What artificial intelligence means for sustainability | GreenBiz

By Elaine Hsieh

VERGE Program Director & Senior Analyst

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been a hot — and divisive — area of interest and investment in the tech world lately.

Case in point: Last week, Microsoft announced AI for Earth, aimed at “putting the power of AI towards solving some of the biggest environmental challenges of our time.” Separately, a few days later, Elon Musk warned U.S. governors of the need to regulate AI before it becomes a danger to humanity. While Musk was referring to technologies more like Skynet than the ones companies like GoogleIBM and Microsoft currently use, his comments are bringing attention to an under-examined topic.

That is, for all of AI’s promise of creating “a global intelligence system to detect future planet-wide challenges before they become unstoppable,” as editor-at-large and VERGE alum John Elkington writes, there are many real and immediate risks to consider.

For example, algorithms created by machine learning may make recommendations based on inherent biases (race, gender, age), including the sentencing of criminals. And there’s a risk that the touted sustainability benefits of AI — like major efficiency breakthroughs and clean, self-driving cars — may not materialize, or may be offset by other consequences of AI. There’s also the possibility that large-scale implementation of AI may eat all of our jobs, leading to widespread unemployment.

Still, ever since the legendary venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson spoke at VERGE 15 about how AI will democratize deep learning to help humans better adapt to the unpredictability of climate change (something we’re not so good at), I’ve been bullish on an AI future that works toward humanity’s benefit — despite the risks.

As Elkington put it, “Run well and in the future’s interests, AI could help deliver true sustainability. Run badly — well, take a look at the film ‘Minority Report’ and its exploration of the perils of predictive policing. The ethical, societal and political issues at stake are, as they say, far from trivial.”

Speaking of promising technologies worth critical consideration, don’t forget to cast your vote to help decide which of the 35 excellent semi-finalists will get to pitch on our main stage at VERGE Accelerate this September. You can submit one vote per day, per each of four categories: Distributed Energy Systems, Circular and Regenerative Economies, Food, Water and Transportation Systems and Infrastructure and the Built Environment. Be sure to check them all out before voting closes on August 

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