Are we moving towards a greener future for AI?

As AI becomes more powerful, more autonomous, and broader in its use and impact, the unsolved issue of AI safety is paramount.
18 January 2021

Are we moving towards a greener future for AI? Source: Shutterstock

  • The world may have seen incredible advances in AI, but in terms of infrastructure and efficient use of energy, we’re still in the pioneer age
  • The upside is that AI can strengthen climate predictions, enable smarter decision-making for decarbonizing industries from building to transport, and work out how to allocate renewable energy

We are at a time where big data and analytics are helping businesses pinpoint trends and customer needs with astonishing accuracy. Artificial intelligence (AI), on the other hand, is no longer in the realm of science fiction; in fact, its proliferation has made the technology a household name and I am not referring to Alexa alone.

However, what most of us failed to realize that oftentimes is the many high-profile advances in AI that have staggering carbon footprints. Well, even Google forced out a prominent AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru after she voiced frustration with the company for making her withdraw a research paper

The paper stated the risks of AI and by some estimates, training an AI model generates as much carbon emissions as it takes to build and drive five cars over their lifetimes. Gebru’s draft paper also pointed out that the sheer resources required to build and sustain such large AI models mean they tend to benefit wealthy organizations, while climate change hits marginalized communities hardest.

In a 2019 study, a research team from the University of Massachusetts had analyzed several natural language processing training models and the energy consumed by these models was converted into carbon emissions and electricity cost. It was then found that training an AI language-processing system generates an astounding 1,400 pounds (635 kg) of emission. 

The study further noticed that this number can even reach up to 78,000 pounds (over 35,000 kg) depending on the scale of the AI experiment and the source of power used. This is equivalent to 125 round trip flights between New York and Beijing.

What can be done?

The irony is that AI seems to play a dual role. As AI is itself a significant emitter of carbon, it can also help reduce the effects of the climate crisis through various forms. Lately, experts have been calling for the prioritization of “Green AI” efforts that focus on the energy efficiency of AI systems

Green AI refers to AI research that yields novel results without increasing computational cost, and ideally reducing it, whereas Red AI has resulted in rapidly escalating computational and thus carbon costs. In another 2019 paper, co-founders of AI Now Institute, Roel Dobbe and Meredith Whittaker, gave seven recommendations that could help draft a ‘tech-aware climate policy and climate-aware tech policy’. 

They included forcing companies to provide full energy and carbon transparency; accounting for the full-stack supply chain, including all the steps from mining minerals for the chips to waste produced by consumer gadgets and understanding rebound effects, and ensuring no increase in fossil fuel consumption.

Other recommendations include calculating the energy and climate impacts of AI as a standard part of the policy practice; Integrating tech regulation and green deal policymaking; curbing the use of AI for fossil fuel extraction and Identifying how AI harms and excludes climate refugees.

Impact of green AI on businesses

Green AI can be a net positive contributor to environmental sustainability in many industries for an instance in agriculture, AI can transform production by better monitoring and managing environmental conditions and crop yields. The technology can also help reduce both fertilizer and water, all while improving crop yields.

In terms of energy, AI can use deep predictive capabilities and intelligent grid systems to manage the demand and supply of renewable energy. The cost and unnecessary carbon pollution generation can be slashed. Looking through a transportation industry lens, AI can help reduce traffic congestion, improve the transport of cargo (supply chain logistics), and enable more and more autonomous driving capability.