Microsoft today pledged $50 million over five years for an initiative to use artificial intelligence to tackle the world’s most pressing environmental issues.
Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith will detail the company’s commitment to the program, known as AI for Earth, at the One Planet Summit in Paris later today. Started earlier this year, AI for Earth aims to put Microsoft’s vast AI resources in the hands of universities, non-governmental organizations and other groups to help solve issues related to climate change, water, agriculture, biodiversity and more.
Microsoft’s new $50 million pledge represents a big step up from the $2 million commitment it made for the year following the initial announcement of the project. In the first six months of the program, Microsoft has awarded 35 grants in 10 countries for access to Microsoft Azure and AI technology.
Through AI for Earth, Microsoft plans to award seed grants to non-governmental organizations and universities. It will also work to identify the most promising projects, help them scale up to a “platform level,” Smith said, and commercialize their offerings. Microsoft could also bring some of these projects in-house, or help them connect with other potential partners.
World leaders, but reportedly not U.S. President Donald Trump, are in Paris for the event to discuss how to finance sustainability projects. Following Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord, big companies like Microsoft, as well as mayors of some of the nation’s largest cities have sought to fill the void.
“I think that everybody’s familiar the current with position of the U.S. government,” Smith said. “Even if the U.S. government was doing everything that it might, it’s very clear that technology would still be needed. Technology clearly is a fundamental game changer in this space. At a time when we don’t have the active involvement of the U.S. government, I think the relative opportunity and need for technology and technology companies to do more is even greater.”
Under CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft has made artificial intelligence one of its top priorities. A little over a year ago Nadella formed the Microsoft AI and Research group as the fourth engineering division at the company, alongside the Office, Windows and Cloud & Enterprise divisions.
The team has grown rapidly — from 5,000 people originally to nearly 8,000 people as of September— through hiring and acquisitions, and by bringing aboard additional teams from other parts of the company. Smith said Microsoft is putting together a new team to support AI for Earth, a combination of sustainability and AI experts.
Smith said that programs like AI for Earth show the range of areas AI can influence. Tech giants are looking to AI to solve pressing global issues at the same time as they are leveraging the technology to build cool gadgets for the consumer.
“The truth is, the biggest technological advances don’t do one thing, they do everything, or they contribute to everything,” Smith said. “That is the potential and promise of AI that it can help us solve big societal problems. And certainly, the climate of the planet is one of the biggest.”