habitats disappear in a whirl of industrialization and a haze of pollution. The oceans are choking on plastics and the carbon-charged climate is changing. Precious things that are vital to our existence are under threat and, if lost, might never come back.
“I am an optimist,” he says before describing the technical complexities surrounding his team’s quest. “We can learn how to leverage AI to solve some of the sustainability challenges facing humanity today.”
Wee Hyong proudly points to some early breakthroughs. The Farm Beats project is pioneering new data-driven agriculture to guide farmers in India and the United States on where and when to plant crops for the greatest yield.
Endangered species are also being given new hope. Traditionally, analysts pore over of thousands of images taken from satellites, drones or camera traps in the wild to study the range, populations, and behaviors of animals otherwise rarely seen by humans. It’s laborious work that takes time, skill, and concentration. “Try spotting a herd of zebra on the African savannah from a satellite image,” Wee Hyong says. “it’s not easy.”
Project Premonition uses insects as de facto “field biologists”. The project uses AI to analyze blood that mosquitoes take from animals across an an ecosystem to glean valuable data. To achieve this, AI for Earth is developing drones that autonomously locate mosquito hotspots, robotic traps to collect specimens, and cloud-scale genomics and machine learning algorithms to identify each animal bitten.
The rise of the intelligent cloud and the ability to deploy machine learning models to the intelligent edge is accelerating and enabling new exciting possibilities to study and save wildlife from the remotest corners of the Earth to suburban backyards.
The same goes for his team of data scientists and software engineers who left exciting and satisfying roles in commercial product development to join AI for Earth.
“Every single person who came for a job interview said they wanted to be able to tell their kids and families that they were serving a higher purpose. It goes beyond just technology, right? It goes beyond just new deep learning techniques and approaches, or whatever. They want to tell their kids they are trying to save the Earth.”