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Microsoft’s new ‘planetary computer’ will help scientists crunch data about the natural world

The computing platform will have trillions of data points and let scientists make some estimates about ecosystems without doing on-the-ground surveys.

Microsoft’s new ‘planetary computer’ will help scientists crunch data about the natural world
[Source Images: Vit_Mar/iStock, Barks_japan/iStock]

A massive new computing platform from Microsoft, which the company calls a “planetary computer,” will gather trillions of data points about nature—and give conservation organizations new tools to quickly analyze that information as they race to solve the world’s biodiversity crisis.

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“When we think about the needs of the planet, it really is about four interconnected issues: It’s carbon, biodiversity, water, and waste,” says Microsoft president Brad Smith. In January, the company tackled another piece of the problem, announcing that it would become carbon negative as a company by 2030 and then, by midcentury, capture more carbon than it has emitted since its founding in 1975. But, Smith says, climate change is not the only environmental issue that companies need to be working on now.

A major report last year from the United Nations Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services estimated that a quarter of all species are now at risk of extinction. Wildlife populations have dropped roughly 60% over the last 40 years. “We appreciate that the world has been much more focused on carbon than it has on biodiversity. But one of the points that we’re making this week is that biodiversity is also of fundamental importance,” Smith says. “When an insect species dies, potentially the entire food chain, including for humans, is affected by that. We’re not paying enough attention as a global community to the extinction of species.”

The new computing platform, which the company is beginning to build now along with the GIS software company Esri, will help organizations working on biodiversity work more quickly by providing better data and machine learning to analyze it. Major global assessments typically take a very long time to create; the UN report last year came 15 years after the previous such report and was 1,700 pages long. In many cases, tech can better help gather data. Instead of doing an on-the-ground survey of a forest, for example, a forest manager will be able to use the platform to estimate tree density and forest size with satellite images and machine learning tools. AI can be used to identify species.

“Simply understanding where the world’s forest, fields, and waterways are remains a daunting task of environmental accounting,” Smith wrote in a blog post today. “Understanding what species call those ecosystems home, or why they thrive or decline is largely unknown. We simply can’t solve a problem we don’t fully understand.” Having access to comprehensive data from around the world—and the ability to share data with peers through the platform—can also lead to better decisions, he says.

The new planetary computer builds on the company’s AI for Earth project, which helps organizations better use artificial intelligence on environmental challenges, such as a tool that uses satellites and AI to detect illegal fishing, or a platform that uses computer vision to identify endangered species such as giraffes. The new platform will be much broader, giving scientists, conservationists, and governments the ability to search through huge amounts of up-to-date conservation information. The first large repositories of satellite images will be available later this year on Azure; Microsoft will make the datasets available to the community of organizations already involved with AI for Earth, and some datasets will also be available for external download.

Microsoft also announced today that it plans to advocate for public policy to support biodiversity, including national ecosystem assessments, detailed surveys of how land, water, and other ecosystems are changing over time. It will also take responsibility for its own footprint, protecting more land than it uses by 2025. (Right now, the company’s data centers and other operations use an area of land roughly three-quarters of the size of Manhattan, and by 2025, it expects to use a Manhattan-size chunk of land; nonprofits will use the company’s donations to protect land elsewhere.) It hopes more companies will do the same thing. “If more organizations do this, it will raise more funding to protect more land,” Smith says. “And we think that is part of a strategy that can contribute to what’s needed for success.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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