Interview with Beate Hofer and Christine Haupt
How can artificial intelligence (AI) help achieve the United Nations’ sustainability goals? During the 10toGO thinkathon (see info box for explanation) organized by Volkswagen and Microsoft Germany, 20 teams with innovative AI concepts tackled this question. In this interview, jury members’ Beate Hofer, Chief Information Officer at Volkswagen AG, and Christine Haupt, Chief Operating Officer at Microsoft Germany, talk about 10toGO and corporate social responsibility.
“IT is making an important contribution to decarbonization with the help of innovative technologies.”
The United Nations’ sustainable development goals call for progress in the fight against poverty, in climate protection or in the preservation of biodiversity. What do these sustainable development goals have to do with AI?
Haupt: Digital technologies can help solve pressing human problems. For example, the cloud and artificial intelligence are helping us to better control environmental risks, protect the climate, use resources more wisely, drastically reduce traffic fatalities, or fight diseases.
Hofer: AI is an excellent tool for finding efficient, resource-conserving solutions. It can help combine climate protection and prosperity worldwide. There are potential applications in production and logistics, for example, where AI can improve processes and thus reduce CO₂ emissions. The 10toGO thinkathon clearly demonstrates that committed people can achieve a lot of good with AI.
In what realms are you thinking?
Hofer: The best example is provided by the winning team Pina. In less than four weeks, the three members used AI to develop a solution that supports sustainable forestry. The application makes it possible to quickly and automatically record how much carbon is sequestered by forest trees. This makes it easier to independently certify climate-friendly forest protection and reforestation projects. This is an important prerequisite for companies like Volkswagen to invest in such projects. Together with Microsoft, we will continue to accompany the winning team and support them with our know-how.
Haupt: The loss of natural resources threatens the future of our planet and the lives of future generations. However, there is still inadequate knowledge about how biodiversity and ecosystems can be protected most efficiently. Many of the thinkathon’s participants are demonstrating with their ideas how climate protection and global prosperity can be combined with the help of technological innovations.
Fostering cooperation – is that the real goal of projects like 10toGO?
Haupt: Yes. In a world that is becoming increasingly complex and interconnected, it takes a wide range of skills to solve problems. The crucial skill is not to be best at everything alone, but to bring the right partners together. With the 10toGO thinkathon, we want to jointly drive innovative solutions and offer ambitious talents space and resources to develop.
Hofer: Corporations like Volkswagen and startups can learn a lot from each other. In such partnerships, fresh ideas and speed come together with high technical competence and a lot of experience in scaling solutions. But each side also benefits on its own from different ways of thinking, talents and experience. This is the case with the winning team Pina, in which an environmental expert works together with two technicians. A good example showing that diverse teams are more successful.
Volkswagen and Microsoft have each set ambitious climate targets. What role does technology play in this?
Hofer: Digitization and sustainability are the big drivers at Volkswagen. The Group was the first automaker to commit to the Paris climate agreement. We want to be balance sheet CO₂-neutral by 2050. This can only be achieved with innovative technology. The biggest levers are, of course, the 70 or so all-electric models that the Group will bring to market by 2030. But IT is also making an important contribution to decarbonization with the help of innovative technologies, in favor of a greener society. I’m thinking of the networking of our plants, which promotes efficient, resource-saving production, the development of intelligent transportation systems that reduce congestion, and AI systems that optimize the efficiency of electric motors.
Haupt: Microsoft has already done a lot in the past to reduce CO₂ emissions and exploit the potential of renewable energy. Microsoft’s global activities, for example, have been 100 percent climate-neutral since 2012. But that is not enough. That’s why we have set ourselves ambitious goals and not only want to further reduce our CO₂ emissions, but also remove more CO₂ from the atmosphere than we emit in the future. This “negative CO2 balance” is to be achieved by 2030. By 2050, Microsoft even wants to eliminate all the carbon from the atmosphere that the company has emitted since it was founded in 1975. To this end, one billion U.S. dollars will be invested over the next four years in a climate innovation fund that will specifically drive the development of new technologies for CO₂ reduction and removal. We are convinced that only with the help of new technologies such as AI will it be possible to combine sustainable climate protection with growing prosperity all over the world.
“We are convinced that we can only find effective answers to the very big challenges of our time by working together.”
What advantages can cooperation bring?
Haupt: Volkswagen and Microsoft Germany have been committed to sustainability, digital education or participation for years. But we are convinced that we can only find effective answers to the very big challenges of our time if we work together. That is why we are bundling our commitment to achieve substantial improvements in the areas of the environment, society and the economy through the use of digital technologies and artificial intelligence. Since 2020, this has been governed by a framework agreement between the two companies.
Hofer: At Volkswagen, we are convinced that digital innovations can have a positive impact on the sustainable development of society. But there is a long way to go and great efforts are still required. This makes it all the more important for us to connect with like-minded partners such as Microsoft. Personally, it motivates me immensely that we can make a contribution to society and protect the climate through our work. I know that many people at Volkswagen feel the same way.
Challenge: There are only ten years left to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. That’s why Volkswagen and Microsoft Germany called on international teams to develop data-driven solutions for greater sustainability in a so-called thinkathon at the end of 2020. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals include eradicating hunger and poverty, climate protection, health, quality education, gender equality and decent work. The word “thinkathon” (composed of “think” and “marathon”) refers to an event format in which interdisciplinary teams develop innovative solutions to difficult problems in a short period of time.
Competition: 20 teams with a total of 86 members were selected from around 300 applicants from more than 40 nations. During the almost four-week project phase, they were advised by international sustainability experts. The winning team, Pina from Munich, will receive 100,000 euros and will be supported by Volkswagen and Microsoft in founding a start-up. The team developed an AI-based solution for sustainable forestry and transparent certification of climate protection projects. Other participants have looked at using AI to improve medical diagnoses, distribute unused food to the vulnerable or reward climate-friendly behavior.
Jury: The concepts were evaluated by representatives from Volkswagen and Microsoft as well as other independent experts. These included representatives of the United Nations and the World Food Program. The independent Volkswagen Sustainability Advisory Board was represented by the former EU Commissioner for Climate Protection, Connie Hedegaard, and Elhadj As Sy, Chairman of the Board of the Kofi Annan Foundation.
Initiator: The idea behind 10toGO came from Prof. Dr. Patrick van der Smagt, Head of the Machine Learning Research Lab at the Volkswagen Group. The Dutchman, a member of the Bavarian AI Council, teaches at the University of Budapest and is one of Europe’s leading experts in deep learning and robotics. He says, “The most important part of 10toGO is just starting now: We will not only actively support Team Pina, but also help the other teams scale their solutions.”