Tool or Toll: What Role Will AI Play in Environmental Efforts?

– June 22, 2023 –

While artificial intelligence is a hot topic lately, it’s not new. Since the mid-1960s, it has been studied, developed and utilized. Somehow the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey predicted how we’d use video conferencing to communicate and digital tech to manage complex processes and assist humans. But let’s hope our future doesn’t have a HAL 9000 to push our buttons.

Since then, AI tech has become more advanced and changed how we work, live and solve problems. But what was once developed as a tool to alleviate pain points across our industries is facing all kinds of criticism and concerns for creating new issues, especially with our environmental efforts.

Instead of drifting toward the next exciting, new services and products, let’s take a quick pause to evaluate the good, the bad and the ugly truths of AI’s influence on the environment and how we should deploy AI more wisely.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, AI Truths

AI Truths: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Unfortunately, we are producing more and more waste every year. Overall, the U.S. produces 292 million tons of trash annually, with a daily average of four to five pounds per person. (Just imagine how much a business produces.) If only some kind of machine or system could do all the heavy lifting to get those numbers down.

Hold, please.

The Good: Thanks to AI, processing massive amounts of data and obtaining valuable information to improve any production system is possible. Through this process, users can identify patterns and trends to establish future predictions with a high degree of accuracy. Who wouldn’t want a more efficiently run business that stays ahead of the curve?

For example, in the case of waste and recycling, AI makes it possible to sort recyclable materials without running into as many risks. With growing fears of contamination and fluctuating ESG scores, AI presents itself as a useful tool to capture the data you need to be more sustainable and correctly separate materials like paper from aluminum or plastic. Such improvements create end markets and improve circularity for historically challenging materials.

The Bad: All that good said, for every figurative HAL that opens the pod bay doors to possibilities is another saying they cannot. Unfortunately, AI can also be used to keep environmentally harmful practices in power. The truth is AI is designed to effectively achieve its objective, whether that objective is harmful or helpful.

For instance, a company in the energy market could use AI to discover certain patterns and trends in oil and gas to maintain a low cost for fossil fuels. As a result, it could make it increasingly difficult for clean-energy companies to thrive. If AI is used in sustainability to solely generate economic benefits, it’s not getting its best use for the environment or society as a whole.

The Ugly: Too often, the true sustainability of processes are not analyzed. This is especially true of AI, as it’s mostly powered by fossil fuels (electrical grids run by coal and gas) and not low-carbon sources.

According to MIT Technology Review, training a single AI model can “emit as much carbon as five cars in their lifetimes.” Thinking about how a single data center might consume the amount of electricity equivalent to powering 50,000 homes is astonishing.


How to Make More Sustainable Decisions, AI FutureAI Future: How to Make More Sustainable Decisions

What can companies (like yours) do to mitigate the environmental and social impacts of AI while still driving forward with innovation? Here are a few suggestions:

Consider How Environmental Impact is Measured

Data and reporting are valuable aspects of moving forward. We need to improve carbon accounting by delivering quicker and more accurate data on carbon footprints and sustainability impacts. With a total waste analysis, companies can visualize and understand their missteps to spot opportunities for improvement.

Additionally, reporting can help society at large make more informed decisions while simultaneously allowing companies to measure their data against others’ findings.

Consider the Carbon Footprint of AI and How Data is Stored

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and have a complete comprehension of your practices, the tools you use and how big their carbon footprints are. Examine how and where data is stored. Some centers may be operating on more carbon-friendly platforms. The sustainability trail is endless. Curiosity and a passion for knowing and doing better can help move the environmental needle.

Consider a Third-Party Service Provider

There’s a scene in the film Moneyball starring Brad Pitt when a radio commenter character reviews this revolutionary approach to the game of baseball involving a team employing computer-generated analysis to acquire new players. The radio commenter says you cannot solely approach from a view that uses computer tech. Games are won on the field with fundamental play — strategy. The film’s wisdom is that there needs to be a happy medium that embraces such technology while still allowing human decisions to influence the system.

The same should be said of AI utilization. Someone needs to interpret the data gathered to make informed decisions about what is most efficient and sustainable so as to not further hinder the environment but support and improve. Data-intensive techniques can be dangerous if not handled with care and used in a way that, while using more energy, can save more energy by providing more efficient solutions to an enterprise’s operation. A third-party waste and recycling provider can interpret data and help businesses like yours be tech-forward and sustainably-minded.



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