“Is A.I. Good for the Planet?,” A Talk by Benedetta Brevini

On September 23, journalist, media activist and Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Sydney Benedetta Brevini was invited to JCU to discuss her new book, Is A.I. Good for the Planet? (Polity, 2021). The discussion was a part of the Digital Delights and Disturbances lecture series organized by the JCU Department of Communications.

“What are the environmental cost of the current data-driven communication systems?” asked Brevini. Why should we be concerned about the impact of technology on our climate? As a society, we have an exponentially increasing reliance on technology in large part due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, despite widespread quarantine measures in many countries, emission levels have not really decreased. This is because the tech industry, overall, has a huge carbon footprint, Brevini explained. The communication systems from A.I. to iCloud rely on data centers, or huge warehouses full of hard drives, which consume a great deal of water and fossil fuels. The environmental cost of A.I., and the current communication system that supports it, is astronomical.

To what extent then, asked Brevini, can we “reorganize communication systems to address the climate crisis?” Identifying the materiality of A.I.’s infrastructure is one place to start. Just last year, the European Union published a white paper on the nature of A.I., describing it as “a collection of technologies that combine data, algorithms and computing power.”

From smart devices to home voice assistants, image recognition and translation, A.I. is often portrayed to be made of abstract computer algorithms, yet Brevini compels us to think about A.I. in a material way. We must question A.I., she says, and ask if it is really artificial. For instance, data dumping and shipping off e-waste to underprivileged countries (often the historical victims of European colonization) are not very abstract at all.

There is no doubt that there are a multitude of valid concerns about the development of A.I.: from moral and ethical concerns to loss of human expertise, from algorithmic racial and gender biases to fears that A.I. will change the workplace as we know it. However, Brevini’s main point is that if we lose our environment, we lose everything. The myth of technology, and A.I. in particular being the solution to the world’s problems, is a harmful one. We must hold our leaders and governments accountable for the state of our current communication systems. The environmental cost is too large.