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September 2, 2020

DOE Announces ‘First Five Consortium’ to Fight Natural Disasters with AI


As wildland fires tear across California and hurricane season starts to warm up, natural disasters are top-of-mind for many Americans. Predicting and managing these disasters is an ongoing challenge, and researchers are leveraging technology from supercomputing to big data analytics to try to bridge these gaps. Now, the Department of Energy (DOE) has announced the First Five Consortium: a group of leaders in the AI space determined to use intelligent tools to combat natural disasters in the United States.

The consortium, co-chaired by the DOE and Microsoft, was formed in response to a January White House forum focused on disaster responses and is named after the “critical first five minutes in responding to a disaster.” The areas it hopes to tackle include wildfire prediction and fire line containment; damage assessment; search and rescue; and natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes.

In support of the consortium, Microsoft has established a “critical infrastructure team” that will use AI, confidential computing, advanced communications and more to improve disaster resilience.

“Artificial intelligence enables us to address some of humanity’s greatest challenges, and in this case, improve disaster resilience for populations around the world,” said Toni Townes-Whitley, president of U.S. regulated industries for Microsoft. “As evidenced by this consortium we have joined with the DOE and [the Department of Defense], it’s critical that private and public sectors work together to provide first responders with technology that has the potential to save lives.”

As an example project, the DOE highlighted ongoing work from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) in the Department of Defense (DoD). The researchers are scaling a prototype that uses deep learning algorithms to provide close-to-real-time data for first responders.

“We are delighted to work alongside our partners in government and private industry to advance the role of AI in battling natural disasters,” said Nand Mulchandani, acting director of the JAIC. “The JAIC’s journey with developing AI solutions for humanitarian relief operations began more than a year ago, and we’d like to thank the White House for identifying and encouraging the broader use of government-built technology to directly benefit the American people when disasters strike. We are excited to partner with the Department of Energy to transition and scale our humanitarian relief AI solutions through the new First Five initiative that they are leading.”

“AITO is proud to lead on getting near real-time information into the hands of our first responders,” said Cheryl Ingstad, Director of AITO. “This will allow them to save more lives and protect assets and our nation’s resources. This is just one project of the broader effort, which will include contributions from all our partners, to use technology to improve humanitarian assistance and disaster response in our nation.”

The First Five Consortium will allow first responders to submit problems and use cases to researchers through an online portal, accessible here.