Will this technological revolution serve sustainability?

Silicon Valley leaders tell us that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will bring untold benefits. They say it’s already underway and accelerating, powered by artificial intelligence and other technology, and warn that we’re going to eat dust if we don’t get the program.

It is a generalist revolution. Its leaders and their promoters promise that it will help societies fight climate change, tackle poverty and inequality, and stem the dramatic loss of biodiversity. The revolution could unfold like this. Or maybe not.

Consider the most recent digital revolution, which brought us Google, Facebook and Twitter, and changed the way information travels around the world. At first, the ability to connect with others online, and to create and share digital content seamlessly through ever-evolving virtual social networks, seemed directly beneficial.

But today, the global flow of disinformation enabled by these platforms makes it more difficult to manage the Covid-19 pandemic and the fight against climate change. Few people realized what was going on until it was too late and now we are facing the fallout.

So how can companies minimize the risk of inadvertent, ignorant, or willfully malicious use of the next generation of technology?

My work has increasingly focused on the collision of two worlds. The technosphere understands what humans have created, which is roughly 30 trillion tonnes, or 50 kilograms per square meter of the Earth’s surface. The biosphere is the thin layer clinging to the surface of the Earth where life thrives and where humans have enjoyed a period of 10,000 years of relatively stable climate. I first became interested in the relationship between these worlds while exploring the growth of semi-automated global early warning systems for disease control. It made me appreciate how technology is changing human, organizational and machine behavior.

Sometimes this influence is linear, but more often the effects of technological change are indirect; they move through complex causal networks and only become visible to us after a long time. Social networks are a good example.

The technosphere is everywhere around us. It is fast becoming what is called a “cognitive infrastructure”, with the ability to process information, reason, remember, learn, solve problems and even make decisions with intervention. human resources through increased automation and machine learning.

In terms of evolution, this may turn out to be a giant leap forward, but decisions about the design and direction of the technosphere must reflect social goals and the state of the planet. Building a more sustainable future therefore requires us to rethink certain deeply rooted assumptions about the role of technology, and artificial intelligence in particular.

The greatest imperative may be to expand the mainstream ‘AI for climate change’ discourse. Responsible development and deployment of AI to meet pressing sustainability challenges requires embracing this connection to the living planet and our role in it.

Additionally, framing AI’s contribution in terms of optimization and efficiency is a bad way to think about building the long-term resilience of people and the planet. Resilience – the ability to bounce back from shocks and adapt to changing conditions – requires diversity and redundancy.

Systems optimized to maximize production (say, of a particular crop) are subject to shocks and changing circumstances.

Optimizing farmland for maximum yields using predictive analytics and automation is tempting, but it could accelerate the loss of local ecological knowledge, amplify existing inequalities, and increase reliance on monoculture by response to commercial pressures.

The potential of AI lies in increasing people’s abilities to become stewards of the biosphere, but running intelligent machines to support biosphere stewardship is risky.

The first is the hype. As the pressures on our planet and the climate system increase, so will the hope that AI solutions can help “solve” deeply complex social, economic and environmental challenges.

The second risk is acceleration. According to one estimate, the market for digital services in the fossil fuel sector could grow by 500% over the next five years, saving oil producers around $ 150 billion (4.7 trillion baht) per year. year.

Digitization, automation and AI have untapped potential for both enhancing sustainability and optimizing operations.

To put the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the service of sustainability, we must start to better and harder orient its technologies now.© 2021 Project union


About Clara Barnard

Clara Barnard

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