AI & Sustainability

Today on Green About Media we discuss some of the possibilities that the current burgeoning AI technology could bring to the table.
Things like  AI-guided autonomous vehicles (AVs), distributed energy grids, smart agriculture and food systems and next generation weather and climate prediction are just some of the ways AI is going to impact sustainability in the near future.

Also new field of “Climate Informatics” is blossoming that uses AI to fundamentally transform weather forecasting and improve our understanding of the effects of climate change. AI techniques may also help correct biases in models, extract the most relevant data to avoid data degradation, predict extreme events and be used for impacts modelling.

This podcast is brought to you by The Digital Distillery

Written by Ara Almada
Produced & Engineered by Phil McDowell
Executive Producer Nadia Koski
Project Managers Dennis Kirschner & Stefanie Leonardi

You can contact The Digital Distillery on podcast@the-digital-distillery.com or visit our website & check out our other podcasts

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Phil mcdowell

Hello and welcome back to Green About Media. The show where we take a look at the digital footprint of advertising on the internet. So far in this series we have looked into companies colour washing, intelligent carbon measurement, Social responsibility corporates, and emerging green business models.

And for todays episode we actually have an unprecedented unplanned topic for you. Because one particular topic has caused a global stir recently, and it is having a marked impact in this space as well.

And that topic is of course Artificial Intelligence. And it might be here to help.

Ara almada

Powerful new technologies, including AI, can play a critical role in underpinning the solutions needed to tackle our most pressing societal challenges – from digital monitoring and enforcement for conservation, to decarbonizing energy and transport.

phil mcdowell

As we’ve seen over the past 20 years, as digital advances bring us daily benefits, they also raise a host of complex questions and broad concerns about how technology will affect society.  Especially when it comes to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and as this technology advances so do our questions as to how it will affect the planet around us.

Now there has been enough coverage of late surrounding AI in its different forms, from the current, narrowly intelligent shakespearean text predicting AI, all the way to the potential future super intelligent AI. So we are not going to go into the nuts and bolts of that right now but, we do want to talk about how current technology is powering change in the digital sustainability space.

Ara almada

AI technologies offer three main benefits in digital sustainability. Firstly, AI permits the automation of important, but repetitive and time-consuming tasks, allowing humans to focus on higher-value work. Secondly, AI reveals insights that are otherwise trapped in massive amounts of unstructured data that once required human management and analysis, such as data generated by videos, photos, written reports, business documents, social media posts, or email messages. And thirdly, AI can integrate thousands of computers and other resources to solve the most complex problems. Consequently, AI capabilities should be leveraged to find ways to mitigate the climate crisis. To achieve this, rigorous investigation is essential to identify how AI solutions can be combined with human emotions, cognitions, social norms, and behavioural responses.

phil mcdowell

When it comes to AI, sustainable goals are often not directly considered the main objective when developing and creating new AI models and computer interaction interfaces, many applications of these technologies, such as in healthcare, smart cities, education and welfare, will have a powerful and direct impact on people’s lives and could play a crucial role as catalysts in developing a sustainable society.

On the flipside however, digital technologies such as AI considerably increase energy and resource consumption which does of course create risks of adverse environmental effects. 

This ambiguous picture illustrates that political and regulatory action is necessary to channel the potential of AI towards sustainability goals and that there are still significant challenges to overcome.

Ara almada

Overall, if the environmental impact of AI can be reduced, and more organisations start to use AI in their sustainability initiatives, then the use of AI as a whole may be able to attain a level close to carbon neutrality. 

To pave the way to a truly green digital revolution, we need to start making conscious choices to promote research of more computationally efficient algorithms as well as hardware that require less energy.

phil mcdowell

So let’s look at some of the ways in which AI can be utilised to be a positive force for digital sustainability.

AI-guided autonomous vehicles (AVs) will enable a transition to mobility on-demand over the coming years and decades.

Substantial greenhouse gas reductions for urban transport can be unlocked through route and traffic optimisation. A huge amount of carbon is release through human driving inefficiency and so by using eco-driving algorithms, programmed “platooning” of cars to traffic, and autonomous ride-sharing services, electric AV fleets will be critical to deliver real gains.

Distributed energy grids. AI can enhance the predictability of demand and supply for renewables across a distributed grid. It can improve energy storage, efficiency and load management as well as assist in the integration and reliability of renewables and enable dynamic pricing and trading, creating market incentives. Market incentives which will in turn, encourage organisations to use less carbon in the first place.

Smart agriculture and food systems. AI-augmented agriculture uses automated data collection, decision-making and corrective actions. This promises to increase the resource efficiency of the agriculture industry, lowering the use of water, fertilisers and pesticides which cause damage to important ecosystems, and increase resilience to climate extremes.

 And next generation weather and climate prediction. A new field of “Climate Informatics” is blossoming that uses AI to fundamentally transform weather forecasting and improve our understanding of the effects of climate change. AI techniques may also help correct biases in models, extract the most relevant data to avoid data degradation, predict extreme events and be used for impacts modelling.

And some aspects that will see positive impacts haven't even been considered yet. 

An example within the digital marketing space is that of Attention Metrics. If you aren’t sure what they are or would like to learn about the measurement of attention, you can check out our recent Attention metrics special episode over on the digital distillery podcast.

Just recently in the UK, “Playground XYZ released findings from a recent study which found that carbon emissions from digital ads fall by 63% on average when measured and optimised for attention. 

 

Ara almada

These are all great examples, however I feel that the true value of AI will not be in how it enables society to reduce its energy, water, and land use intensities, but rather, at a higher level, how it facilitates and fosters environmental governance. 

phil mcdowell

Although we as humans create the originating architecture of AI applications, as the machine consumes and learns from vast amounts of data, the resulting decisions (informed by objective data and free of cognition biases and emotions) will be different from those taken by expert humans.

Let’s take marketing as an example. Marketing is supposed to help consumers by satisfying their wants and needs right? but an endless quest for satisfying wants and needs can further fuel consumption, which in turn, depletes resources, adversely impacts the environment, and drives climate change. As we’ve learned from our past episodes this is definitely not a sustainable future. 

Ara almada

As a former marketer myself I believe we should harness AI applications to empower individuals to “consume better but less”. I truly believe that education is key in relation to environmentally damaging and unsustainable consumption behaviour. Therefore marketing and the media should fulfil its information function, and respective AI powered devices and apps could permanently update and provide our current eco-footprint, meaning our carbon footprint, water consumption (bath, shower, etc) based on our purchasing habits > history and decisions. We could then maybe compare ourselves to other similar group of people and maybe induce a certain degree of social pressure? 

phil mcdowell

Consumers, particularly in affluent countries, have to be made aware that each and every of their purchase decisions, both online and off, are related to environmental externalities in their home countries and—even more importantly—in the countries of production. 

Since there is no global equity in environmental pollution and resource depletion. As always, it will come down to a matter of balance. It would be a mistake to assume that the tech advances in AI are going to be enough on their own to achieve sustainable consumption.

In a green-energy future, renewable energy will come from a diversity of sources, such as microgrids, wind farms and solar panels.With such a decentralised global energy network, AI will play a crucial role in managing the complexity of deploying power to industrial facilities, office buildings, homes and wherever needed. Given the world’s destabilised climate and unpredictable weather conditions, shifting our current energy system to a smart one centred on AI will result in a more resilient and flexible grid when unforeseen meteorological events occur. Grid flexibility and resilience would also be required as the demand for electricity grows in booming digital economies in an increasingly connected world.

And so there you have it. Just some of the potential positive impacts that AI can have on the future of digital sustainability. If you would like to learn more about digitals impact on the planet you can check out our other episodes of the show. 

And if you liked this episode you should go and check out some of the other shows on The Digital Distillery Network. We have a show dedicated to contextual advertising in Just For Context, A travel guide to digital media in The Digital Distillery Podcast, and our brand new show about the good the bad and the ugly of being a professional women in todays industry, Women Lead. 

You can find all these shows by following the link in the shownotes, heading to the website at the-digital-distillery.com or searching for them wherever you get your podcasts.

Thank you to Ara Almada for unending expertise on this subject, as well as Executive producer Nadia Koski, and project leads Dennis Kirschner and Stefanie Leonardi. I have been your host Phil McDowell, and i’ll catch you on the next episode of Green About Media, where are are going to look into the best and worst case scenarios of everything we’ve talked about so far.

I look forward to seeing you all back, and until then, keep making those little decisions in your personal and professional life, that do add up to make a difference.

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