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IEEE Spectrum

The Ultimate Optimization Problem: How to Best Use Every Square Meter of the Earth’s Surface

Lucas Joppa thinks big. Even while gazing down into his cup of tea in his modest office on Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington, he seems to see the entire planet bobbing in there like a spherical tea bag. 

As Microsoft’s first chief environmental officer, Joppa came up with the company’s AI for Earth program, a five-year effort that’s spending US $50 million on AI-powered solutions to global environmental challenges.

The program is not just about specific deliverables, though. It’s also about mindset, Joppa told IEEE Spectrum in an interview in July. “It’s a plea for people to think about the Earth in the same way they think about the technologies they’re developing,” he says. “You start with an objective. So what’s our objective function for Earth?” (In computer science, an objective function describes the parameter or parameters you are trying to maximize or minimize for optimal results.)

AI for Earth launched in December 2017, and Joppa’s team has since given grants to more than 400 organizations around the world. In addition to receiving funding, some grantees get help from Microsoft’s data scientists and access to the company’s computing resources. 

In a wide-ranging interview about the program, Joppa described his vision of the “ultimate optimization problem”—figuring out which parts of the planet should be used for farming, cities, wilderness reserves, energy production, and so on. 

Every square meter of land and water on Earth has an infinite number of possible utility functions. It’s the job of Homo sapiens to describe our overall objective for the Earth. Then it’s the job of computers to produce optimization results that are aligned with the human-defined objective.

I don’t think we’re close at all to being able to do this. I think we’re closer from a technology perspective—being able to run the model—than we are from a social perspective—being able to make decisions about what the objective should be. What do we want to do with the Earth’s surface?

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