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Let me tell you how differently you’ll see the world soon, how much of the way you work and live will change — and how optimistic I am about what we’re all about to see.
In recent years we have seen the start of a new kind of information system; one that combines an astonishing amount of remote sensing, both from satellites and on the ground, with the ability to manage and calculate an unprecedented amount of real-time data. It’s like holding up a mirror to our world and seeing nature and society in all its glorious, real-time complexity for the first time.
It’s hard to overestimate what a big deal this is. It will likely affect the way we manage agriculture and fisheries in the world. It means a better understanding of supply chains, transportation, human migration and the way cities work.
Most importantly, it will be an important way to tackle the greatest challenge of our generation: climate change.
The people, governments and companies that learn to use this system of technologies, together a new kind of tool for world-scale observation, data management and computation, will have a significant advantage in the coming years.
It’s what major new tools and technologies do: The invention of the telescope and the microscope (similar types of tubes and glass, viewed through opposite ends) sparked the scientific revolution. Standardized measurements emerged in the late 18th century and allowed the construction of identical factories and products throughout the Industrial Revolution. The telegraph and the telephone collapsed the time and space of communication.
The mirror of the world is still young and scaling rapidly. Exactly 50 years ago in July, three US government agencies jointly launched Landsat 1, an orbital satellite capable of photographing the entire planet every 16 days in red, gray and white. Landsat 9, launched last February, delivers 750 images per day in more than 16,000 shades (the satellite it replaces could only shoot 256 shades). While there were only a handful of satellites in space 50 years ago, today there are more than 6,500, measuring the Earth’s surface, magnetism, gases and more.
Database evolution: from byte size to planet span
That is only part of the transformation. Around the same time as Landsat, we saw the evolution of relational databases, where companies were founded to promote the efficient and useful organization and extraction of data. At the turn of the century, distributed systems for large data storage and analysis, such as Dremel, opened the door to cracking petabytes of information in global cloud computing systems. Many of these tools are critical to analyzing and modeling the world in ways unprecedented in our parents’ time, with nearly 100% uptime.
Today we see these elements coming together in platforms such as earth engine, a multi-petabyte catalog of satellite images and composite geospatial datasets capable of planetary-scale analysis capabilities used by academics, researchers, NGOs and now commercial organizations. Launched more than a decade ago, the US Forest Service uses it to study the effects of climate change, wildfires, insects and disease, and create new insights and strategies for success.
AI to save the Earth
With the remarkable advances in artificial intelligence (AI), we are seeing a growing field of AI applications in the field of Earth observation. Last year, researchers at UC Berkeley introduced ways to use machine learning on the abundance of satellite imagery to generalize across various forecasting tasks such as forest cover, road length and house prices. Others have found ways to use deep learning improve image recognition.
By combining Earth observation capabilities with public, commercial and corporate data, analytics tools and AI, companies are addressing business requirements related to climate change and climate action. From climate risk modeling to sustainable procurement, companies need tools and capabilities to better measure, monitor and improve their sustainability performance, and those tools are evolving rapidly.
The big picture of our blue planet
Even at the dawn of this new era of consciousness, we see that companies can discern more effects from what they do, discover more connections, and solve more problems faster. Companies like Unilever are working to end deforestation in their supply chain and to improve both biodiversity and water use.
Hundreds of companies and institutions are involved in these new technologies. Planet Labs operates a constellation of low-orbit, high-resolution satellites to access terabytes of images to and from any point on Earth. NASA has a “Eyes on the Earth” to measure water movement, volcanic eruptions, sea level elevation, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, and more. There are many remote sensing software packages available as open source software, indicating a lot of future innovation.
Taken together, the proliferation of satellites, rich data and massive computation is a means to a new understanding of the natural world, complementing the way satellite systems already enable things like global communications, directions, global inventory and payment systems, mining, even archeology† More images, more sensors and more calculations mean we are gaining a new understanding of soil moisture, watersheds and habitat health. We can predict changes and limit damage. We will have an understanding of how the world works and what we can do to make it better.
Changing our environment for the better starts with a better understanding of our environment. There is no technology that will have more impact for this important purpose.
Jenn Bennett, chief of sustainability in Google Cloud’s CTO office†
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