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Innovate UK

I am not a robot…but some of my friends are

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From historical works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to more recent examples in Ex Machina and The Matrix, our cultural lives have many references to AI-themed apocalyptic cautionary tales.

These are the dystopian worlds where technology breaks free from their human creators and takes over the world, expressing our fears about the prevailing technology of the time and its potential to destroy our environment.

Covid-19 has accelerated this digital transformation where technological convergence has brought ‘the future here faster’, as Peter Diamandis and many others have observed and reinforced since the start of the pandemic.

Will AI look back on us the same way we look at historical artifacts?

AI and algorithmic culture is at work in our daily existence, even triggering new financial systems with their own crypto-currencies. And while we have been under lockdown conditions, our AI has taken up the mantle of football supporter (AI fuelled artificial crowd noise), tennis pundit (augmented reality) and art connoisseur (virtual reality exhibition tours).

AI Technologies have already transformed entire sectors of activity. For example, growing up in country Australia to working in emerging technology research and development (R&D) I have seen the evolution from traditional techniques to today’s ‘precision farming’.

This is the use of smart tags, GPS, algorithms for feed intake and real time data. Here AI is focused on the neural and sensorial systems of other species – perhaps bypassing humans on the way.

Will robots rule the world?

If there was any more evidence needed to prove we humans are ‘on the back foot’ perhaps it is found in technology and environmental features assuming personhood status.

For example, algorithms have even been named as independent entities to board of directors, and environmental features, such as New Zealand’s Whanganui River have had their legal status as a living entity passed into law.

Gaia author James lovelock termed this Novacene a hyper-intelligent age where digital DNA building ushers in the end of the Anthropocene in which humans were able to make large-scale alterations to their environment.

Humanising AI

At Innovate UK there are many illustrations of this convergence of technologies of AI impacting areas as diverse as health, environment and energy, agriculture, security, education, creative industries, entertainment and public services. But rather than seeing AI as a threat to our agency and autonomy we are focusing on the values we are instilling in technologies.

The Sustainable Innovation Fund

In the Sustainable Innovation Fund we are focused on funding research and development that contributes to society, from preventing negative behaviours to identifying positive impacts that others can learn from.

This includes Welsh-based The Smart Container Company who have built a product intelligence platform that enables a zero-waste supply chain in the draught beer industry. The insights on the platform are largely driven from their IoT device, which instantly connects kegs and casks to the internet and provides users with real-time product information. They are working to create long-term value-add and resiliency in a sector hit hard by the COVID-19 restrictions.

Kegs moving from brewery via distributor to the retailer showing how the kegs are connected via the internet of things.
A depiction of an IoT device coverage of the keg supply chain, tracking volume, temperature, motion and location through real-time continuous measurement. Image courtesy of The Smart Container Company.

Sustainable Innovation Funded Mind Foundry has an ongoing mission to develop AI to help solve some of the world’s most important problems. Their funding is focused on developing a Green AI Auditor (GAIA) to enable sustainable and resource-efficient AI uptake for the financial services market. Mind Foundry’s technology enables business users to predict, monitor and mitigate their carbon-footprint.

Screen showing a graph along with a pie chart showing Carbon Neutral 43.9% and Carbon Positive 56.1%
Mind Foundry’s technology enables business users to predict, monitor and mitigate the carbon-footprint associated with building and deploying artificial intelligence. Image courtesy of Mind Foundry.

In Sussex, The Sustainable Sequin Company is creating commercially viable, durable and biodegradable bioplastic sequins to reduce the environmental impacts associated with synthetic sequins. They are using renewable biomaterials from the biological carbon cycle to allow the creation of a low-impact, compostable, UK made product.

Sequin shapes cut from prototype biodegradable film.
Sequin shapes cut from prototype biodegradable film. Image copyright: The Sustainable Sequin Company.

At work is focused on DECAF - Decarbonising E-Commerce delivery And Fulfilment. Covid-19 has pushed consumers to purchase online more than ever negatively impacting the environment in terms of carbon footprint and waste, driven by excessive packaging and last mile deliveries. DECAF is making it easy for SME e-commerce retailers to offer an option of green fulfilment and delivery to their customers.

Cyclist on a delivery bike with lots of boxes.
One of environmentally friendly shipping options, reducing packaging waste and consolidating green deliveries of different SME retailers. Image copyright of David Fuentes/Adobe Stock.

Leeds based SimplyVideo is helping essential infrastructure function during Covid restrictions whilst providing a longer-term sustainable solutions. Their communication platform opens up new capabilities in video conferencing to connect with AR and VR devices. This technology is enabling the UK’s largest wind farms conduct drills and support maintenance teams. SimplyVideo are also supporting a large UK based water company by using their technology to connect the engineers on the ground to their central incident centre and mitigate risks to flooding.

A person using video conferencing to connect with AR and VR devices on Hornsea 2, the biggest offshore wind farm in the world.
SimplyVideo's Project Manager using the communication video conferencing platform, connecting with AR and VR devices on Hornsea 2, the biggest offshore wind farm in the world. Image copyright of SimplyVideo.

Using technology to nurture human values

In each instance the social is not separate from the environmental – sustainability and empowerment go hand-in-hand. So while I am not a robot some of my friends are, helping to address issues of egalitarian access to technologies, developing digital skills and creating skilled occupations and seizing opportunities for new social bonding and community building through technology.

And in the Sustainable Innovation Fund we are equipping people to use technologies to enhance human wellbeing and benefit our lives in the present and future.


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