Rainforests are the most biodiverse ecosystem on Earth, home to half of all the world’s plants and animal species. Though rainforests once covered 14% of our planet’s surface, they now account for just 6%. Because they’re so rich with life (and so much of them are unexplored), we don’t even know what we’re losing when they’re destroyed. Now, the newest XPrize competition aims to address all these unknowns within our rainforests, before it’s too late.
From the destructive fires eating up the Amazon as part of slash-and-burn land clearing methods for agriculture and lumber, to the toxic impact of oil spills from pipelines that cut through the trees, to the general effects of climate change, experts say our rainforests could be completely gone in 100 years. “As we’re losing them, we’re at a really critical point where we don’t want to lose the biodiversity before we’ve even discovered it,” says Jyotika Virmani, executive director of Planet and Environment at XPrize and the lead for the rainforest competition, which officially launched today.
For this XPrize, teams will be challenged to develop new technology that can inventory the “true biological diversity” of our rainforests while withstanding their harsh environments. Using anything from robotics to artificial intelligence to machine learning, the teams will have to measure biodiversity from the forest floor to the emergent layer, the top layer that pokes above the forest canopy. Speed is crucial, Virmani says; this tech will need to assess the environment rapidly—considering we may not have much time with our rainforests left—in order to “give us new understanding and insight about our rainforests, so that it shows the true value of keeping the rainforest intact and keeping the standing trees as they are.”
The winning team, which will receive a grand prize of $5 million, will have to be able to head into a rainforest with their technology and survey it in eight hours to produce a “comprehensive biodiversity assessment.” They’ll then have to take that data and analyze it over 48 hours, coming up with the “greatest number of insights” possible to what our rainforests hold, on every topic from anthropological findings to ecological dependencies to the sustainable use and well-being of the standing forest.
“We don’t know what we’re losing. We could be losing the only cure to some disease before we’ve even discovered it, before we even knew it exited out there,” Virmani says. More than 25% of modern medicines on the market come from plants found only in rainforests. She sees the end of this XPrize competition, which will take four years total to complete, as just the beginning of our effort to understand this ecosystem. There will also be a bonus prize of $500,000 for technology that can rapidly identify new species, something that can currently take months, if not years. The total prize amount to be awarded adds up to $10 million, with $2.5 million going to two other finalists to split and another $2 million for second place.
Virmani wants to be sure this competition doesn’t ignore the approximately 50 million people who live in our rainforests, as well. “This is really in the spirit of discovery, but we also want to provide those tools and capabilities to those who live in the rainforest,” she says. “We’re stipulating that the final teams must have someone from a rainforest community as part of that team, and part of the reason for that is those are the people who have the base knowledge already. . . . It should be a collaborative effort.”
Along with discovering what secrets our planet holds and helping support the communities that live there, Virmani hopes this competition achieves a broader goal: a greater public appreciation of our rainforests. They’ve been undervalued simply because we don’t know the extent of the value within them, she says. “This will really be a competition that I hope will create a step change in how we understand and discover and look after and preserve our rainforests.”