A team of experts in artificial intelligence, climate change, and public policy has unveiled a framework for understanding the complicated multifaceted relationship of AI with greenhouse gas emissions. They also have suggested ways to better align AI with climate change goals.
“AI affects the climate in many ways, both positive and negative, and most of these effects are poorly quantified. For example, AI is being used to track and reduce deforestation, but AI-based advertising systems are likely making climate change worse by increasing the amount that people buy,”
said co-author David Rolnick, assistant professor of computer science at McGill University and a core academic member of Mila – Quebec AI Institute.
Three Types Of Impact
The paper sorts the impacts of AI on greenhouse gas emissions into three categories:
- Impacts from the computational energy and hardware used to develop, train, and run AI algorithms
- Immediate impacts caused by the applications of AI — such as optimizing energy use in buildings (which decreases emissions) or accelerating fossil fuel exploration (which increases emissions)
- System-level impacts caused by the ways in which AI applications affect behavior patterns and society more broadly, such as via advertising systems and self-driving cars.
“Climate change should be a key consideration when developing and assessing AI technologies. We find that those impacts that are easiest to measure are not necessarily those with the largest impacts. So, evaluating the effect of AI on the climate holistically is important,”
said lead author Lynn Kaack, assistant professor of computer science and public policy at the Hertie School.
Role Of Societal Decisions
The authors stress the ability of researchers, engineers, and policymakers to shape the impacts of AI, writing that its
“ultimate effect on the climate is far from predestined, and societal decisions will play a large role in shaping its overall impacts.”
The paper points out, for example, that AI-enabled autonomous vehicle technologies can help lower emissions if they are designed to facilitate public transportation, but they can increase emissions if they are used in personal cars and result in people driving more.
The researchers also bring up the fact that machine learning expertise is often concentrated among a limited set of actors. That raises potential challenges.
The governance and implementation of machine learning could be tricky in a world of climate change, since it may create or widen the digital divide, or shift power from public to large private entities by virtue of who controls relevant data or intellectual capital.
“The choices that we make implicitly as technologists can matter a lot. Ultimately, AI for Good shouldn’t just be about adding beneficial applications on top of business as usual, it should be about shaping all the applications of AI to achieve the impact we want to see,”
Reference: Kaack, L.H., Donti, P.L., Strubell, E. et al. Aligning artificial intelligence with climate change mitigation. Nat. Clim. Chang. 12, 518–527 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-022-01377-7
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