Lucas Joppa has an unusual job as the first CEO of Microsoft. No, he’s not the chief executive officer, that job is held by Satya Nadella. Instead, Joppa is the tech company’s first chief environment officer, leading Microsoft’s sustainability work and ensuring that protecting the environment is at the core of the company’s work.
“Microsoft has always been about tech for purpose. We’ve never been a company that builds stuff to build stuff, we built things because we see a problem and want to make it easier for people to solve that problem,” he tells the Standard. “It’s in our cultural DNA to look around and see what the big problems are and try to figure out what tech solutions we might be able to contribute. In the sustainability space, that’s the natural resource economy.”
With tech companies applying innovation to topics like healthcare, music and disinformation, it makes sense they should also try and tackle climate change, not least because the scale of the problem is so big. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the world’s atmosphere is the highest it has been for 3 million years, and if we’re to achieve the Paris Agreement goal of ensuring the global temperature doesn’t rise by more than 1.5 degrees-celsius, we need a variety of organisations trying to find solutions to the issue.
The environment has always been an interest of Joppa’s. He grew up in a rural community in the US, spending a lot of time outside, and says he was fascinated about nature and how dependent humans are on it from a young age. After studying ecology at university and PhD in conservation biology, Joppa soon realised that the questions he wanted to answer, such as the state of the world’s natural resources and the impact human activities are having on the system, need computing and machine learning to understand.
He shifted his focus to combine computer science with environmental science, and ended up at Microsoft’s blue-sky research arm in the UK following graduation, in order to lead environmental research programmes.
Joppa quickly moved up the ranks, becoming the chief environmental scientist and starting a new programme called AI for Earth, following a memo he wrote on using Microsoft’s AI research for environmental purposes. “The memo said, ‘we should be looking to deploy our resources in artificial intelligence into agriculture, biodiversity, water, and climate change’. [We recognised] that the world’s organisations tasked with solving environmental challenges are not necessarily the best-funded. So we had to make sure as we looked to do work in this space we lowered barriers to access, and that our technologies were free and easy to use.”
From that memo in 2017, AI for Earth has grown into a five-year, $50 million investment project, with over 450 projects operating in over 70 countries around the world. One project Joppa is proud of helping is a non-profit organisation called Wild Me which uses machine learning to identify specific individuals in a species, such as whale sharks or cheetahs, in order to build up global databases of accurate figures regarding how many animals are alive in a species.
On whale sharks alone, the organisation has discovered there are 10 times more whale sharks than had been identified before by humans. A Wild Me project focused on elephant monitoring would take about 3-4 months, but using Microsoft’s tech it can run in about two weeks.
“Stuff like that is really powerful. We can do this [analysis] much faster and cheaper when we integrate technology into what people are already doing,” says Joppa. “We’re trying to see what are the problems that people are tackling, what techniques they’re already using, and how we can make those better, faster and cheaper. That allows them to get back to the jobs they originally wanted to do, which is saving the planet.”
Joppa’s role doesn’t only focus on what’s happening outside Microsoft but also inside the company. Microsoft committed to operating as a carbon-neutral company in 2012 and has since reduced its overall carbon emissions by 75 per cent. As well, it plans to power its operations by 70 per cent renewable energy by 2023. A recently announced pilot will see it release 825,000 carbon-neutral Xboxes, covering everything from the supply chain used to create the gadgets, to the energy use of the Xboxes in people’s homes.
“Everyone has a role to play, consumers, businesses, policymakers. It’s true that some things will have a bigger impact than others, but everything we do matters,” he says. “That’s my role within Microsoft, to embed sustainability into every corner of the company because we work in every sector of the world, our products are used by billions of people and we’re really committed to using that reach to effect positive change on sustainability issues.”
In particular, Microsoft hopes to expand its work empowering AI developers to help the planet with a second AI for Good programme in London. The four-month-long accelerator will run at Microsoft’s Reactor space in Shoreditch, and is looking to accelerate 12 start-ups, charities or social enterprises with a social mission. Organisations using AI to build a sustainable future are encouraged to apply, as well as those focused on accessibility, humanitarian action and cultural heritage. The deadline for applying closes on November 15.
Joppa announced the new programme at Microsoft’s Future Decoded conference in October, saying he is excited to see how the accelerator engages new partners to catalyse social impact.
But with all this work to try and save the planet, can the task at hand sometimes feel overwhelming? The term “eco-grief” has been somewhat of a buzzword in 2019, encompassing the emotional distress we feel about the escalating climate crisis.
Whilst Joppa says that sometimes it is nice to wallow in the problems, “fatalism doesn’t help solve a problem”. “The fact of the matter is we have a problem, we’ve all got to do something about it, and what we need to do is super simple: work as hard as we can, ensure we are enacting environmentally progressive governance and policy, and tech innovation.
“Tech innovation is not the silver bullet but it’s a widely under-invested in, under-appreciated aspect to the solutions that we need to build,” he adds.