How California Is Going to Use A.I to Help Solve the Water Crisis

Although the scorching heat brought on by climate change is a global issue, California has had it particularly rough over the last few years. While the state typically relies on snowpack each winter to provide it with water for its lakes and streams, the increasingly higher temperatures of the recent winters have led to lower levels of this snow. The end result is four years of the worst drought that the state has ever seen and new water restrictions that are aiming to curb usage during this water crisis.

But what if there’s another solution?

As each day goes by, science-fiction becomes less fiction and more science, and IBM’s Watson is a perfect example of this: the unique supercomputer is hinged on a concept called “cognitive computing,” which essentially allows it to work through information and solve problems using context much in the same way that the human brain does.

Think of a standard computer as a “choose your own adventure book,” with rigid structures and no option to stray from the predetermined path, whereas as supercomputer takes all of the information it has available and uses it to determine a unique solution based on past, present and future possibilities.

And just like the human brain, Watson gets smarter over time and uses previous knowledge and problem-solving techniques as the foundation for future problems, increasing in efficiency and effectiveness as it ages.

A.I. & The Water Crisis

So how exactly does Watson tie into the California water crisis? Recently, an environmental consulting firm called OmniEarth hired the unique supercomputer to examine the water supply in California. Using satellite images, Watson can analyze the state’s farms, vineyards and other environments in search of patterns and trends that could help determine where California’s water is going and implement better solutions to control its distribution.

Could a human do this job? Of course, but it would require time, money and a lot of effort. And a lot of humans.

That’s not to say that Watson is the magical end-all solution for the state’s water crisis. But using a computer founded on cognitive computing allows it to analyze large amounts of data that would be too time consuming for a human to process efficiently, while at the same time picking up on trends and working out solutions.

In other words, it injects a little bit of the “human” side to a process that – with standard computers – would be a simple matter of data processing.

Machine Learning

IBM’s Watson isn’t the first time that the world of technology has used the human brain as a model for problem solving. Many algorithms use machine learning  another word for describing cognitive computing — to help computers analyze and learn from data in order to find insights without being told how. Although this is not a new science – everything from web searches to email spam filtering processes use it – it is one that is being increasingly utilized and continues to advance every day, with Watson being a perfect example.

Is It the Right Solution?

IBM’s Watson wasn’t made to deal with California’s water crisis and it has no built-in knowledge of water usage or geographic science. But give it a bit of time and exposure to this kind of data and it will learn from experience, gradually getting better and better. Eventually, Watson could be a key player in California’s water budgets and pinpoint regions with excess water and those that are in dire need of it.

This is a perfect example of how we can work with artificial intelligence to deal with some of our toughest environmental problems. The idea that humans alone can solve some of the most complex and pressing issues we’ve created for ourselves without any help from a perspective far different than our own, is probably a mistaken one. As Albert Einstein once said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

Of course, there are a number of voices of warning out there, from minds nearly as great. Elon Musk, someone who knows quite a bit about both the environment and technology, and recently started up his own A.I. comapny with fellow entrepreneur, Sam Altman, has stated that the growth of A.I., without any precautionary measures built in at the proper time (i.e. soon) is akin to ‘summoning the demon‘. While IBM’s Watson isn’t quite advanced enough to cause us any worry just yet, its method of learning is similar to that which Musk is eluding. We are living in interesting times indeed.  

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Tyler MacDonald is a writer with an interest in science, psychology and various other topics.