How Artificial Intelligence Negatively Affects The Environment

Published by Dylan on

How Does Artificial Intelligence Affect The Environment? It’s Not All Rosy.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become an increasingly popular technology in recent times, revolutionising the way we live and work. You will be hard-pressed to watch the news or open a social media channel without ChatGPT sliding into the conversation somewhere. It all feels a bit Black-Mirror-esque, constantly living through ‘unprecedented’ times as the future unfolds in front of our eyes. But, for organisations across the world, AI tools pose a massive opportunity to streamline more mundane, time-intensive tasks like producing screeds of content that can be automated and then edited and approved by a human before seeing daylight. However, as with any technology, AI has the potential to harm the environment and hinder the world from meeting its Net Zero targets if not approached considerately.

Firstly, AI requires significant amounts of energy to function, particularly during the training phase and through the use of deep learning. The power required to run and cool servers and data centers can be worryingly substantial and create a significant carbon footprint. This is due to the cooling systems and water involved in offsetting the heat generated.

In fact, according to a study by a research team at the University of Massachusetts, the carbon footprint of training an AI model through ‘natural language processing’ can be equivalent to the lifetime emissions of almost five average American cars, including those from the manufacturing process. This is an eyewatering 62,000 lbs of carbon dioxide. Part of this problem is that a lot of AI systems rely on inefficient algorithms that are not specifically optimised for sustainability. These algorithms can be way more energy and resource intensive than necessary, leading to higher carbon emissions and less efficient use of inputs.

Increased electronic waste is another issue staring us in the face. The rapid pace of technological innovation means that AI hardware and devices quickly become obsolete. This leads to the disposal of vast quantities of electronic waste (e-waste). E-waste contains toxic chemicals and heavy metals that can harm the environment, and its disposal is often done irresponsibly, leading to soil and water contamination. Ever wondered what bench-pressing 4,500 Eiffel Towers feels like? Humans already create over 50 million tonnes of e-waste, the equivalent of this, each year. Outdated AI-related hardware only throws more into the mix of the world’s quickest-growing waste stream. Only about a fifth ends up recycled as well. Proper e-waste management is therefore a core theme in dealing with AI.

Several things can be true at once, good and bad. AI, and the speed at which it is improving, can make us all a little nervous. But, we can also be excited by the potential it will have for making our businesses, small and large, more time and resource-efficient. If we are to find the right balance between harnessing AI’s power, whilst mitigating its harmful impact on the environment around us, legislation and expert scrutiny desperately need to catch up and meet the moment.

Although it may all sound daunting, to finish on a more optimistic note, there are undoubtedly things that can be done to offset all the issues highlighted here. The mere existence of AI is a testament to sheer human ingenuity and brilliance, and if we can design it, we can also implement ways to make it more sustainable. Companies can focus on reducing the energy consumption of their AI systems through measures like optimising algorithms and using more energy-efficient hardware. Additionally, proper disposal of hardware can be carried out by working with reputable e-waste recyclers that are ethical and transparent in the job they do, like CCL (North) Ltd. with whom we previously worked.

If you took to the internet today to find out how Artificial Intelligence affects the environment, we hope this was an eye-opener and got you thinking about this nuanced issue. Although the picture is far from perfect, there is undoubtedly a path forward for making AI less detrimental to our planet – if we choose to take it.

If you’ve got this far, what are your thoughts? How are you using AI to benefit your business? Have you considered it yet? Let us know! 

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