When the 2008 Summer Olympics were about to open in Beijing, China, government authorities grew increasingly concerned about the city’s notorious pollution problem. Rather than risk the health of athletes and guests at the games, dozens of nearby factories were ordered closed and driving restrictions reduced traffic by 90 percent, according to state news reports. While the moves were considered radical and impacted the region’s economy, the Beijing government felt it had little choice.
Today, Beijing is saturated with sensors that can measure CO2 content and other pollutants. Data from the sensors is now combined with information from the city’s weather service and run through algorithms developed by IBM’s Almaden Laboratory in Silicon Valley that help to predict whether or not the city is going to be impacted by high levels of pollution. Based on the findings, authorities can select which factories need to shut down if they want to reduce the chances of high pollution by 50 percent, before the problem emerges.
The technology behind all this is artificial intelligence. By collecting an enormous amount of data and combining it with historical data on weather patterns, the city can predict just how bad pollution will be and then modestly dial back the industrial sector and traffic, rather than shut down the entire city, which is what happened in 2008.
“This is a practical way of using AI to mitigate a problem, minimize the impact on the economy and reduce pollution overall,” said Jeff Welser, vice president and director of the Almaden Laboratory.
THRIVING ON LOTS OF DATA
If you’re looking for a single word that sums up the status of artificial intelligence today, it could be “practical.” While the general public might get excited or alarmed by the concept of computers that can see, hear and speak, government has become quite bullish on real-world applications of AI that can find ways to improve the environment, make public spaces safer and, most importantly, strip out the mundane, manual work that clogs up government operations.
This era of practical AI has already taken root in the private sector. In a special report, The Economist showcased how AI technology will reshape traditional business functions, such as supply chain, finance, human resources and customer service. For example, companies will use AI to predict when equipment might fail or when a client is going to pay late. Already, 30 percent of companies now have standalone bots that can answer questions and solve problems. In HR, companies are building systems that can predict which job candidates are worth interviewing and can virtually screen candidates to increase diversity in hiring.