Stephen Hawking, in his posthumously published book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, expressed his concern about the advances of AI and how superintelligent machines could, ultimately, prove to be our downfall. An excerpt from the book was in the Times of London.
But, in addition to the potential of machines taking over, Hawking had one other major concern. The problem wasn’t machine evil but, rather, human inaction.
Hawking stated, “A more immediate danger is runaway climate change. A rise in ocean temperature would melt the ice caps and cause the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide. Both effects would make our climate like that of Venus with a temperature of 250°C.”
There is no time to be wasted, he indicated. We must immediately address this extraordinary problem, or we face incredible anguish, destruction of resources, and elimination of countries and species.
AI’s climate dangers
Video games are an unsuspected contributor to our warming planet and energy waste. According to a report from the NRDC (National Resources Defense Council)…“To put this into perspective, game consoles are on track to consume as much electricity each year as all the homes in Houston, the fourth-largest city in the country and cost consumers more than $1 billion to operate annually. Most of that energy will be consumed in the middle of the night when the console is in standby mode but still listening for voice commands…”
AI is also contributing to the problem by its power-hungry demands to crunch massive data sets. “A study by research group OpenAI says that the amount of computing power needed to drive large AI models is already doubling every three and a half months.” Where’s the answer to this increasing demand?
A study by the University of Massachusetts provided an even bleaker picture of how AI can contribute to climate change. AI training…” can emit more than 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent — nearly five times the lifetime emissions of the average American car (and that includes the manufacture of the car itself).” The solution to this technology dilemma could be in chip design.
Laser-based CPU chips may be the answer, but not everyone is convinced of this. The lasers use different colors of light beams to move multiple pieces of data. The developers, including Luminous, believe this technology can outstrip the conventional electrical chips we use today. One MIT professor, Dirk Englund, sees the optical chips as hindered by the devices needed to manipulate light, one being the electro-optic modulators required.
However, the lasers use far less power than electrical chips and provide an optimal way to accelerate the speed with performance. Several companies are currently engaged in developing laser-based chips; they include Luminous, Lightelligence, and Lightmatter.
The way forward
Corporations such as Microsoft and Google are developing data cloud servers to solve the energy/heat problem. But there is at least one simpler and environmentally friendly solution to climate change; trees.
Trees may be one viable answer, and it’s here that AI can contribute. The UN membership sees trees as having the potential to turn our climate change around, but it will take trillions of trees. They have noted that, to date, 17 billion trees have been planted worldwide. One organization, the Trillion Trees, has already outlined its plan for reforestation to save the planet.
Utilizing sound science and AI technology, groups can now predict the number of trees needed in empty land spaces around the world. Researcher, Dr. Thomas Crowther, has indicated that trees present one of our most significant options for restoring our climate.
“There’s 400 gigatons, in the 3 trillion trees, and if you were to scale that up by another trillion trees that’s in the order of hundreds of gigatons captured from the atmosphere — at least ten years of anthropogenic emissions completely wiped out.”
China has already begun an intensive tree planting campaign to combat pollution and has assigned an estimated 60,000 soldiers to perform this non-military task inland. Newly planted trees are located in an area near Beijing, which produces intensive smog. The project covers 32,400 square miles of trees. Estimates of the project’s size indicate it is that of Ireland.
India, too, as part of its effort to address climate change, took part in a reforestation initiative. “800,000 volunteers in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh set a new world record: they planted 50.4 million trees in just 24 hours.”
AI, together with creative breakthroughs in the technology, may prove to be the innovative push-back for climate change. Already, programs are being written to address not only tree planting but to aid African farmers in crop rotation, salmon survival, conservation, and ocean reefs, to name a few AI advances.