November 9, 2021

8 Min Read

Helping to Confront Climate Change With AI-Generated Images of Anywhere in the World

From October 31 to November 12, more than 100 heads of state and thousands of diplomats are meeting in Glasgow for COP26, this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference. They are negotiating to set new targets for cutting worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, with the intended goal of preventing the average global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to pre-industrial levels.

As global leaders meet, the question of how climate change affects us individually and what part we can play to combat it is more pressing than ever. A new website called This Climate Does Not Exist – launched by a group of AI scientists at Mila, a Montreal-based artificial intelligence research institute – seeks to generate more awareness about climate change and help everyone take action. Using cutting-edge machine-learning technology, the website allows users to visualize the effects of extreme weather events – flooding, air pollution, and wildfire smoke – at any address in the world through automatically generated images.

“These images are AI-generated and do not exist,” the website reads, “but the environmental disaster they portray is very real.”

Bringing Climate Change Close to Home

“Climate change is a wicked problem, because there’s a lag between the actions we do today and their result,” explains Sasha Luccioni, postdoctoral researcher at Mila and one of the leaders of the project. “Even if we hit the brakes on emissions now, we might only see the results in 50 years.”

The idea behind the This Climate Does Not Exist website and its technology is to reduce that psychological distance by using images that are familiar to the viewer, and showing what they could look like if they were affected by extreme weather events.

“We want to help people project themselves, “similar to what Ubisoft does through videogames, we can use digital technology for educational purposes.” Luccioni adds. “The visualizations don’t mean that your house or a specific place will necessarily be underwater. It’s more to think of our planet as our communal house, which is suffering from a communal crisis. We need to bring that crisis closer to motivate more people to act.”

What the researchers in Luccioni’s team found was that, for purposes of awareness-raising, images of polar bears and melting icecaps feel distant; moreover, most people don’t respond well to doomsday messaging. In the case of extreme weather events, the audience has a bigger chance of taking action if they see suggestions of what they can do about it.

At the heart of the project is the ability for anyone to generate their own images. Instead of focusing on major landmarks, as other projects have done, This Climate Does Not Exist encourages users to see how climate change could affect places they have a personal attachment to. “That could be a famous landmark, but it could also be your parents’ house, your school, or your favorite travel destination.” Luccioni hopes that users will start searching locations beyond their homes – just as we’ve done here by providing images of some Ubisoft studios around the world – and share them widely. “It’s by sharing these sorts of messages and declaring publicly that we all care that we can bring about communal and political change.”

[UN][News] Helping to Fight Climate Change With AI-Generate Images of Anywhere in the World - Montpellier

Flood Against the Machine

This Climate Does Not Exist generates images thanks to a machine-learning technology called “generative adversarial network,” or GAN. The GAN gives an artificial intelligence the ability to generate new content, such as images, text, and even music, from a training set. In this case, it’s an algorithm that teaches itself to generate increasingly realistic images of flooded areas by discriminating between real and fake images. Ubisoft partnered with Mila’s researchers specifically to help the GAN generate images of flooded areas.

“To train the AI, you have to show it a ton of images of areas before and after they’re flooded,” explains Yves Jacquier, executive director at Ubisoft La Forge, Ubisoft’s Montreal-based research and development hub. “The system generates images on its own, and discriminates between real and fake images. After some iterations, the discriminator can’t differentiate between the two anymore, and you know your images look real enough.”

The team’s challenge was that they lacked good-quality images of an area before and after flooding. “People tend not to stick around during a flood,” Luccioni says. Jacquier’s team stepped in with a solution: they modified the engine used to develop the version of the San Francisco Bay Area in Watch Dogs 2, creating a data set of images of places in the game’s world before and after raising the level of the water.

What the team discovered was that the GAN’s “flooded” images became a lot more realistic when it had a combination of real and game images to teach itself.

“It’s harder for the system to generalize what a flooded area looks like using only ‘real’ images, because there’s more superfluous information,” Jacquier explains. “But with a game engine, you can use exactly the same object placement, scene, and lighting. You’re sure that the only difference is the flooding.”

[UN][News] Helping to Fight Climate Change With AI-Generate Images of Anywhere in the World - IMG 2

In fact, the images of flooding particularly were more complex and took longer to create than the team had anticipated. Unlike the representations of air pollution and wildfire smoke, which can be represented with a filter adjusted based on depth, flooding is more contextual and affects only part of the image, with the added complication of reflections.

“We had to create a two-step approach,” Luccioni explains. “First, the GAN creates a map of the image with all its elements, and then projects a flat plane to determine where the water will be and what it will look like. We had to disentangle the rising water from the rest of the elements.” That way, the website’s AI is able to raise the water around objects like mailboxes and cars, creating more realistic representations.

An important aspect of the project is its transparency. All of the research code is open-source, and the simulated flood dataset from Watch Dogs 2 has been publicly available on GitHub since last year – an unusual step for a videogame company like Ubisoft, which tends to keep game assets under license.

“For us, keeping our data open-source is part of a larger interest in transparency, helping the field progress as a whole. It’s important to give others the chance to reproduce what you’ve done, to keep improving on it, and also to show that it really works,” Luccioni adds.

[UN][News] Helping to Fight Climate Change With AI-Generate Images of Anywhere in the World - Floresco

Acting Now

For Luccioni, This Climate Does Not Exist came after an epiphany about how her research in AI was squaring up with her personal beliefs. “After my PhD, I was working on applied AI research in finance, and it didn’t feel aligned with my social involvement and personal beliefs with regards to the environment.” Research projects like the ones she has a chance to work on at Mila show the positive applications for this kind of technology.

[UN][News] Helping to Fight Climate Change With AI-Generate Images of Anywhere in the World - SF

The website’s experience leads to an “Act now” section that offers a menu of collective and individual actions. “It’s a global website, so it’s tricky to factor everyone in,” Luccioni says. “The goal was to be as general as possible in our suggestions, without making it generic.” Another encouraging sign is that individuals and organizations are reaching out to use the images and the backend technology in different settings like classrooms and awareness campaigns. “We want to collaborate, but also let others run with what we created and make it their own,” Luccioni says.

“If you had asked me a few years ago how videogames can help generate awareness and action about climate change, I would’ve immediately thought about game development, which is a long and complex process,” Jacquier adds. “But in fact this particular idea was quite simple, and made use of tools we already had at our disposal.”

For Jacquier, the collaboration with Mila on climate-change visualization was a lesson in being curious about what can be done, and humble about what everyone can bring to the table. “There are contributions to combating climate change that we don’t necessarily think about, but in fact we can all do our part in different ways. In this case, it was opening up the Watch Dogs 2 engine to generate images of places in the game before and after they were flooded. Who would’ve thought?”

In 2021, a year rife with extreme climate events around the world, leaders of developed countries appear to be struggling to revise their emission targets and stay on course for keeping the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The AI-generated climate visualizations of Ubisoft studios and offices included in this article may show us something that doesn’t exist, but the climate crisis we’re all in is very real indeed.

For more about Ubisoft’s environmental approach, including our commitment to global carbon neutrality, visit ubisoft.com/environment.

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