Making a difference with technology: Hong Kong startups strive to save local marine life with Artificial Intelligence

AI for Good Challenge
  • Microsoft Hong Kong x Swire Trust AI for Good Challenge 2020 awards innovative ideas designed for local NGOs to solve local environmental challenges towards the marine ecosystem
  • Winner of the competition, Carbonbase, leverages AI and blockchain to mobilize citizens, scaling up beach cleaning and enabling a greener ecosystem

According to the Swire Institute of Marine Science at the University of Hong Kong, the territory supports a diversity of over 6,000 types of marine species. But Hong Kong faces continuous severe environmental challenges, such as ocean pollution, reclamation, and climate change. Local startup Carbonbase, the winner of the Microsoft Hong Kong X Swire Trust AI for Good Challenge, has set up a community movement using AI and blockchain to encourage waste collection and passive protection activities, demonstrating the positive impact digital solutions can have on our ocean life.

Carbonbase was created with the mission to make climate action more accessible for everyday citizens. The startup set out to address the fact that plastic waste contributes to 80% of marine litter, creating a long-term threat to biodiversity, water quality and food safety.

“While there are various beach clean-ups in Hong Kong, we wanted to create an ecosystem and inspire citizens to take positive action,” said Max Song, Founder and CEO of Carbonbase. Their winning idea resulted in a mobile app that applies AI and machine learning powered by Microsoft Azure to classify plastic waste. “Our app combines citizen science with machine learning, allowing the public to capture and record presence of litter and plastic waste across Hong Kong’s beaches and shores,” added Karen Wang, China Lead of Carbonbase.

The app allows citizens to submit feedback and insights on marine waste, which is then integrated with data collected using birds-eye view photography and slow-paced videos to enable more accurate identification. The results are generated by Microsoft’s AI to create a data sharing platform across Hong Kong that marine scientists can use to generate insights. Ultimately, this will facilitate better anticipation and management of marine waste.

Carbonbase is one of the many startups that participated at Microsoft x Swire Trust AI for Good Challenge 2020, a local program created to increase the awareness of AI’s positive impact among NGOs, and to provide the building blocks for various societal and environmental work.

To promote environmental sustainability and develop an eco-friendly society with AI solutions in 2020, Microsoft Hong Kong was able to facilitate meaningful conversations around the world by providing funding, technology and expertise to tackle some of society’s biggest challenges.

AI for Good Challenge Group Photo

“We believe the power of AI can solve many environmental challenges faced in Hong Kong and in the world. With the AI for Good Challenge, Microsoft Hong Kong hopes not only to make a positive impact on the environment, we hope to build a community of social impact entrepreneurs, foster connections and empower organizations and individuals that are driven to advance sustainability,” said Ada Ng, Director, Corporate Affairs and Philanthropies at Microsoft Hong Kong.

In the program, local startups are challenged to present ideas for one of the three marine-focused NGOs groups – The Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, Ocean3C and WWF Hong Kong. The AI solutions presented are then judged based on its innovativeness, strength in addressing social issues, application of AI and data, and its potential impact shall the solution is implemented. Carbonbase’s winning idea for Ocean3C understood the solution at hand and presented how AI can reveal new data on marine waste management to protect marine life diversity in Hong Kong.

Isabelle Chabrat, Co-founder of Ocean3C and one of the program judges said, “One of the Ocean3C pillars is to increase the awareness of marine pollution within the local community, its impact and the negative consequences of plastic waste. We started a Citizen Science project to collect waste data for scientists, education and global communication, where the use of AI would accelerate data capturing and analysis. Carbonbase’s solution has embraced this vision of involving multiple stakeholders to improve marine waste management. As we aim to enter a more pragmatic phase of the program, the potential for the application to be implemented will depend on resources allocated, and tighter collaboration between all parties.“

Other notable winners of the program include first runner up Open Ocean Engineering Limited, who created a ClearBot with an AI vision for Ocean3C, which can self-navigate to collect 200 liters of marine litter. The group intends to build one of the biggest datasets for trash detection in Hong Kong, which can then train and improve machine learning models for the ClearBot. The second runner up was Clear Robotics Limited, which created BirdyCam for the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society. The camera monitors breeding grounds of seabirds, sharing data on the health and productivity of Hong Kong’s marine ecosystem. BirdyCam is an AI-integrated bird observation and counting camera, which operates 24/7 and can be streamed remotely. The solution can detect bird types automatically and count the total number of birds in frame at any time, which significantly reduces time and cost for collecting data in remote locations in Hong Kong.

“The collaboration with Microsoft is invaluable for Swire Trust and our partnered NGOs, as we are able to learn and explore how technology and AI can address challenges faced by our marine environment.  We look forward to seeing more AI applications on social causes, and collaborations between non-profits and start-ups,” said Tina Chan, Head of Philanthropy at The Swire Group Charitable Trust (“Swire Trust”).

The AI for Good Challenge is just one of Microsoft Hong Kong’s initiatives to empower the local community of startups, non-profits and partners. By working to raise awareness, promote sustainability and drive meaningful innovation, Microsoft Hong Kong hopes to address environmental challenges in Hong Kong and across the world.

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