Bill Gates Says AI Will 'Absolutely' Play A Role In Climate Change By Allowing Scientists To Genetically Modify Beef Cows

University of Oxford data scientist and researcher Hannah Ritchie discussed environmental challenges and the data-driven pathways to address them during an episode of “Unconfuse Me with Bill Gates.” 

Promoting her book “Not the End of the World,” Ritchie’s conversation Gates, founder of with Microsoft Corp., ventured beyond the common discourse on climate change, offering a holistic view of environmental science infused with optimism and actionable solutions.

Ritchie’s journey from an overwhelmed environmental science student to a pioneering researcher underscores the transformative power of data in reframing environmental discourse. 

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“Despite having studied environment for a long, long time, I felt, to some extent, quite helpless,” said Ritchie, head of research at Our World in Data. 

Ritchie's work at Our World in Data marked a pivotal shift toward a solution-oriented approach instead of focusing on headlines. 

"It's stepping back to look at the data,” she said.

The conversation dissected the multifaceted nature of environmental challenges, with air pollution taking center stage as an “underrated problem.” 

“If you look at the number of premature deaths from air pollution, it's actually much higher than climate change today,” Ritchie said, citing World Health Organization estimates of around 7 million premature deaths annually. This statistic highlights the gravity of air pollution and showcases Ritchie’s ability to distill complex data into compelling evidence for action.

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Addressing the pervasive sense of doom that often accompanies environmental discussions, Ritchie shared her transformation, fueled by the insights of the late Swedish physician Hans Rosling. 

“A decade ago I was probably in that very same position,” she said, reflecting on her initial despair. However, Rosling’s work illuminated the substantial human progress over the last few centuries, challenging the narrative of inevitable decline.

The dialogue ventured into technological innovation, particularly the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) in tackling environmental issues. 

Gates shared his astonishment at AI’s rapid advancement, stating, “I was very stunned how the AIs went from basically not being able to read or write at all, to doing that in a very facile way.” 

Gates's optimism was echoed by Ritchie, who sees AI as a critical tool in modeling complex environmental phenomena and driving forward technological solutions in energy and food production. 

When Gates was asked whether AI would play a role in climate action, he replied "Absolutely." Gates gave the example of genetically modifying beef cattle to produce less methane or producing "meat without the cow." 

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Ritchie’s perspective on food technology, especially in the context of meat substitutes and the challenges of changing dietary habits, offered a look into the complexities of environmental action. 

“I'm now becoming much more skeptical that it will be as easy as that,” she said of the shift to plant-based diets, highlighting the cultural and personal hurdles in adopting alternative food sources.

The podcast episode culminated in a discussion on human welfare as the ultimate metric of environmental success. 

“The declining trend in disaster deaths was really surprising to me,” Ritchie said, using data to challenge the media focus on disaster and despair. 

This optimistic outlook, grounded in data analysis, reinforces the notion that while the challenges are significant, so too are the opportunities for meaningful progress.

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