Artificial intelligence and environmental sustainability are two global issues that are not commonly associated.

But a new report released by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the World Economic Forum (WEF) suggests the two areas could be inextricably linked.

Harnessing Artificial Intelligence for the Earth, launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, found more than 80 environmental applications for emerging AI technologies.

“AI is the electricity of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” said Innovation and Sustainability Leader at PwC UK, Celine Herweijer.

“Today, as tech pioneers and industry execs alike are starting to see the big impact that applying AI can have, our study shows how it can also be directed to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems.”

The report focused on the use of AI in major global challenges, namely: climate change, biodiversity and conservation, healthy oceans, water security, clean air and weather, and disease resilience.

For example, it outlines the role of machine learning in matching energy generation and demand to increase efficiency.

In the oceans, AI-powered robots that can survey the ocean floor to map natural resource management are already under development.

The report found AI-enabled robotic fish are one way to detect potentially hazardous pollutants in the water, while drones can now be used to analyse the health of whales.

AI can also be used to mitigate the extreme weather and natural disasters that have been associated with climate change, with predictive analytics already helping governments and scientists monitor natural hazards.

The report also outlined the use of AI combined with other emerging technologies as potential ‘game changers’.

This included the creation of autonomous and connected electric vehicles.

“Autonomous electric vehicles, for example, could work in combination with distributed-energy grids, so that the charging stations, and thus the vehicles, are fed by a decentralised and optimised renewable-energy grid and ultimately become sources in this grid themselves,” the report states.

While each of these innovations has the potential to benefit the planet, the report warns, that left “unguided” the consequences could be dire.

“For all the enormous potential AI offers for building a sustainable planet for future generations, it also poses short and long-term risks,” it states.

The risks included security, performance, control, ethics and socio-economic impact – all of which require AI to be ‘governed wisely’.

The key recommendation given was around the development of responsible AI. This requires definitions and standards to be created around the misuse of AI and the subsequent human and environment harm.

Herweijer believes that to do this, AI development must always take into consideration the best interests of humanity and the planet.

“Developing approaches to guide “human-friendly” AI is arguably one of the biggest unsolved AI problems today,” she said.

"If we get it right, it could create a sustainability revolution. In practice that means that AI systems’ checks and balances must incorporate the health of the natural environment as a fundamental dimension.”