Much promise lay at the cross-section of AI and environmental engineering–as demonstrated by the work of scholars like Patrick Michael Reed at Cornell and Bistra Dilkina, associate director of USC’s “Center for AI in Society” (as well as a member of the Association for Computing Machinery). Those at the forefront of this noble endeavor realize that AI will play an integral role in helping us save the planet from the deleterious effects of irresponsible human activity. For example, Columbia University’s Data Science Institute is making use of AI to find innovative ways to ensure a sustainable, healthy future.

An increasingly pressing matter is the need to clean up and protect drinking water. The planet is running out of fresh water, and much of what is remaining is dangerously polluted. According to the U.N.,1.8 billion people around the world currently use a water source contaminated with waste. AI can greatly improve potable water and waste management systems; and thereby make it easier to monitor water quality, manage usage, and predict future maintenance needs. Governments, organizations, and home-owners can deal with contamination problems sooner (and more efficiently); and they can also achieve a greater understanding of the issue in order to implement more effective preventative measures.

AI also has the power to transform agricultural practices, making them safer for the ecosystem as well as more amenable to people’s health. Those dealing with agricultural concerns can use AI to determine if crops are getting enough water and sunlight. Such capabilities can help farmers avoid using too much water.

Indeed, monitoring systems powered by AI can help formulate more informed preservation plans in virtually any area of human activity. Ecosystems all over the world can benefit from this technology.

Earth’s largest bodies of water are vital to and are some of the best indicators of the planet’s health. Based on their current conditions, things aren’t looking good. Humans have polluted the oceans to dangerous levels with offshore drilling and gargantuan amounts of trash. One garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the oceans every minute–amounting to eight million metric tons of plastic annually.

Take heart, for AI is coming to the rescue. Note the current endeavor to start de-constructing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. How? By using what is essentially an autonomous floating garbage truck powered by AI. In other oceans, machine learning is making it possible to follow marine litter in real-time, enabling responses that are quick, targeted, and more effective. Moreover, the monitoring and predictive technology of machine-learning can help researchers understand the human actions and subsequent changing conditions that harm the oceans, such as coral bleaching, illegal fishing, and illicit industrial activity.

Here, synergy seems to be the key. A Harvard Business Review study of 1,500 companies found that the most significant performance improvements were made when humans and machines collaborated. For, at the end of the day, AI is complementary to human intelligence–delivering the computing power to perform calculations far too big for people to do.

Mobilizing the IoT (internet of things) with machine-learning and blockchain technologies promises to make significant headway. For this combination of tech has the potential to create truly decentralized water systems that operate on the closed-loop recycling of local resources. Such a system would be highly optimized–helping to keep drinking water clean and plentiful.

The vast majority of business leaders working in environmental sustainability agree that AI will help solve long-standing environmental challenges. After all, sustainable development means eco-friendly businesses as well. And responsible enterprises can leverage AI to benefit the environment without compromising efficiency. To get full value from AI, businesses will need to cooperate to share crucial data. At the end of the day, good data bolsters the capacity of AI to make a difference. More and more corporations are starting to realize that good environmental stewardship is good business.

In all arenas, machine-learning promises to accelerate sustainability efforts. As AI becomes one of society’s greatest assets, it is proving itself indispensable for solving problems that seem larger than life–like protecting our natural environment. Our current situation is dire. There is only about a decade remaining if we are to keep Earth’s temperature at a maximum 1.5 degrees Celcius rise, and thus avoid catastrophic repercussions. In the face of this ominous predicament, the potential of technology to help meet these challenges gives us a reason for optimism.