By Emily Vidovich. Emily has a background in environmental journalism and sustainability and is a member of the George Washington University Class of 2019.

Earth is 70 percent ocean, yet many aspects of it remain a mystery. We have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of our own planet’s ocean floor, and an estimated 91 percent of ocean species have not been classified. Faced with the need to increase understanding of the ocean in order to better protect it, scientists are increasingly turning to artificial intelligence (AI) to speed up knowledge-gathering and improve data collection.

Artificial intelligence is an umbrella term for software systems capable of making decisions that traditionally would require a human brain. The algorithms behind AI analyze real-time datafrom various sources such as sensors, digital data, and remote inputsand then act based on the insights gained from the data. Through this process of machine learning, algorithms are able to find patterns in collected data in order to make educated predictions about future events. 

The ability for machine learning to process massive amounts of data, extract useful information, and identify trends is invaluable when it comes to learning about the ocean. The enormity of the ocean and the challenges of exploring the underwater environment meant humans were discovering the ocean at a snail’s pace prior to the rise of technology. Formal oceanography started with the expedition of the H.M.S. Challenger in the 1870’s, and underwater vehicles were not created until the late 1950’s. That means we have only been able to investigate the oceans’ 3.8 billion years of history, 332 million cubic miles of water, and myriad species from below the surface for less than a century. 

Now artificial intelligence has enabled scientists to complete monumental tasks, like identifying and locating humpback whale songs in 180,000 hours of underwater recordings, with a relative speed that means we are gaining more ocean knowledge more quickly than ever before.

As the New York Times explains, machine learning is even more valuable in the age of climate change because, “animals move their habitats [as] temperatures rise and currents shift.” As the makeup of the ocean changes, data quickly becomes obsolete and the need to collect and understand updated metrics becomes critical to managing threatened marine populations.

Along with facilitating a better understanding of the impacts of climate change, AI enables natural ocean processes to be harnessed for climate change mitigation. For example, the company Hypergiant has created a bio-reactor that uses AI to optimize the growth of carbon-sequestering algae. The system uses AI to monitor its algae tank and adjust factors such as light, pH, and temperature to maximize the growth of CO2-eating algae. According to Forbes, “the system is 400 times more effective at absorbing CO2 than trees.”

Researchers have also used artificial intelligence to improve performance and increase revenues of offshore wind farms. Such developments help bolster the renewable energy industry and fight climate change by maximizing the ability to harvest clean energy. As the world rapidly shifts away from fossil fuels, ensuring the reliability and efficacy of new energy technology is a vital component of an emissions-free future.

When it comes to threats facing the ocean, AI is used to confront issues as disparate as plastic pollution and illegal fishing. Currently, an estimated 20 percent to 32 percent of wild-caught fish imported to the United States are illegally caught. To address this, OceanMind uses satellite data and AI to trace ships’ movements and fishing methods, improving the transparency of the seafood supply chain. The Google-affiliated Global Fishing Watch also harnesses AI to identify and address illegal fishing. Illegal and unsustainable fishing practices that were historically hard to monitor on the high seas can now be tracked and eradicated thanks to AI technology.

Jenny Krusoe, the Founding Executive Director of AltaSea, says that artificial intelligence is integral to addressing anthropogenic threats to the environment and reducing the impact of the shipping industry.

“Data is the key to moving forward quickly and solving these problems for our planet,” she said during a panel discussion with AI LA about the role of artificial intelligence in ocean health.

From exploring ecosystems, to understanding wildlife behavior, to facilitating a responsible human-ocean relationship, artificial intelligence has become a crucial component of ocean science and conservation.

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