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The Vast Potential for AI in the Blue Economy
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of Startup Genome.
“The ocean touches every minute of our lives, no matter where in the world we live."
Unless you live on the coast, you may only think about the ocean when you’re daydreaming about a beach vacation or planning to cook fish for dinner. But the ocean touches every minute of our lives, no matter where in the world we live.
At least 80% of all goods that we purchase have come across an ocean. Half of the air we breathe is created by ocean plants. Billions of people in the world get their protein from the ocean.
The Blue Economy is huge, and so is the amount of data it generates. From shipping manifests and wind speeds to underwater images and acoustic data, companies engaged in some way with the oceans create vast quantities of data each day. But, there remains significant opportunity to collect more data and better leverage current data to optimize operations and improve outcomes. Leveraging AI to utilize more of that data could be transformative.
AI + The Blue Economy = Transformative Outcomes
As Executive Director at DeepSense — a program funded by ACOA, the Province of Nova Scotia, the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship, Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI), and IBM based at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada that is dedicated to connecting AI talent to Blue Economy companies — I have seen the potential for AI to transform not just the Blue Economy, but the Earth and economy as a whole. I have also seen the progress we still need to make to digitize and maximize the potential impact of AI on the sector.
Since its inception in 2018, DeepSense has worked with 250 companies to advise on how AI can improve their operations and growth. It has also completed 25 projects with 85 students that have already had huge impacts on performance, ecosystems, and local economies, and helped train more than 1,000 students in ocean data, ocean tech, and ocean AI.
For instance, we worked with a partner to identify and count fish passing through their hydroelectric dams. In many cases, the mechanism to count fish is very manual. We connected our team of Dalhousie graduate students with the company and together they built a neural network to automate this tedious task. The result was good for the fish, good for regulators, and good for efficient renewable energy production.
Another project involved acoustic data generated by surveys conducted in relation to tidal turbines that use Nova Scotia’s highest tides in the world to generate clean energy. The traditional method to clean and process data involved human effort to manually edit out bad data that results from choppy water or other disturbances. We helped to build out a machine learning neural network that cut out the bad data automatically. Now data can be generated and efficiently processed from evolving subsea platforms.
In both these cases, DeepSense accelerated the development of solutions for organizations to augment limited or a lack of AI expertise in-house. Both projects illustrate the potential for AI to impact industries — from renewable energy to logistics, to aquaculture, to defense, to autonomous vehicles. But our work has also highlighted the hurdles that remain.
Wanted: Data Planning and More AI Talent
As anyone who has read the news recently knows, AI is an incredibly hot field making rapid advances. Those graduating with AI skills are in high demand. Graduates can go on to work for Meta, AWS, or OpenAI. Relatively few consider putting their skills to use to solve problems in our oceans. Or if they do, their understanding of the Blue Economy is limited to only a single sub-sector like fishing or shipping.
Speaking and working with young people, I have found that members of this generation want to feel their job is making a difference in the world beyond improving a company’s quarterly results. They want to have a positive impact. Bringing AI skills to the Blue Economy is a way to truly make a difference for the better. DeepSense has focused on exposing students to the potential of the ocean economy and growing the talent supply to ensure resources are available as demand for Ocean AI grows.
However, it’s not just new graduates who need to be educated about the potential impact of AI on the Blue Economy. Established companies and leaders are often unaware of the transformative power of putting their data to better use. When DeepSense launched we thought that most of our work would revolve around matching talent with companies looking to pursue specific AI projects. Instead, we’ve found much of our time is devoted to explaining the capabilities and requirements of AI to industry.
A large portion of that work involves helping organizations prepare their data for potential future AI uses. There is so much data in the ocean, but data alone is often insufficient. If the data isn't associated with the exact location or labeled for future purposes, it will not provide tangible value. Common gaps tend to be missing or incorrect location, time stamps, or labeling. Leaders must help their teams carefully plan their data requirements including what is collected, who collects it, and how they store and label it.
At DeepSense we believe it is critical for organizations to include AI as part of their strategic goals, even if implementation is years in the future. Through tailored conversations and workshops, we regularly help companies to understand AI. They learn how they can leverage their data to create new products or services that will differentiate them in the market or optimize their operations. Successful use of AI requires a carefully thought out data strategy. Just like companies do capital planning or technology planning, they need to think about data planning to really take advantage of the promise of their data and future AI.
For the Blue Economy that promise is as vast as the ocean itself. AI is improving by leaps and bounds as the Blue Economy is generating more useful data every day. Pair these two developments with strategy, foresight, and ambition, and you have the potential to impact both the environment we all share and nearly every sector of our economy.