Microsoft is helping the government build AI disaster response tools

It's teaming up with the Department of Energy to help first responders.

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Firefighters battling the King Fire watch as a backfire burns along Highway 50 in Fresh Pond, California September 16, 2014. The fire led officials to call on about 400 people to evacuate from areas threatened by the blaze, Cal Fire spokeswoman Alyssa Smith said. It has charred more than 11,500 acres (4,654 hectares) and was 5 percent contained on Tuesday.  REUTERS/Noah Berger  (UNITED STATES - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Noah Berger / reuters

The Department of Energy is teaming up with Microsoft to build AI tools that will help prevent and manage natural disasters, the agency announced today. Together, they’ll co-chair the “First Five Consortium,” a group that will focus on using predictive technology in areas like anticipating wildfires, managing fire lines, assessing overall damage, as well as handling search and rescue. The group is named after the critical first five minutes of a natural disaster — the better first responders are prepared early on, the better they can contain issues and potentially save people.

According to the DOE, its Pacific Northwest lab is already building on a prototype deep learning model that can help first responders make disaster-related decisions in near real time. We’re still waiting on specific details, but the agency says that the model was originally developed by the Department of Defense’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC). Microsoft, meanwhile, has established its own critical infrastructure team, which will explore using its own AI models and Azure cloud to “help advance the nation’s key systems, services, and functions essential to the operation of American society and its economy.”

“Artificial intelligence enables us to address some of humanity's greatest challenges, and in this case, improve disaster resilience for populations around the world,” Toni Townes-Whitley, President of US Regulated Industries, Microsoft, said in a statement. “As evidenced by this consortium we have joined with the DOE and DoD, it’s critical that private and public sectors work together to provide first responders with technology that has the potential to save lives.”

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The partnership between Microsoft and the DOE makes sense: Microsoft has the tools and infrastructure to help churn through vast amounts of data, and the DOE desperately needs better ways to prepare for impending disasters. After all, California and western US states are currently facing another season of wildfires. Iowa is still recovering from a massive wind storm, and last year almost 14 million people throughout the Midwest and South were hit with heavy flooding.

No matter what you think of why these disasters are cropping up more frequently (but yes, it’s likely climate change), the US will need all the help it can get moving forward. And hopefully, Microsoft and the DOE can share what they learn with the rest of the world eventually.

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