Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning as Emerging Technologies in Social and Environmental Impact

Brief: Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning as Emerging Technologies and their Potential for Positive (and Negative) Social and Environmental Impact


Date: Tuesday September 26 

Where: EnergyLab/UTS

Audience size:  100-150 in-person participants and an online audience of c. 3500 viewers. 

Speakers and Panellists

•  Dr. Katina Michael - School of Computing and Information Technology, University of Wollongong, Editor-in-chief IEEE Technology and Society Magazine editor-in-chief. Prof. Michael researches the socio-ethical implications of emerging technologies. 

• Dr Rachel Bunder - Data Scientist with Solar Analytics

• Philip Wright - Senior Advisor, The Ethics Centre. Focusing on ethical leadership and good decision making. Philip also practices as a psychoanalytically orientated Psychotherapist. 

• Franki Chamaki - COO/Founder, HIVERY a data science company leveraging artificial intelligence for business decision making, and Founding Director, Red Garage Ventures, a Coca-Cola backed startup developing high tech wellbeing and supply chain products.

• Prof. Gerardo Montoya - Educational Robotics Project and State Academy of Robotics, Universidad Tecnológica de Cancún, Mexico. Gerardo is a world champion robotics expert, educator and inventor. 

Basic Definitions

Artificial Intelligence: a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers. 2 :the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior. Source

Machine Learning: is an application of artificial intelligence (AI) that provides systems the ability to automatically learn and improve from experience without being explicitly programmed. Machine learning focuses on the development of computer programs that can access data and use it learn for themselves. Source

Deep Learning: (also known as deep structured learning or hierarchical learning) is part of a broader family of machine learning methods based on learning data representations, as opposed to task-specific algorithms. Learning can be supervised, partially supervised or unsupervised. Source

Big Data: extremely large data sets that may be analysed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behaviour and interactions.

Crowdsourcing: the practice of obtaining information or input into a task or project by enlisting the services of a large number of people, either paid or unpaid, typically via the Internet.

Open Data Institute: (ODI) equip, connect and inspire people around the world to innovate with data. Source

Planetary skin: Institute (PSI) is a global non-profit research and development organization that aims to improve the lives of millions of people around the world. Source 

Collective Awareness: Platforms for Sustainability and Social Innovation (CAPS) initiative pioneers new models to create awareness of emerging sustainability challenges and of the role that each and every one of us can play to ease them through collective action.


Stimulus Materials

I have been asked to speak on the topic of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data as emerging technologies in the space of social and environmental impact. Without a doubt technology has a role to play in this critical space. However, as it has been shown time and time again changing human behaviour is not easy, and people tend to have a hope for change, but change requires effort.

For every new technological solution we introduce to make our world more sustainable, and to focus not only on conservation but also preservation, side-effects will exist. We need to get better at predicting what these are through scenario planning, better modelling, and making decisions through evidence.

Will the new technologies, find ways of placing increasing pressure on industries who cause externalities? The answer is a resounding yes. As penalties begin to increase on illegal emissions, and dumping practices, even of large-scale corporations especially in developing nations, more organisations will consider their corporate social responsibility. This does not mean that breaches will not occur, only that some organisations will become smarter at the game to save on costs, and others will commit to change. I often show my students excerpts of the documentary series, The Corporation, although I always suggest personal research investigation as an addendum to this screening.


On the flipside we're placing a great deal of emphasis on the IOT Internet of Things mantra. Everything from:

- surveilling our world through high-resolution imagery from satellites

- Geographic Information Systems that provide detailed data on land use and cross-sectional development in a spatial manner, allowing for the registration of spatial imagery with accurate vectorised maps

- to devices that are placed on dynamic assets such as vehicles to take ground-level photography with 360° views of the streetscape

- to wildlife and trees that are chipped for identification and tracking and monitoring purposes in the seas and the forests

- to homes that will soon house smart meters, an internal Internet of Things devices like smart thermostats, smoke detectors, even smart toilet rolls.

Ladies and gentlemen the last frontier will be to use all of these various autonomous data collection mechanisms, and then to place various sensors on luggable or wearable devices on the human being to examine how people interact with the world around them.

I have often said, we are living in the most exciting time, where technology can be used for good to help us, plan and organise our limited resources, seeking out new forms of renewable resources, that will provide for social securitisation into the longer term.

We can look at climate change reports, predictions of looming population pressures, the burgeoning potential crises that mega-cities will bring, food and clean water shortages, resource constraints and non-flexible economic policies set by governments that are looking at short-term time-frames till the next election rather than long-term resolutions. Greed remains our biggest problem, and the poverty cycle I studied when I was a teenager is still in full swing – the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.


If I paint a bleak picture it is because of related advancements, they are advancements for those who can afford progress, and images of e-waste in countries like Nepal and Bangladesh give me nightmares. Our dirty waste is a burden to the poor. So yes, we can introduce a whole new waive of IOT devices but they will merely become tomorrow's e-waste dumps. How do we learn eco-ways of living, how do we learn to recycle our waste, and how do we better dispose of our rubbish. We can continually come up with new upgrades for new things but they will just add to our dilemmas.

Search term on "eWaste" AND "Bangladesh"

Search term on "eWaste" AND "Bangladesh"

I underscore part of the solution is technological, and part of it is human. We must leverage the tools and platforms and services, together.

Where I think the greatest amount of innovation is possible is in bringing together business whose prime reason for existence is sustainability in one shape or form or another. This may have to do with packaging of products, getting businesses to work with one another in value chains and supply chains, accrediting companies with eco-ratings – choosing the most energy efficient means, than the cheapest potential supplier.

We need to make decisions for how we share resources, and collectively possibly even re-share our piece of the pie, within apartment blocks, our neighbourhoods, and even local government areas. Smart meters, no doubt, can provide us with a means to quantify our energy use, and bring it down, as energy tariffs increase worldwide. But let us not be misguided, these same mechanisms for quantifying usage will also help energy suppliers create innovative tariffs that may not always necessarily help individual dwellings/households. Money will always rule.

For now our greatest gains as a community who are interested in environmental impact has been the development of white goods that use less power, less water, and turn off when not in use. I give my full support to these kinds of appliances that bring gain in so many different ways. At the same time we have very cheap goods entering the market, and one begins to wonder what kind of social impact these goods have when they are being assembled by real people, let alone that their expected physical lifetime and planned obsolescence is measured in months, not even years.

Once upon a time, there were strict laws governing privacy, and trespass into residences. Today we seem to be inviting new connected devices to enter our homes, monitoring us and our things "for good", as opposed to structured surveillance. There is nothing wrong with placing hope in such devices but I challenge how much change will take place as a result of these, and how much more market manipulation and exploitation may occur in the longer term when the ha-bub about IOT dwindles away.

Amazon Alexa, Google's NEST, Google Home and a whole host of new services by our big ICT players will take human activity monitoring to a new level. And there are some very obvious examples where some tech like Google NEST may be critical- e.g. colder climates "on tops of mountains". See the following commercial.

On a larger scale we have companies like Cisco collaborating with NASA on Planetary Skin initiatives. I agree wholeheartedly, that knowing our planet better is the starting point to long-term sustainability. I am particularly in favour of early warning systems that help us to respond to large-scale natural disasters – tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, torrential flooding, earthquakes, to name but a few. Reducing citizen vulnerability in natural or human made disasters is a step in the right direction. But technology solutions also add new vulnerabilities to end users when they fail or are built without commensurate robust design. As we continue to emphasise SCADA systems almost completely machine operated to overcome human error, tens of millions of people for individual systems will become vulnerable to technology configurations. We will need to be prepared for when systems fail and reduce technological exposures through life cycle processes.

A major contribution will be in utilising the advancements in camera technology, storage space, CPU processing speeds to ensure species, animal and plant life, do not become extinct. In creating automatic resource allocation (human or otherwise) that will help us organise and assemble ourselves better in response to a critical event. Much of these new initiatives will take trust building exercises, in which humans offer their skill sets to volunteer in a wide variety of efforts. We will also need to be speaking the same language globally, so protocols and standards are becoming increasingly vital. But at which point do we declare we are doing more harm than good? Look at these transmitters being placed in fish? Yes, it helps us to know the species better, yes it helps us to know when illegal fishing is happening, and yes, it tells us more about the long-term sustainability of the fish species-- but what is it doing to the animal itself?

One thing is for certain, that in our quest for sustainability of the environment, we do not limit our freedoms as human beings. In the future we may be paying for the very air we breathe through a variety of taxes, but we need to build systems of living that are equitable. Until this happens, exploitation will continue, whether it is right under our noses here in Australia, or in developing nations in parts of Africa, Asia or South America. 

And the worst case scenario? Ok, I couldn't help myself... LOL! But seriously now, let's hope we get to somewhere in the middle-- a central point. We know utopia is impossible (whether machines or people are the decision makers), but the dystopia while possible seem implausible as well. What will that centrist view look like? And that's up to us! How much are we willing to trust people, systems, corporations, governments? And how much are they willing to help us, trust them?

Some important background links:

"Somehow my gut feeling is that no matter how much sustainability is important to Page, other factors like interest in the Internet of Things, his appreciation of Tony Fadell’s work, or his priorities (design and products with daily utility) got him to give this deal a green light, not sustainability."



The event is part of The Greenhouse Project, and event series collaboration hosted by WWF Australia, EnergyLab/UTS and Greenups.

The aim of the series is help to foster of community of interest around the intersection of Technology, Innovation and the Environmental and Social Impact space, with the intention of supporting new partnerships and connections between the traditional NGO/environmental groups and the tech/startup community.  

The series is half way through, and so far themes covered include smart cities and IoTVirtual Reality and Augmented Realityblockchain and distributed computing, and later in the year we’ll investigate electric and autonomous vehicles.

The series will conclude with a hackathon/designathon November aimed at developing some of the ideas that have germinated through the series, with funding and accelerator support available for any successful hackathon projects.


6:00 pm: Doors open, drinks and nibbles available.

6:45 pm: Welcome.

6:50 pm: Introductory Keynote by Prof. Katina Michael.

7:05 pm: moderated panel discussion and Q&A with the audience

- Katina Michael (UOW), Philip Wright (Ethics Centre), 2 others TBA

8.00 pm: Continue the discussion over drinks.

9.00 pm: Event concludes

The evening will begin with a half hour of mingling and networking. At 6:30pm the talks programme will begin with a keynote from Prof. Katina Michael. 


EnergyLab - Building 25, 4-12 Buckland St, Chippendale, NSW 2008

EnergyLab UTS, Sydney, Australia

EnergyLab UTS, Sydney, Australia


Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning. Is it Planet Saving Tech?

Depending on your framing, the coming age of Artificial Intelligence is either the panacea to all the worlds drudgery or heralds the arrival of our robot overloads and ultimate annihilation.

The truth is clearly somewhere in between, and depends a lot on a careful definition of terms, but either way the arrival of Artificial Intelligence and it’s subordinate cousins Machine & Deep Learning, presents a seismic shift and one which demands our immediate and focused attention.

Artificial Intelligence is here and it’s already doing interesting things, from influencing your Facebook feed to influencing US elections, from predicting your text messages to predicting where extreme weather events will hit, from recognising your voice to recognising endangered tigers.

And that’s just single purpose AI, stuff gets real when we begin to join a few of these ‘intelligences’ together, and Artificial General Intelligence emerges. AGI is still the realm if sci-fi, but for how long and what are the implications?

For the next Greenhouses evening we’ve approached a range of academics and thought-leaders to help us explore this fascinating topic, and help guide us as we decide how we can shape Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in to Planet Saving Technologies.


Ideally the keynote would introduce the concepts of AI, Big Data and Machine Learning, give a bit of the history and the state of the art. but also contextualise the technologies in terms of practical applications, both real world and coming soon, and present some of the social and environmental implications, opportunities and risks.

Time: 10mins


Notes by Benjamin Ward from GreenUps


The purpose of the series is to build a community of interest around the intersection of Technology, Innovation and the Environmental and Social Impact space, with the aim of cultivating new partnerships and connections between the traditional NGO/environmental groups and the tech/startup community.

The series will conclude with a hackathon/designathon November aimed at developing some of the ideas that have germinated through the series, with funding and accelerator support available for any successful hackathon projects.

Photo by Rachel Bunder (a co-presenter at this great event, and brilliant UOW alumni)

Photo by Rachel Bunder (a co-presenter at this great event, and brilliant UOW alumni)

Photo by Sandy Tsui of WWF

Photo by Sandy Tsui of WWF