Artificial intelligence is one of the hottest topics in technology today. It seems like every major platform is rolling out a new AI, from Google to Snapchat to Quizlet. There are many debates over the uses and dangers of AI, but the environmental discussion is one of the most interesting. How can this futuristic technology help design and implement sustainable solutions, and how might it hurt sustainable initiatives?
What is AI?
There are many misconceptions about what AI is, with many companies jumping on the bandwagon and labeling their services “Artificial Intelligence” when they are only artificial, not “intelligent” like real AI is. Real AI uses computers and large datasets to perceive, synthesize, and infer. It is not simply carrying out instructions as other computer programs do, but rather analyzing datasets it is trained on to discover patterns and use them to make predictions. This can include machine learning but does not have to.
How AI Helps the Environment
Better Energy Use
Artificial intelligence is great at maximizing the efficiency of systems. While a standard computer program carries out tasks in a very straightforward and static way, AI can act more dynamically, learning what works and what does not through training and experiences. An example of an application of this is how it can lessen unnecessary energy use in telecommunications systems, minimizing the excess running of fans, air conditioners, etc., in networks. This works much more efficiently than strategies that shut off unnecessary energy users on a regular schedule.
Better Predictions of Climate Outcomes
This technology can allow for better predictions of outcomes based on greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental factors, allowing for more certainty, depth, and length of forecasts. The increased confidence enables governments to take more informed actions and minimize the idea that “no action should be taken because there is too much uncertainty,” a common tactic of oil companies. Increased certainty will also help kick companies, individuals, and governments into action by showing the definite impacts of their emissions rather than the vague predictions there are today. It also allows for more specific and effective environmental laws and regulations since AI can better demonstrate the direct impacts of unsustainable practices. This certainty is especially impactful for predictions around tipping points, which are elements in the climate system that reach a threshold of emissions, then have huge and mostly irreversible adverse impacts on the environment. More accurate predictions of when these tipping points will be crossed give legislators more precise targets of reductions and more basis to prove to the public that they are necessary.
Generating New Ideas
Since AI can create new strategies, it will be able to point out new ways to save energy, reduce emissions, and improve efficiency that no person has ever thought of before. This is particularly important when you consider that AI can work with more information and do it much faster than a human brain. While this will not always be the case, AI can be trained in an unbiased and scientific way. If done correctly, the new ideas it generates for reductions can be completely efficiency-based, untethered by political affiliations, greed, etc. However, humans get to supervise the AI’s training, and their biases will often seep into the new ideas generated by AI, whether purposefully or not.
How AI Hurts The Environment
The most significant way AI hurts sustainability is through its energy consumption. Because the datasets are so large, training an AI takes much more energy than standard computing. Running AI also takes much more energy, as it does much more complex computations.
The AI industry will only become more energy-consuming as time goes on. As tech giants compete to make the best AI, they will train them on larger and larger datasets, requiring more energy. As the technology becomes more accessible, smaller companies will begin to build and train their own AIs, and it will be used in almost every business. As people find more ways to implement it, AI will be used more often for a wider variety of tasks, increasing energy consumption.
In places where energy is not produced in a 100% renewable way, this energy consumption directly correlates to increased emissions through the use of fossil fuels to generate power. Even if all energy were 100% renewable, higher consumption would still require more construction of energy infrastructure and increase other negative impacts, such as blocking the movement of fish for hydroelectric dams and affecting bird migrations for wind turbines. In other words, increased energy consumption hurts the environment, no matter how you cut it. In a study done by MIT, researchers found that training just one AI model in America generates as many emissions as the entire lifetime of five gas-powered cars.
A Blessing or a Curse?
Artificial intelligence has a plethora of uses to help decrease our environmental impacts and plan a better future. Yet, it is also a direct emitter of lots of greenhouse gasses. Whether we like it or not, AI is here to stay. And so, its net impact on the planet is in the hands of those who decide how it is used. Will they use this new technology to generate profit and ignore its potential for good, or will they apply the potential of the next wave of technological advancements to tackling the biggest issue we face today?
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