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June 05, 2019
Digital earth: Tackling environmental challenges with technology
By: Sanjay Podder and Vikrant Kaulgud

"What we do in the next 20 years will determine the future for all life on Earth," Sir David Attenborough said in a recent documentary, “Our Planet.” It’s a call to action for a resolute effort to make Earth a healthy and sustainable environmental ecosystem once again. While arresting ever-growing industrialization is difficult, technology offers a path forward: The rapid maturity of distributed ledger technology, artificial intelligence, extended reality and quantum computing (“DARQ technologies”) provide a unique opportunity to leverage their combined power toward breakthrough innovations for environmental sustainability.

Earth is a tremendously complex system with interdependent environmental, social and economic facets. It’s not always obvious or easy to follow the full chain of impact of a specific action: For example, over-fishing of tuna not only adversely affects the marine ecosystem, it also reduces the availability of a primary form of protein to vast populations, and impacts the economic security of millions of fishermen. This is just one example among billions of interconnected threads in the ecosystem we experience as “Earth” every day. Now, with an eye toward sustainability, imagine applying technological innovations to model and monitor them all.

Ultimately, we’re talking about building a “digital twin” of the Earth itself! Digital twins are digital representations of physical objects, including their various attributes and relationships with other physical objects. These “twins” enable monitoring, analysis and simulation of the physical world. In creating a “digital earth” by digitizing different environmental, bio-diversity and ecological characteristics of our planet, we can lay the groundwork for future environmental sustainability innovations. Think back to our concerns about the over-fishing of tuna: Creating a digital twin of the tuna supply chain and applying distributed ledger technology to it has both the potential to increase transparency around tuna-fishing practices and make it easier to ensure that all participants are complying with regulations.

At Accenture Labs, we work closely with experts in environmental sustainability to pair the concept of a digital twin of the Earth with DARQ technologies. Combined, these innovations can be applied to address a multitude of environmental concerns. Our collaborative work targets critical issues like bio-diversity protection, human-wildlife conflict, regulatory compliance, and education and awareness.

In collaboration with Professor Mauro Rebelo of the Federal University of Rio De Janeiro, we’ve explored a blockchain solution to address such challenges in a deeply complex environment: the Amazon river ecosystem.

The Amazon is the treasure trove of Earth’s biodiversity, teeming with plants and organisms that have beneficial medicinal properties. Local indigenous populations have made many of these discoveries and passed the knowledge down over generations; some of this knowledge has been successfully commercialized by large pharmaceutical companies, but with little benefit to the indigenous people who have long been custodians of the knowledge underlying their products. We’ve developed a proof of concept that addresses this imbalance, using distributed ledger technology to power a decentralized marketplace for fostering what we call “frictionless biodiversity.”

This solution, based on our research in regulatory technology, artificial intelligence, and distributed ledgers, offers immutable traceability of the life cycle of knowledge related to Amazon biodiversity, from the indigenous populations to academic and commercial research institutes and pharmaceutical companies. It facilitates open collaboration between different participants, ensuring that the value from the knowledge reaches all stakeholders—while being regulatory—aware and compliant and balancing sustainability concerns.

Moving from the jungles and waterways to the air, we also partnered with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) to create the "Internet of Birds," a unique artificial intelligence-based solution for correctly identifying types of birds from images. Often, the first step in a conservation effort is to correctly identify the current prevalence of a species in a region of interest. Accenture Labs and BNHS realized that while many volunteers enthusiastically join bird conservation efforts, their ability to correctly identify a given bird is limited. The Internet of Birds is a platform to help volunteers and conservationists identify different birds through the power of deep learning. It applies best-in-class image recognition models, transfer learning and robust data from BNHS to identify more than 430 Indian bird species, turning even the novice bird watcher into an expert!


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This crowd-sourced digital representation of bird population—in fact, a precursor to a digital twin of the bird populations in India—is valuable to policy makers in forming conservation policies.

We’re continuing to explore ways to use DARQ in building solutions that support a sustainable, healthy Earth for everyone: technology-driven solutions for environmental regulatory compliance, identifying unique Gibbons based on their vocal characteristics and even more projects. Watch this space to keep up with our Digital Earth efforts or get in touch for more information!

To learn more about our “Digital Earth” efforts, contact Sanjay Podder.

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