AI and the Environment: A Complex Relationship

by Sierra Winters

Artificial intelligence (AI) systems have sparked much debate in 2023 with their revolutionary and futuristic capabilities. Many fear the loss of jobs and creativity as AI becomes increasingly skilled at writing cohesive works of fiction and non-fiction alike. On the flip side, we can also appreciate its potential role in identifying medical abnormalities and threats in a clinical setting. Among its many pros and cons, have you ever thought about AI’s ability to predict and respond to environmental catastrophes?

We live in an age where we are inundated with data. We have access to information from the far reaches of outer space and records of what can be found on the deepest floors of the ocean. With so much data, how could we possibly process it all? AI allows us to interpret data with less bias and comprehend multiple possible outcomes of an environmental event. UNEP’s website describes several initiatives, including its International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO) and the GEMS Air Pollution Monitoring platform.

AI can be used within one’s own home to support environmental conservation. Do you or a family member struggle to remember to turn out a light when leaving the room? AI can do that for you. Do you constantly find yourself adjusting the thermostat, trying to balance your comfort with the climate and your core values? AI can help you there, too.

AI can also help sort through audio data to prevent illegal deforestation. It can even be used to make specific recommendations regarding the fertilizer and irrigation required by crops in their respective microclimates (source). With such extraordinary capabilities, however, comes a cost: the supercomputers that power AI require vast amounts of electricity and can therefore emit vast amounts of CO2.

One potential solution to this largely hidden, yet highly concerning side effect of AI is to source energy from geothermally active locations like Iceland, where “clean” energy abounds. However, such areas are sadly few in number. Replacing lithium batteries with physical batteries, or even designing more eco-friendly ones, may also help mitigate the situation.

No matter which side of the AI debate you find yourself on, we can all agree that this relatively new technology holds a wide range of potentials, both good and bad, depending on how it is applied. By approaching the subject of AI and the environment through a critical lens, we can use it responsibly and affect remarkably positive change for the planet.

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