Solving Social Problems Starts with Knowing Real Information; Dr. James Crawford (Jimi), Leading AI Technology Developer, Discusses Contributions of “Perspectives from Space”【Consider the Future of Earth Together with Serika Ito #12】
Even we call “Space Development”, there are various purposes, technologies, and missions. In this series, we consider the current situation and the future of space development together with our Chief Dream Officer(CDO), Serika Ito.
The theme of this time is the using satellite data to solve social issues. Dr. James Crawford (Dr. Jimi), founder, chairman and CTO of Orbital Insight, a Silicon Valley startup company, is our guest and discussed with Astronaut Serika.
NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover and AI Technology
Serika: It is an honor to meet you. I heard about you from Mike Kim, Orbital Insight’s Vice President APAC & General Manager Japan, and I was very interested in meeting you!
In a recently published article, we asked Mike Kim about how Orbital Insight opened its Japan office and its efforts to reduce environmental impact by monitoring the palm oil supply chain with its geospatial analysis platform, “Orbital Insight GO”.
Dr. Jimi: Nice to meet you, Serika!
Serika: I’ve been receiving a training at NASA as an astronaut. I’ve heard from Mike that you were also involved in the Mars rover project!
Dr. Jimi: I got the Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence (AI) many years ago and was the head of robotics at NASA’s Ames Research Center, where AI is about trying to find clues to figure out how to get computers to do things that humans can do and computers can’t.
For the rover to move around on Mars, NASA has developed an AI-based planner that can help scientists decide where to place cameras on the Mars rover based on what they want to do, how to plan the direction it will move, how it will transmit data, and so on.
It is difficult for a rover to land on Mars. That’s why I was so excited when I found out that our Mars rover, which we spent years developing, had successfully landed on Mars and sent a radio signal to Earth!
Serika: Mars has a thin atmosphere, so it is said to be difficult to land on the surface while using a parachute to slow down like on Earth. In fact, many rovers have failed to land on the surface. By the way, what is space for you?
Dr. Jimi: Space is a really important frontier for society and any lives on the Earth. I think we will be able to understand the Earth better by looking at it from space and mine resources on the moon and other planets and migrate there in the next few decades. Increasing space exploration and space-based endeavors will be one of the most exciting things that humanity will do in the next decade.
Earth Observation x AI to Support Poverty and Refugee
Serika: I heard that you participated in the Mars exploration project at NASA, and then founded Orbital Insight after serving as the Head of “Google Books” , a full-text book search service.
Dr. Jimi: Yes. Traditionally, satellites were mainly for defense purposes, but more and more commercial satellites are being launched. It seemed to me that we were reaching a tipping point where more and more satellites were starting to be used not only for national security, but also for investment, financing, insurance payments, and supply chain management.
The most impressive project was mapping poverty neighborhoods, which we did few years ago in collaboration with the World Bank. There are various ways to assess the level of poverty from satellite imagery. For example, we could look at the number of high-rise buildings or the yield of crops.
Serika: I see! So you assess the level of poverty based on satellite images of towns and villages!
Dr. Jimi: When we mapped poverty areas in Sri Lanka, the most reasonable way to assess the level of poverty was based on the number of cars. When we compared the data from analyzing satellite imagery of cars using AI to the actual poverty levels in Sri Lanka, we found out that there was a correlation between the number of cars and poverty. People seem to buy cars first when they can afford them.
Previously, in the projects initiated by international organizations, it used to update maps that assessed the degree of poverty every 10 years. However, the world changes so rapidly that once every 10 years is not really “frequent,” is it?
Serika: If we can obtain accurate data from satellite images, it would be possible to update the maps more frequently, such as every six months or even every three months! I believe that the measures to eliminate poverty that can be established using the latest data will be more effective. By the way, how do you develop these solutions, such as mapping poverty areas and managing the palm oil supply chain?
Dr. Jimi: There is one question I always ask my customers. “What is it that you want to know about the world?” Our solutions are highly scalable and flexible, so we can develop the solutions based on analysis that our customers would like to see. In that sense, it can be said that we listen to our customers and develop the solutions in collaboration with our clients.
At the same time, there are solutions that are developed by our own for social good. For example, a solution that helps Refugees problems. Using satellite data and anonymized cell phone GPS data, we can get a rough idea of how many refugees from a particular city are going to go where next. From this information, we can figure out which camps and places to stay where there are many refugees and where they need assistance.
Serika: I am amazed that you can use cell phone GPS data that way!
Dr. Jimi: The mission of Orbital Insight is to provide decision makers with information to understand what is happening on the planet. Whether it’s managing a supply chain, managing money, defending a country, or helping refugees, we can help decision makers in any area to make the world a better place!
Satellites Continue to Contribute to Solving Climate Change and Environmental Problems
Serika: In recent years, there seems to have been a growing interest in climate change in Japan. I understand that Dr. Jimi is in Silicon Valley. Do you feel a growing awareness of climate change and environmental issues around you?
Dr. Jimi: Yes, I do. I think people are becoming very aware of the dangers of climate change. In California, there have been a lot of wildfires, and people are very aware of the effects of global warming.
There is also a growing trend for end consumers of consumer goods to select and purchase products that do not harm the environment through the supply chain.
Serika: Are there any solutions you are trying to create in the future or any social issues you would like to solve?
Dr. Jimi: I believe there is still a lot we can do. In particular, new satellites with sensors that can determine where on the planet greenhouse gases are being emitted are emerging these days. By properly tracking the sources of methane runoff, carbon dioxide emissions, and areas of the world where large-scale deforestation is taking place, we should be able to understand the causes and effects of climate change.
Serika: There are more and more space-related companies working on climate change and environmental issues. What stage do you think the space business … especially the earth observation business is at now? Have there been any changes since you founded Orbital Insight?
Dr. Jimi: A lot of start-ups in the earth observation field have gone public recently. They must have a lot of money to manufacture and launch satellites. Established companies are also launching and operating new satellites. At the same time, AI technology is developing to analyze satellite images and extract the necessary information, so I am looking forward to a great expansion of satellite data applications in the coming years.
Serika: Some of the startups I have talked to so far are accelerating their satellite development. As you said, I am also aware that the use of satellite imagery is advancing rapidly. So, any last message for our readers?
Dr. Jimi: My final message is that the world is very chaotic and changing rapidly. Especially with poverty and Refugee problems, the more we know about the current situation, the more we can provide the necessary support and response. A better understanding of the world will help us achieve our development goals for the betterment of society.
Serika: The advent of technology … combined with earth observation and AI technologies that have been opened up to the private sector has enabled us to instantly know what is happening on our planet. And you will support our efforts to improve society. Thank you for a great talk!
The twelfth guest in the series of conversations with Astronaut Serika was Dr. Jimi Crawford of Orbital Insight.