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Microsoft Vows to Build a “Planetary Computer” – Here’s What it Means

Project will collect trillions of data points

By CBR Staff Writer

Microsoft has launched an ambitious programme to aggregate environmental data from around the world and put it to work in what it is terming a Planetary Computer.

The move is the company’s latest major environmental push, after promising in January to become “carbon negative” by the end of this decade.

The Planetary Computer project is a sprawling one that makes biodiversity a central plank of Microsoft’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts.

As Microsoft’s President Brad Smith explained on Wednesday, the project will see the company aggregate “trillions of data points collected by people and by machines in space, in the sky, in and on the ground and in the water” in a searchable dataset.

What Will That Include?

For water tables for example, data will include local measurements of streams and groundwater, and predictive algorithms to users; for forestry data “state-of-the-art machine learning tools, and user-contributed data about forest boundaries, for biodiversity data, information on “terrain types and ecosystems with the best available data about where species live, enabling a global community of wildlife biologists to benefit from each other’s data.” All will be augmented with geospatial data sets.

Microsoft President Brad Smith said: “We do not know enough about species, biodiversity and ecosystems that are vital to our health and prosperity.

“Simply understanding where the world’s forest, fields and waterways are remains a daunting task of environmental accounting. Understanding what species call those ecosystems home or why they thrive or decline is largely unknown. We simply can’t solve a problem we don’t fully understand.”

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Planetary Computer: Who Gets Access?

Not everyone will have access, however: this abundance of planetary data will be accessible only by partners of Microsoft’s “AI for Earth” project: some 500 organisations around the world, including conservation and sustainable fishing organisations.

Among them, the Department of Primary Industry and Resources (DPIR) in Australia’s Northern Territory which uses AI to monitor and manage marine health by rapidanalyzing underwater video captured around Darwin Harbour.

(The code for this project is now available to anyone on GitHub, letting users automate the labor-intensive process of counting local fish stocks).

Other key partners include the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation’s Half-Earth Project and NatureServe’s Map of Biodiversity Importance.

Microsoft has also vowed to “protect more land than we use by 2025”.

This will include land acquisition, national park creation, and community or indigenous-led conservation. Global efforts will be with NGO the Nature Conservancy; local US ones with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The project comes as the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), last year issued its first Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. It found that a quarter of the planet’s species are threatened with extinction. Mammals, birds, and other wildlife populations are all down almost 60 percent in the last 40 years, the report found.


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