Can Artificial Intelligence [AI] Save Our Oceans? Let’s Start With The Data

The ocean is in a dire crisis that puts the entirety of humanity at risk. The gravity of its issues range from climate change to plastics pollution to overfishing, all of which are overwhelming issues to tackle individually, and seemingly insurmountable when looked at together.

Scientists have noted that even if we were to halt all of our fossil fuel activity today, we are still on track to lose 90% of the ocean’s corals by 2050. Coral is the ocean’s life system and without it, we will soon also have an ocean without life.

In spite of the terrible news, there are some glimmers of light and hope spots that we can point to, especially in the areas of AI for the benefit of the ocean. This will be the first in a series of articles that puts a spotlight on the top innovators and innovations that are using the power of technology, and specifically AI to restore and regenerate our precious oceans.

Ultimately, AI is about leveraging data in the most efficient and unique ways to uncover new insights, innovations, and ways to work. When it comes to ocean data, the information is often overwhelming, unavailable and almost always fragmented. Making sense of data is the key to creating solutions for our oceans and acting on them.

LIMITED KNOWLEDGE IS HINDERING US : Many of the issues facing our ocean today originate with us not knowing that much about it, in spite of it making up over three-quarters of our planet. It’s interesting to note that we know much more about the topography of Mars and the Moon than our own ocean. Because life underwater isn’t always visible, it has largely stayed out of sight and out of our cultural mindshare. Only very recently has public awareness bubbled up about the precarious state of our oceans. It’s also recent that the acceleration of its degradation has become so visible that it is impossible to ignore. But what can be done about the precarious state of our oceans? 

I spoke with several AI startups that are doing their part to enable solutions for the oceans. Sinay is aggregating ocean data and applying machine learning to empower positive ocean action, Data 360 is using data to identify cultural knowledge gaps and opportunities and Hadal is mapping the ocean floor to expand our knowledge of ocean topography (Bathymetry).

BRIDGING THE GAP IN MARITIME EXPERTISE AND DATA : There are many initiatives to gather data about the oceans, however certain datasets are difficult to gain access to, and the sheer volume of information is massive. Making sense of this data requires access to computational resources and expertise in the fields of oceanography, and physics; when you add machine learning to the equation, it adds up to a rare combination of skill sets in not necessarily available in today’s corporate maritime landscape.

Sinay is looking to bridge the gap in maritime expertise and data. Their platform aggregates data from over 6,000 sources ranging from iOT sensor data that measure water quality, wave and weather data, shipping vessel locations, and ocean acoustic. They then apply machine learning algorithms to correlate information for real-time decision making, insight into operational efficiencies, and reductions in cost as well as environmental harm.

Sinay is applying its technology to a variety of use cases, one example is “acoustic pollution”, an area that hardly receives any attention today.  We don’t think about it, but additional noise in the form of higher sound pressure levels has a huge impact on underwater ecosystems; underwater, sound can travel hundreds of miles at speeds five times faster than in air.  The additional sound energy introduced in the ocean during new port construction, additional vessels in shipping lanes, and open water construction such as offshore wind farms can harm marine life. Cetaceans (dolphins, whales) are sensitive to high sound pressure levels and therefore are at risk for injury, which sometimes takes the form of large scale beaching events.  Additional noise in the form of acoustic pollution disrupts all types of fish, as well as their larvae, risking the entire ocean ecosystem.

Sinay can take data from various buoys deployed in an area of interest and apply machine learning techniques to detect marine mammal proximity in real-time, enabling decisions regarding construction projects, shipping routes or port expansion to be made with wildlife protection as a priority.

SHIFTING CULTURAL TIDES WITH AI : Disseminating knowledge about the oceans at scale is one of the most important things we can do to help society understand the damage we are doing and course-correct before it’s too late. AI can help us shift the discourse, by understanding our knowledge gaps, creating awareness and expanding the dialogue in the areas most needed.

“If you look at the history and infrastructure of the general internet, the advent of social media and smartphones greatly amplified big data. Much of that data comes from the ideas and thoughts we are collectively sharing across those platforms daily. Now AI can be applied to big data to give people knowledge that makes them care and access to a community that can affect change.” Marie Smith, CIO Data 360

USING AI TO ANALYZE SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH : Ocean Health, a leading scientific journal for the oceans shows the disconnect between what people who are knowledgeable about ocean health (i.e. the researchers) are writing about and what the general public wants to read.

In a recent analysis of topics, Data 360, a leading big data and analytics company found that researchers have focused narrowly on a small number of topics vs the expanded interests that general public advocates are addressing.

Big data and AI and machine learning can for the first time connect people to the issues and solution focused areas that are happening near them. AI can also help content creators identify influencers by city, by topic or interest level, understand how to model public cognition around issues, identify barriers to solutions with the public and develop an in-depth analysis of public sentiment, as well as predictive modeling for how to solve the public engagement problem.

Data 360 is bridging the gap between the knowledge that is shared online and what consumers are actually craving in terms of information.

MEASURING THE OCEAN : Measuring the ocean and its various properties can take on many forms, from using drones to probe sea surface temperature, to mapping vehicles that characterize the seabed with sidescan sonar. With an average depth of 4000 meters, the seabed of the world’s oceans remain out of reach and therefore out of mind. Less than 10% of the seafloor is currently mapped to high resolution, meaning we have a long road ahead of us. 

“The seabed is the interface between the ocean and the earth’s crust.” says Rob Damus, COO of Hadal, a manufacturer of unmanned subs that is mapping the ocean floor. “It was once considered a barren landscape, but exploration and mapping efforts have proven the seafloor to be a dynamic environment, teeming with pockets of chemosynthetic life and geologic activity. Mapping the entire seabed would enable a deeper understanding of generally accepted models on ocean circulation, seabed geomorphology, and benthic processes that define this landscape, all of which contribute to and substantially influence our terrestrial lifestyle.”

The ocean plays a pivotal role in regulating the climate of the Earth, therefore we continue to need a better understanding of modeling efforts; without remote sensing data measurements from the oceans, we are simply guessing at how this massive heat sink behaves.

DATA LEADING TO ACTION : The full potential of AI to be realized for the benefit of the ocean starts with data because you can’t change or act upon what you can’t measure. For the ocean, it can serve as a baseline that helps scientists measure pH changes, identify species, search for patterns and more. Data is helping ports understand water quality and enable real-time decision making for outlier incidents. It’s helping shipping companies create more efficient shipping routes, consume less fossil fuels and avoid collisions with whales and other marine life.

This is just the beginning, just as satellites orbiting our atmosphere enabled new technologies that are commonplace today such as GPS, and real-time traffic and routing, data that maps the entire ocean surface and floor can provide insights into weather patterns, quantity of fish stocks, water temperature, salinity and more.

originally posted on by Sandra Ponce de Leon