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22 Apr, 2024 - 10 min read

AI for Earth:
A Panel Discussion

Did you know that AI could help reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions by up to 4% by 2030? That's equivalent to the 2030 annual emissions of Australia, Canada, and Japan combined! This surprising statistic from a report by PwC UK brings to light a game-changing potential in our fight against climate change - Artificial Intelligence. 

The statistic above is a testament to AI's potential in creating a greener, more sustainable future. Imagine redirecting the trajectory of global warming and climate change by leveraging the computational power of AI. However, it's not just about achieving these numbers; it's also about the journey towards them. Understanding the intricate dance between AI and sustainability is the first step to harnessing this potential effectively.

In our recent EXplore session, we convened a panel of experts including Kriv Naicker, Josh Dry, Tracy McCartney, and Yun Sing Koh. They delved deep into the role of AI in sustainability, discussing its impacts, opportunities, and challenges.

Introducing our panelists

Kriv Naicker, Founder and Managing Director at Synaptec, is an expert in AI, IoT, and sustainability. His roles across NZ IoT Alliance, academyEX, and Synaptec highlight his profound interest in how AI, particularly sensor networks and emerging technologies, impacts our planet.

Professor Yun Sing Koh, an esteemed academic at the University of Auckland, is the director of the Center of Machine Learning for Good. Her work emphasizes the need for a transdisciplinary approach to addressing societal and environmental challenges through machine learning and data analytics.

Josh Dry, Director of Business Development at Cogo, is focused on integrating AI into the banking sector to streamline carbon footprint measurement and encourage sustainable behavior. Advocating for AI's role in driving change, he's passionate about motivating individuals to reduce their environmental impact.

Tracy McCartney, Group Planning Manager at Ryman Healthcare and a student at academyEX, explores the construction industry's environmental impact. Her insights focus on how AI can guide the industry towards using eco-friendly materials and ethical suppliers, reducing the carbon footprint.

Key Themes

Drawing from the rich exchange of ideas and presentations in the panel session, several key themes emerge:

Understanding the Role of AI in Sustainability

The discussion kicked off with each panelist expressing their viewpoints on AI's potential in sustainability. There was a consensus about AI being a transformative tool in the climate action sector, with Tracy supporting this sentiment by saying, "I think AI is definitely the technology of the century in terms of giving us, what I like to think of, superhuman abilities." For instance, Tracy cited an experience at her workplace where AI reduced the time taken to compile reports from two weeks to merely a few hours. Such efficiency gains are a microcosm of the potential waiting to be tapped when AI and human capital combine in an orchestrated effort towards sustainable development.

AI in Banking and Finance for Decarbonization

An intriguing revelation made during the discussion was the role of AI in banking and finance to aid decarbonization. Josh posited that banking, finance industries, and governments need to propel the use of AI to decarbonize the global economy. Banking and financial institutions have at their disposal significant AI budgets which, if appropriated rightly, can revolutionize the decarbonization process. Josh highlights the potential of AI in open banking, where AI can sift through vast volumes of data and provide valuable insights into the environmental impact of businesses, thereby aiding in their green transition. He suggested, "I think to ensure that AI has been used in these ways to decarbonize, what needs to happen now is banking and finance industries and governments really need to get behind the use of this."

AI Models, Positive Biases, and Training

Diving deeper into the technical facets of AI, Tracy emphasized the critical role of training in determining the outputs of AI models. She argued that the biases we instill in the AI – positive biases – could shape the outputs favourably. For instance, AI models trained on the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) might have the propensity to suggest solutions that align with these globally accepted norms, thereby enhancing their potential to stimulate sustainable development.

The Effectiveness of AI

The discussion took an analytical turn as Kriv brought up the effectiveness of AI and the need to gauge AI's impact via measurement, verification, and integrity checks. He suggested, "If we can't measure, we can't really act. And we can't drive action”. Without the ability to measure and verify AI's outcomes, we cannot hope to leverage it optimally. As an illustration, he suggested the adoption of decentralized distributed mechanisms that ensure the integrity of AI systems. Such mechanisms could free us from the exclusive reliance on large, centralized organizations and offer a more democratic approach to AI governance.

AI's Impact and Transparency

A critical concern that emerged revolved around the transparency of AI systems and the implications for consumers and policymakers. Kriv underscored the need to understand the types of data being used to train AI systems and to ensure transparency in these processes. He cited the pervasiveness of AI in social media platforms like Facebook and argued for the pressing need to make the operation of such AI systems more transparent. This concern forms the basis of ongoing debates around AI ethics and the need for regulatory measures to safeguard users' rights and privacy.

Looking to the Future

Despite the challenges, the panelists were optimistic about harnessing AI for our planet. They emphasized the importance of continual learning, proactive measures, and regulation.

While AI holds immense potential for solving sustainability issues, it’s essential to consider its own environmental impact. Striking the right balance between leveraging AI's capabilities and its limitations could bring us one step closer to a more sustainable future.

Harnessing AI for a Sustainable Future

The potential for using AI to combat the sustainability issues facing our planet is immense. But, it's equally important that we address the sustainability of AI itself. Striking the right balance between leveraging AI's capabilities and mitigating its limitations is a challenge we must all engage with if we are to move towards a more sustainable future.

So, what steps can you, as an individual or organization, take next?

  • Educate Yourself: Understand the technology and its implications thoroughly. At academyEX, we offer a range of micro-credentials that dive deeper into these topics

  • Apply Your Knowledge: Use what you learned to integrate AI into your sustainability strategies. Explore how AI-driven apps or services could help reduce your personal carbon footprint.

  • Advocate for Transparency and Regulation: As consumers and stakeholders, we should advocate for transparency in the use of AI by businesses and the need for appropriate regulation.

Remember, sustainability isn't just about the choices we make. It's about the actions we take. So let’s continue to learn, innovate, and lead the way in leveraging AI for the good of our planet.

Co-Written by: 
Maheshi Wadasinghe & ChatGPT-4
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