Watch Earth’s Black Box footage showing how its system could be used in the future

For anyone daunted by the prospect of participating in an artificial intelligence project, the recently published BBC TV series Earth’s Black Box might be a positive guide to the limits of AI.

Earth’s Black Box is the name given to this ingeniously designed computer, which creates a series of “buckets” every two days. A bucket in the information centre, which is connected to the internet, collects daily updates on the weather from weather stations around the world. Each bucket will also gather detailed information on environmental conditions, not just temperature, humidity and wind speeds, but each time a technology fails, the computer will keep a record of what technology failed and what caused it.

The buckets, individually called “Earth”, are programmed to record recorded data automatically. It has a YouTube account that generates a new bucket on each bucket’s world map daily, and then compares this data with the historical data to produce an analysis, based on the computer’s algorithms. The BBC asked this year’s winner of the Royal Television Society’s SciFest to produce a visualised version of its innovative data-driven technological tool.

Each bucket contains an antenna to capture satellite imagery of the Earth’s surface. Each bucket can then collect data, which is later stored in a central repository for future study. The bucket itself can be modified or upgraded, to capture more data. When a data point fails, data is re-encoded and added to the next bucket. A thermostat installed to regulate the temperature inside the bucket can be programmed to detect when data are low and start heating the bucket. If this fails, then additional data can be uploaded to the next bucket. The bucket can also record changes in the layer of air conditioning in the bucket to increase the temperature of the room.

Planet’s have been able to illustrate this software in an exhibition at the Science Museum in London

Equally important is the nature of the data collection system. While Earth can react very quickly to real-time weather conditions, it can also recognise different data sources. So, instead of a single bucket recording the location and data of all weather stations around the world, Earth will record data from multiple data stations as an extra layer of data. Earth can also monitor activity levels at different places in the world through its antenna and its presence on the data map. The more data it records, the more work it is doing.

Earth’s creators have pointed out the enormous value of this monitoring system. It is unlikely that any weather station anywhere in the world, in any town or city, can collect enough data to properly monitor these subtleties. Earth’s system can, and it knows it. As noted by Raymond Briggs, the creator of The Snowman, Earth’s will run down in time. And when Earth does run out of data, and cannot continually collect data, then the network needs to shift data collection responsibilities to other networks. Earth’s creators are planning to enable this by using their own open-source IoT network, called Array R.

In their story, Earth’s creators, Ben Cliss and Andy Lambarelli from Britain’s Press Association, note that their system would be particularly useful to agencies such as the National Health Service. They know, that by themselves, the agency would not have enough staff resources to process the many millions of weather change data points generated every day. In the case of the Weather Service, it is several million weather change points a day. It is the job of AI to gather as much data as possible so that it can learn about weather patterns on a small scale. Imagine all the weather stations collecting information on each other’s data systems.

Given the large stakes, this monitoring system, that creates vast amounts of data, might also be able to support an element of future surveillance. With this service, Earth’s creators are already thinking about how to channel citizen-level data into an investigation of criminal activity. This could be anything from car theft to fraud to mapping hurricanes, as they all need recording in order to avoid collapse. With one species providing much of the data, such processes have a long history. As one observer told The Guardian, “There are probably squirrels, bears and birds that can build up a large knowledge base about these weather systems. So it’s not as if the squirrel has always been telling the sky what’s happening to the earth.”

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