Microsoft’s AI for Earth program, which kicked off in June 2017, has provided cloud-based tools and AI services to dozens of organizations “working to protect our planet,” in the words of Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith. It’s committed to investing $50 million over the next four years to fund AI development across five key areas — agriculture, biodiversity, conservation, climate change, and water. Today, at an event at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., Microsoft and National Geographic jointly revealed 11 winners of the AI for Earth Innovation Grant.

The recipients hail from six countries and eight regions across five continents and were selected from a pool of more than 200 applicants. They’ll be awarded between $45,000 and $200,000 from a prize pool of $1.28 million — larger than the initially planned $1 million — to support the creation and deployment of open source models and algorithms. Additionally, they’ll be granted free access to machine learning tools on Microsoft’s Azure platform and affiliation with National Geographic Labs, National Geographics’ initiative to “accelerate … solutions” to the world’s biggest challenges with data, technology, and innovation.

Using AI to motivate change

“We’re well aware of the power of taking machine learning-based approaches to solving problems,” Lucas Joppa, chief environmental officer at Microsoft, told VentureBeat in a phone interview. “We’re also aware that creating machine learning-based solutions is somewhat arduous. [When we started the AI for Earth program], we thought really hard about what [Microsoft is] good at and how we could partner with organizations to accelerate broader programmatic goals.”

As for National Geographic, which recently celebrated its 130-year anniversary of grant-making, the AI for Earth Innovation Grant program advances its mission to invest in “bold people and transformative ideas” in the fields of “exploration, scientific research, storytelling, and education,” explained Jonathan Baillie, executive vice president and chief scientist of the National Geographic Society.

“The National Geographic Society is committed to achieving a planet in balance, and in joining forces with Microsoft on the AI for Earth Innovation Grant program we are providing incredible potential to drive fundamental change through our unique combination of expertise in conservation, computer science, capacity building, and public engagement,” he said. “We look forward to seeing these talented individuals create solutions to some of the most challenging environmental issues of the 21st century using the most advanced technologies available today.”

Here’s the list of award recipients:

  1. Ketty Adoch, geographical information systems specialist from Uganda, is working on a project that will detect, quantify, and monitor changes in land cover in the area surrounding Lake Albert and Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda’s largest and oldest national park.
  2. Torsten Bondo, business development manager and senior remote sensing engineer at DHI GRAS in Denmark, aims to use machine learning and satellites to support irrigation development and improve crop water efficiency in Uganda in collaboration with Ugandan geo-information company Geo Gecko.
  3. Kelly Caylor, director of the Earth Research Institute and professor of ecohydrology in the Department of Geography and the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, will help create an online web map and geospatial analysis tools that will improve estimates of agricultural land change and groundwater use.
  4. Joseph Cook, polar scientist from the United Kingdom, hopes to develop tools that use AI and drone and satellite technology to explore the changing cryosphere.
  5. Gretchen Daily, cofounder and faculty director of the Natural Capital Project at Stanford, will develop a way of detecting dams and reservoirs around the world to measure their impact.
  6. Stephanie Dolrenry, director of Wildlife Guardians, will help support the Lion Identification Network of Collaborators, an AI-assisted database for lion identification and interorganizational research.
  7. Africa Flores, research scientist at the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, will develop a prototype of a harmful algal bloom (HAB) early warning system to inform Guatemalan authorities about upcoming HAB events in Lake Atitlan.
  8. Solomon Hsiang, chancellor’s associate professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, where he founded and directs the Global Policy Laboratory, will use 1.6 million historical aerial photographs to identify the effect of droughts and climate change on human migration in Africa.
  9. Holger Klinck, director of the Cornell Lab’s Bioacoustics Research Program in Ithaca, New York, will create an AI algorithm for detecting and classifying the songs of insects in tropical rainforests to monitor species composition and spatial distribution.
  10. Justin Kitzes, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, aims to develop an open source model to allow academic researchers to identify bird songs in acoustic field recordings.
  11. Heather J. Lynch, quantitative ecologist and associate professor at the Department of Ecology and Evolution and the Institute for Advanced Computational Science at Stony Brook University, will use AI, satellite imagery, and predictive modeling for real-time tracking of Antarctic penguin populations.

Making a difference

Not counting today’s grantees, Microsoft’s AI for Earth program has awarded grants to 202 projects in 57 countries. In addition to grants, it provides “advanced training” to universities and NGOs leveraging AI in their projects and “substantial investments” to the most promising startups.

“When you think about all of life on Earth, there’s an estimated 10 million species or more, and we’ve only discovered 1.5 or 2 million of them,” Joppa said. “There’s so little we know about the natural world, [and] the technology sector has the potential to accelerate the next phase of Earth exploration … I wake up incredibly enthusiastic about how much there is left to be discovered.”

AI for Earth grants, specifically for data-labeling services and Azure compute — the latter of which will be awarded in the amounts of $5,000, $10,000, or $15,000, depending on the scope of the project — remain available to interested teams and parties. The next deadline for proposals is January 7, 2019.

AI for Earth is Microsoft’s first major “AI for good” initiative. Its second — AI for Accessibility — was announced in May and will award $25 million over the next five years to developers, NGOs, and others making AI-fueled solutions that serve those with disabilities. The Seattle company announced its third initiative — AI for Humanitarian Action — in September, a $40 million program focused on refugees and displaced people, the needs of children, disaster response, and human rights.