< Projects


Media and Environment: Al and Autonomous Systems in Data-Based Environmental Research

About the project

Media and Environment: Al and Autonomous Systems in Data-based Environmental Research proposes to install a novel and original field of research that brings together Al and Autonomous Systems studies, media studies and environmental studies in the humanities and social sciences. This emerging research field concerns the rapid and recent development of Al for environmental purposes. The position will investigate how humans change and understand the natural world by new environmental sensing technologies, data management practices, and data-based environmental modeling. The position will pursue three research goals:

• First, it will explore the new understandings of local and global environments that may result from environmental data gathering and processing techniques, especially with regard to new Al and autonomous systems based environmental research.
• Second, the position aims to explore the question of access, use and ownership — of the data, and of the environment itself as a body of data that can be stored, shared or sold.
• Third, the position will investigate how environmental research based on Al and autonomous systems might change the understanding of environmental vulnerability and sustainability. As both data and environments are modeled, augmented and updated, how do these tools and interventions change what counts as sustainable?

In the humanities and social sciences, this approach to Al and autonomous systems is novel. The humanities and social sciences have hitherto focused on the social aspects of Al research, on questions of personal integrity, security and labor. Little attention has been paid to how to navigate these concerns with regards to the environment, and we have to date not been able to find any published study on how Al might impact aspects of sustainable development. This proposed research area of Al and autonomous systems in data-based environmental research will necessarily connect to environmental science and technology and Al research to understand how technology can, will, and should affect the global environment, and how present and future Al and ICT technologies differ from past environmental interventions. The question is not so much if Al will solve the climate crisis, but rather, how Al should be implemented in tackling the climate crisis in all its complexity of interconnected human-environment relations. Which ethical, social, legal and economic concerns will have to be navigated when we possess the technical means of changing the climate, safeguarding biodiversity, supplying global food security and safeguarding the oceans? What are the trade-offs and how should we best approach them?

The research departs from an emerging understanding which builds on previous research in our Division and our international networks, that what we call ‘the environment’ is to a very large degree a product of a sequence of technological and scientific approaches to various environments – terrestrial, maritime, atmospheric — from the local to the planetary scales. These have not only been produced techno-scientifically, they have also been mediatized and circulated to create what in essence has become a ‘mediated planet’, based on information and data. ICT and Al play an increasingly crucial role in planetary mediation and require a much more intense scholarly attention, both in order to enhance this development further and to provide policy guidelines for environmental data governance.

We currently see a plethora of initiatives on Al for environment both nationally in Sweden, within the EU and in the global context. Sweden demonstrates a high level of ambition of becoming a world leader in harnessing the opportunities offered by the digital transformation, in which Al is a key area. In an international context, the U.S. and China are arguably leading the technological innovation in Al, but the weak regulation in both of these countries raises questions of personal integrity and surveillance. Aims for more regulation in the area of Al and autonomous systems have been met with protests from Silicon Valley companies like Alphabet (Google), Facebook and Microsoft. The challenge for Sweden and the EU will be to produce knowledge that is both broad and specific enough to secure democratic use without delaying responsible innovation or obstructing new applications in the area of local and global environmental sensing, monitoring, mapping and modelling. To achieve this goal, transdisciplinary research bridging technology and science with the humanities and social science will be essential. The position in Media and Environment at KTH will be strategically positioned to pursue this task.

The desired result will be new knowledge of how to secure democratic influence over environmental data-generation, and of how questions and problems related to the access, use, ownership and commercialization of environmental data can best be navigated. This knowledge can help enhance the democratic potential of public agencies and private companies as Al is implemented in the environmental arena over the coming decade.

Project type

Assistant Professor Project


Universities and institutes

KTH Royal Institute of Technology

Project members

Lina Rahm

Lina Rahm

Assistant Professor

KTH Royal Institute of Technology

Erik Ljungberg

Erik Ljungberg

PhD student

KTH Royal Institute of Technology