As the world fights climate change, will the increasingly widespread use of artificial intelligence (AI) be a help or a hindrance? In a paper published this week in Nature Climate Change, a team of experts in AI, climate change, and public policy present a framework for understanding the complex and multifaceted relationship of AI with greenhouse gas emissions, and suggest 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,” said David Rolnick, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at McGill University and a Core Academic Member of Mila — Quebec AI Institute, who co-authored the paper. “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.”
The paper divides the impacts of AI on greenhouse gas emissions into three categories: 1) Impacts from the computational energy and hardware used to develop, train, and run AI algorithms, 2) 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), and 3) system-level impacts caused by the ways in which AI applications affect behaviour patterns and society more broadly, such as via advertising systems and self-driving cars.