The Inside View

10 minutes with Josh Henretig, Microsoft

This column is about the "how" of sustainable business. At the practical level, how do leaders make change happen? Josh Henretig is senior director, environmental sustainability at Microsoft where he operationalizes the company’s environmental agenda. He also co-leads AI for Earth, a five-year, $50 million Microsoft initiative.

Bob Langert: Briefly describe AI for Earth.

Josh Henretig: It's a cross-company program that takes Microsoft's deep investments in artificial intelligence research and technologies, adds on our commitment to using technology to address big, societal challenges to then deliver AI resources in the hands of organizations working at the intersection of climate change, agriculture, water and biodiversity.

Langert: How are you implementing it?

Henretig: Through AI for Earth, we make our resources available for free to organizations that can benefit from the artificial intelligence in our cloud infrastructure. All they have to do is apply.

But simply providing access to those tools is not going far enough because many of these people and organizations also need training to deploy those tools in ways that enable them to take full advantage of cloud-scale architecture and the advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence. So, we also deliver education and training and help grantees apply them to their environmental data sets that allow them to derive new and important insights.

Lastly, we invest in scaling up Application Programming Interfaces and applications that provide access to either key datasets or pre-trained models. This way, there are benefits delivered from AI even outside the grantee universe. These demonstration projects are representations of what's possible with the latest advances in artificial intelligence when applied to various environmental scenarios.

Langert: Could give an example to show the potential of AI for Earth?

Henretig:  One of the priority areas that we've zeroed in on is biodiversity. Over the last year, we’ve been working with an organization called iNaturalist.

They have one of the largest citizen-science platforms in the world. They enable you or me or anyone in the world to take their smartphones, download the iNaturalist application and then take their phone out into nature and make observations about the natural world. Those observations come in the form of pictures. So, you take your phone out; you take a picture of a plant, of a bee, of a zebra, or any other natural living thing that you encounter, and what we've helped enable iNaturalist to do is using an artificial intelligence technique called "Computer Vision" that works on enabling computers to see, identify and process images — in this case, individual species — and make a recommendation about what and where it lives in the world.

That’s not just fun for families and amateur birders; it’s actually providing an important dataset to leading researchers looking at biodiversity. What's really worrying to us and to many scientists around the world is that we have only discovered/described about 1.5 million species of an estimated 10 million on our planet, and less than 5 percent of that 1.5 million species have ever been analyzed in any detail. There are species that are disappearing off our planet that we've never even known about.

We also don't understand the reasons or implications for why and how quickly they may be disappearing. We don’t have the ability to quickly scale up millions of field researchers — but we do have the ability to tap millions of smartphone users to help collect that data, quickly.

Langert: Could I actually be one of these observers?

 Yes, you go to the App Store, search for iNaturalist, and you can download the app and start making observations.

I'll tell you this. I went to a family reunion last summer and I have a mixed family with different political views, which can be interesting, as I'm sure we all have stories like that. And they generally don't understand what I do.

They know I work at Microsoft. They know I work in the environmental space. But, when I came to describe some of the projects that I'm working on, it was just so amazing. I took out my phone; I showed the iNaturalist app.

And then, I started making observations just around the yard and the lights totally went on. Everybody then got out their phone, they all downloaded the app, and within 30 minutes, I had 15 people between the ages of 8 and 78 walking around with their phones, leaning over plants and bugs and anything else they could find just to see how the technology would give them information about the backyard that we were having this event in. So, it was just cool, because so quickly, we set aside kind of any political discussion about climate change or anything else and they were just interacting with nature in a different way.

Langert: This all sound awesome, and almost too good to be true, and Microsoft is doing this for free? Why?

Henretig: To be clear, iNaturalist.org is actually doing the heavy lifting, and Microsoft is providing access to the AI infrastructure to help make it happen. It's a perfect harmony between our principles and our values and our deep desire to demonstrate the impact that technological innovation can have in the world at large.

Langert: Equally fascinating to me is how you got this big innovation program approved. How did you do it?

Henretig: I developed this program with another colleague of mine, Lucas Joppa — now my boss — who was in our research part of the company working in kind of an adjacent field of computational ecology. He had this broad idea for how artificial intelligence could be applied to the environmental space more generally. So he and I teamed up.

We built the business plan, got the attention of our president, Brad Smith, who ultimately, after some back and forth, funded our program with $50 million and a five-year commitment to put it in the hands of environmental organizations all around the world. I've been around the company long enough — 16 years — I've tried both successfully, but also unsuccessfully, to pitch new programs and opportunities. And I've learned enough from these experiences that this time was really as successful as they come with the amount of funding, but even more importantly the timeline we have to work with.

Langert: So, what was the magic this time?

Henretig: Half the challenge is simply getting your hands around what's already happening — a company the size of Microsoft has so much happening inside the company, right? And then providing the right thing to organize around. We’re committed to sustainability and addressing climate change as a company and it’s something our employees around the globe, as well as our customers, are passionate about and has global impact. By simply creating this architecture and focusing attention around using artificial intelligence for environmental outcomes, we tapped the right topic at the right time with the right technology.

Langert: Somebody has to approve the investment. How did you do that?

Henretig: We initially did a lot of tin-cupping. It isn't the most effective way to build financial and programmatic support, because you have to ask for money and resources from lots of different departments. But, that said, it can be useful when you're trying to get something off the ground. So, we had a small amount of funding from our own team. We worked with other teams to build additional funding and support, and ultimately created enough resources to help get these projects off the ground.

Langert: How did you gain momentum?

Henretig: Interestingly, we didn't have a lot of big rejections early on. There’s a lot of concern about the impact of AI. There's a large part of society that also sees AI as a threat to their jobs and to the people part of the equation when it comes to technology and innovation. Some people think artificial intelligence is going to deliver amazing breakthroughs and innovations that will benefit the world, but when we started, this was a not-very-vocal minority.

And so, one of the things that we offered was a counterbalance to that more negative storyline — by showing, not just telling, how these technologies can be used for good and for a much deeper understanding of our natural world that will significantly enhance our ability to address of climate change.

Langert: What was your overall biggest learning?

Henretig: The Holy Grail in this broader sustainability space, in my opinion, is not only to do the right thing — whatever that thing is for your company and your industry — but to also tap into what has made your company so successful to date. For Microsoft, we are a technology company that succeeds by making other people and organizations more effective, efficient and successful themselves.

AI for Earth brings all of that together — technology, partnering and empowering others with technology and on a global scale — and uses that to significantly improve our understanding and ability to address issues like climate change. It's not easy, necessarily, to unlock that potential. But I think for those organizations that are available to do it, they can contribute a tremendous amount to this broader challenge that we're all trying to address.