AI: Changing the Tides of Water Sustainability

By Tanvi Bajaj
Staff Writer

In 2015, Senator James Inhofe confidently stepped onto the Senate floor, carrying a snowball. He then explained how global warming (and, in effect, climate change) could simply not exist since it was cold enough outside for the snowball he was holding in his hand to form.  

While laughable, Senator Inhofe’s argument is indicative of the centuries of neglect the environment has suffered at human hands. 

Today, sea levels are rising, glaciers are melting, forests are burning, and animals are dying. 

It’s clear that something needs to change. 

Over the last few years, the use of artificial intelligence and its potential repercussions have been the source of many controversies. Morality and ethics have been called into question, as people share their fears that AI may soon render humans (especially in blue collar jobs) obsolete. While these concerns are valid, recent findings show that the development of artificial intelligence may have an unforeseen benefit. 

Artificial intelligence is poised to become the biggest game-changer in the face of climate change. According to a World Economic Forum report, AI refers to computer systems that “can sense their environment, think, learn, and act in response to what they perceive and their programmed purposes”. 

In 2015, the 193 members of the United Nations passed a resolution that put into place a 15 year plan of achieving 17 Sustainable Development goals by 2030 (SDGs). Then in 2017, the UN Artificial Intelligence Summit in Geneva suggested refocusing the use of AI technology to help achieve these goals and encourage long-lasting global sustainability. 

All over the globe, 2.2 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water while 4.5 billion people live without safe sanitation systems–with nearly one thousand children dying due to preventable water and sanitation related diseases every day. 

The problem is twofold: not only do people not have access to water, but often times, the water they do have access to is contaminated. AI is being used to mitigate the effects of a lack of clean water in a number of ways. Clean Water AI tackles the issue of water filtration by alerting users when water needs to be further filtered. A prototype IoT device uses pattern recognition and machine learning to inspect water quality through a digital microscope. These test systems could dramatically prevent disease and save thousands of lives simply by providing accurate information that would alert users as to whether or not their water needs to be further filtered. 

And if the water does need further filtering, AI can help to do so. For example, EMAGIN, an Oregon-based company, is using AI to create more accurate and timely information about the kinds of pollutants in water, make recommendations for treatments, allow facility operators to more effectively clean incoming wastewater, and prevent overflows. 

AI has the potential to revolutionize access to water and waste management systems, culminating in the development of fully decentralized water systems: in this system, water and wastewater treatment plants are located at the site of the water supply–preferable to large treatment plans that require miles of expensive infrastructure and are subject to contamination. 

Preserving our Earth’s natural resources and focusing on sustainability have never been as crucial as they are right now. While most of this AI is still in the process of being developed, its very existence is key in impacting the future of the planet in the upcoming years. More importantly, using something like AI (which was originally developed solely for computational and technological purposes) to support environmental sustainability sets an important precedent for all technology that is, and will be developed. The very nature of the UN acknowledging AI as a worthy investment to reach its SDGs is a testament to the potential that this technology has to improve different aspects of human life. 

The widespread impacts that just AI prototypes have had point to the necessity for greater investment into this growing field. Technology can and will be repurposed to solve world issues; and the aforementioned technologies prove that AI should be used to serve our larger global community. The time for action is now. And when the rest of the planet realizes the undiscovered possibilities of artificial intelligence, waves of change will follow. 

Photos courtesy of:


Cartoon Jungle

By Annam Raza
Contributing Writer

A variant cover of “Aquaman #31”, drawn by Mike Allred, is covered by pastel otherworldly creatures surrounding Aquaman in the black depths. These grotesque animals seem unreal, but although characters in comic books can easily be drawn entirely from the imagination, the medium of cartoons is far more receptive to science fiction than any other, these aliens are all actual living creatures (even if slightly altered in scale). There are eighteen in total, featuring unusual denizens of the deep such as the frilled shark and the fangtooth. The cover did not go unnoticed: popular marine science blog Southern Fried Science deconstructed and analyzed each animal in a six-part blog series. The original comic cover for this issue has Aquaman, the eponymous hero, pitted against Swamp Thing as his enemy, a character he has more in common with than he realizes: alongside other DC icons such as Poison Ivy, they are all environmentalists, and as fictional characters, have managed to quietly make contributions to conservation. Poison Ivy, with her iconic red hair and green vines, may be a villain but her cause is not quite a bad one: she wants to save plants, she just happens to go about it the wrong way. Swamp Thing was originally botanist Alec Holland, who created a formula to grow plants in deserts, instantly turning them into forests. His rivals, in an attempt to steal his invention, bomb him to try and kill him, but the burning chemicals react with the swamp he falls into, turning him into a humanoid mass of vegetable matter. Yet, he still fights to protect his swamp home, and the environment on a larger scale, and once he is inducted into Justice League Dark, humanity itself from supernatural or terrorist threats.

But they’re fictional characters, created for kids (and nerds)! What difference could they make to conservation efforts? That may be the response you have initially, but comics create more impact than most people realize. On a commercial front, comic books, and especially their movie adaptations, comprise a multi-billion dollar industry, but they are even more than that. Marvel’s recent decision to make Thor a woman made waves across the internet, with some deriding it as foolish while others saw it as a great step forward in a male-dominated genre. These characters are iconic, and people follow their storylines avidly. They are simultaneously art and literature, and the people that buy and read them are devoting their precious free time to them. Much like the video games mentioned in my most recent article, comics are a form of voluntary learning, albeit one that is far less pervasive. To reiterate Professor Resnick’s quote, “many of [sic] people’s best learning experiences come when they are engaged in activities that they enjoy and care about… [one is] likely to learn the most, and enjoy the most, if [one is] engaged as an active participant, not a passive recipient.”

Comic books fit this bill perfectly, and it was exactly this idea that resulted in the creation of a conservation comic book in Madagascar. Created by Malagasy artist Ramafa and distributed by Madagascar Wildlife Conservation, the comic is named AROVY FA HARENA, which means “protect/preserve because [of] it’s richness”. It is an eight volume series, illustrating the adventures of a village boy named Fidy and three of his friends (all between the ages of 6 and 11). They represent the villagers, and the spokespeople for the forests are his companions, the gentle lemur Malala (sweet), the kingfisher Haja (respect) and the Meller’s duck Solofo (generation). Eight classrooms were chosen to be part of an experiment. The comic was distributed to four of these classrooms, which the students read alongside their standard education, and the other four classrooms served as a control group, with traditional education. The episodes in the series included stories about hunting lemurs as pets, and the consequence of fires. The conservation focus of the comics was centered on the lemurs, as the featured gentle lemur is one of the most endangered species on the planet, and it is endemic to this area. At the end of four months, a questionnaire was given to all the students to test their retention of the knowledge provided in the comics. The comic book class scored significantly higher than the control group. Teachers reported that the children enjoyed discussing the content of the comic books with their friends, and liked the stories, confirming what scientists already suspected.

This method of conservation is incredibly specific to Madagascar. Although a similar model can be implemented locally in areas with endemic endangered species, a generalized curriculum could not possibly cover each individual animal, and it would be unfair to prioritize one over another. However, graphic novels that discuss the importance of conservation as a whole could just as easily be intergrated into schools, and in areas other than biology. Nick Hayes recently reworked a literary classic into a doomsday tale about our earth – Coleridge’s “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner.” The original was about a wizened old mariner who shoots down an albatross, bringing a terrible curse upon himself and his shipmates. Until he learns to love and respect all living creatures, the albatross’ carcass hangs about his neck while he is stranded on the ocean. Hayes’ modern adaptation is a beautifully drawn graphic novel, and his albatross was not the victim of a crossbow, but strangled by the nylon gauze of a fishing net. Instead of being stranded on a supernatural ocean, this mariner is marooned in the North Pacific Gyre: a real-world cesspool of swirling pollution and waste. This version does not end quite as optimistically as the original: the recipient of his tale, a divorced office worker, tosses him a coin and obliviously walks past a shopfront, ignoring the ‘closing down’ sign in the window of ‘Humanity’ (the name of the store). The mariner, in turn, wonders at mankind’s blithe disregard for the planet, and our unwillingness to change our habits, in a poetically haunting manner that pays fitting tribute to Coleridge’s poem. It could easily be taught alongside the original, and the modern day implications are not hard to decode.

Stories, whether in the form of traditional literature such as poems, or less academic forms such as comics, mold our minds more than we realize. And when, as an adult, someone chooses to dress up as Spiderman, it is because the stories from your childhood are filled with characters you love forever, a fact easily visibly in late July, when the streets of downtown San Diego teem with people — Batman mingles with zombies, Doctor Who rubs shoulders with companions of all shapes and sizes, and even less dedicated costumes still allude to comic books. Perhaps you will spot a Superman cape tossed over one’s shoulders, or a dress with R2-D2 printed on it. San Diego’s Comic-Con is a world famous event, as most of us, as honorary (or permanent) residents of this wonderful city can already attest. But comic books are often seen as frivolous, the indulgences of young boys who hold onto their childhood for as long as possible. People easily overlook the impact they can have on a child’s psyche, with the messages interwoven in them integrated into their mind. Anyone that can still sing the theme song from Captain Planet knows this.

Image by Bob Comics