Environmental impact of artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are frequently portrayed as a portal to a future written in chrome and run on a virtual cloud. AI was defined as a dawn technology that would “help sustainable growth at scale and modernize the country” in FM Nirmala Sitharaman’s 2022 budget speech, which reflected this techno-optimism. While national dreams of economic prosperity and global competitiveness, underpinned by AI, have an environmental cost, there is also a cost associated with being locked into rules about said environmental impact set by powerful actors, as with any issue at the nexus of technology, development, growth, and security.

The “race” for AI supremacy is far from fair: a few wealthy economies not only have significant material advantages from the outset, but they also determine the rules. They have a research and development advantage, as well as a competent workforce and the financial means to invest in AI. Three-quarters of global private investment in AI, patents, and publications are concentrated in North America and East Asia.

The concept of sustainability is quickly gaining traction in discussions about AI ethics and sustainable development. The Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence was adopted by UNESCO in November 2021, urging actors to “minimize the environmental impact of AI systems, including but not limited to its carbon footprint.” Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet, and Facebook, among others, have established “net zero” policies and projects. These initiatives are encouraging, but they are simply the tip of the iceberg. Global AI governance and (historically) climate change policy are divisive due to unequal access to resources.

On two fronts, developing and undeveloped countries confront a challenge: first, AI’s social and economic benefits are concentrated in a few countries, and second, the developed West is driving much of the current efforts and narratives on the nexus between AI and climate effect.

So, where do we go from here? The connection between climate change and AI, like most nexus concerns, is still a whisper in the wind. It is partly understudied because the largest firms in this field are neither transparent nor truly committed to investigating, let alone acting, to reduce their operations’ climate impact.

Developing country governments, including India’s, should evaluate their technology-led economic ambitions regarding AI’s climate costs. It is believed that because emerging countries are not burdened with legacy infrastructure, they will be able to “build up better.” These countries are not bound by the same AI-driven growth model as their Western counterparts. It could be worthwhile to consider what “solutions” would genuinely work for the diverse social and economic situations in which our global village’s communities exist.

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