Tencent takes steps to ensure sustainability through AI

By He Wei | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: Apr 25, 2021 L M S


The Tencent Holdings Ltd booth during an expo in Shanghai. [Photo by Fan Jianlei/For China Daily]

Tencent Holdings Ltd has pledged to establish a new corporate department and invest in 50 billion yuan to promote "sustainable social value innovation".

In a letter to employees on April 20, Chairman and CEO Pony Ma specified the strategy's related fields to include basic sciences, educational innovation, rural vitalization promotion, carbon neutrality and FEW (food, energy and water).

Tencent has invested in cutting-edge overseas companies whose technologies can be adopted to address pressing environmental challenges, from water shortage to extreme climate, according to executives.

Technologies like artificial intelligence have huge potential to drive efficiency and save energy, but startup companies having those advanced resources may struggle to get projects, causing a 'mismatch' in the market, said David Wallerstein, senior vice-president of Tencent and also the company's chief exploration officer.

"I am expecting that the efficiencies (brought by technologies) should be at least 20 percent to a process, meaning 20 percent energy or water can be saved from many of these industrial processes when we apply artificial intelligence," he said.

Wallerstein recognized the importance of global cooperation in tackling challenges. For instance, technologies that can help abate wildfires in the United States could come from somewhere else, like China.

"We're actively looking for these kinds of companies," he said. "When we work as an investor at least overseas, we get behind the leadership of the company, and we support them with capital and ideas."

Wallerstein made the remarks as Tencent released in late April a documentary on global water scarcity called "Day Zero". It stands for the day when water resources are exhausted.

The documentary, which took three years to produce, looks into the water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa in 2018, the huge negative impact of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil on global water supplies and the alarming rate of water depletion caused by extensive farming in the midwestern United States.

As project sponsor and executive producer, Wallerstein said he hoped to raise people's awareness on the matter's urgency, complexity and severity.

"I felt this movie is important to show there is a very big problem and it's caused by human population growth and everyday human activity," he said.

For instance, eating meat can burden agriculture. At the same time, AI can step in to raise agriculture productivity. In the case of Tencent, AI is already being applied already for indoor farming that has "proven to be much more efficient than humans", he said.

For instance, iGrow, the AI agriculture solution developed by Tencent AI Lab, is built on self-developed AI algorithms which optimize crop growth, and is combined with smart sensors to monitor and control greenhouse environments. In the first phase of the pilot in Liaoning province, iGrow was able to improve net profit per mu by thousands of yuan per growing season.

Other environmentally friendly endeavors of Tencent include incorporating the so-called 'sponge city' techniques at its iconic headquarters in Shenzhen. It loosely refers to a practice of recharging water in the city with the building through intelligent cooling technologies and applied to the building's energy usage.

Wallerstein said he hopes the movie can bring people to the ongoing discussion on water resources, human behavior and climate change.

"We must work with the industry to really understand how these (technology) solutions are driving efficiency, outperforming existing practices and truly saving resources," he said.