The Story of Earth Day 2023: Humanity and AI for a Sustainable Future

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Introduction: The Potential of AI for a Sustainable Future

What is the potential of AI for a sustainable future? In this article, we will discuss the rapid AI advancements, the potential impacts on various industries, and AI and the environment, looking at industry cases to address environmental concerns and the role of AI in Japan. 

The story of Andrew, an individual in Japan, will be used as a narrative thread to illustrate the potential of AI in creating a greener Earth and the importance of incorporating sustainability into our daily lives.

Sunday Morning

Andrew woke up on a Sunday morning in Japan. He scrolled through social media posts while waiting for his coffee to finish brewing. He noticed several posts about Earth Day and decided that he also wanted to write a post, to share his thoughts on how emerging AI technologies could contribute to a more sustainable future.

After his coffee and breakfast, he rode his bicycle to a cozy cafe where his friends were waiting. They discussed recent developments in AI and the risks and opportunities. Having recently read articles that were critical of the impact on the value of work, as well as the energy footprint and environmental impact of AI, Andrew felt inspired to write about the potential of AI to address these issues; he wanted to write his thoughts, but as a non-professional writer, the task seemed daunting.

Time, Energy, and Other Priorities

Andrew estimated that writing an article could take 8~10 hours to complete the article, accounting for writing, editing, and inevitable distractions. Andrew’s computer and lights would be on during that time, consuming electricity. 

There would also be breaks for meals, coffee, and tea, further adding to his environmental footprint. While he had good intentions, he would realize that he would not have the time required to actually write and edit an article in a reasonable amount of time, so the idea for an article would likely go from an idea into the trash. He felt like there were just too many priorities of higher importance.

However, AI tools like generative language models could help individuals like Andrew to write and edit articles more efficiently. These AI systems could assist in writing, reducing the time and energy required and ultimately contributing to a smaller environmental footprint.

AI Advancements and the Digital Transformation of Industries

The pace of development and improvement in generative AI models has been surprising, and these are still very early days. While there are discussions of pausing or halting development, Pandora’s box has been opened. AI will impact various aspects of life, such as learning, knowledge work, medicine, manufacturing, society, and the environment.

AI can potentially improve efficiency and productivity, but there are concerns about the possible loss of jobs and the impact of AI tools replacing writers, artists, programmers, and other knowledge workers.

The Age Wave: Japan and the World

Many developed nations, like Japan, face an “age wave” (aka “silver tsunami”) of workers reaching retirement age and the challenges of paying for retirement and living while not working. Former Prime Minister Abe introduced plans for a 100-year society, which was integrated into the Society 5.0 framework and related to digital transformation (DX) and the 2025 Digital Cliff

According to the World Economic Forum, Japan leads the world in centenarians. However, Great Wave Consulting conducted a research project on investment and personal finance a few years ago. The project highlighted the 20 Million Yen Problem;  assuming a married couple lives to the age of 100, most would experience financial difficulties as their cost of living expenses would eat into their savings and meager pension. The 2019 Financial Services Agency (FSA) report estimated that the average elderly couple would need 20 million yen in savings. This long-term need has helped to increase interest in learning new, high-paying skills, changing employers or industries for higher salaries, investment, and frugal consumption habits. 

As DW News recently covered, many nations worldwide face this issue; some citizens are postponing retirement. However, when they start to receive their pension, these are only social band-aids that do not solve deeper, interdependent problems or necessarily solve them.

AI as a Double-Edged Sword?

The pandemic and geopolitical developments over the past few years have increased prices that Japan’s employment and salary structures have not been able to adapt to naturally, which has increased the population working side jobs, changing jobs for higher wages, or changing purchasing and consumption habits.

The introduction and impact of AI tools could be a double-edged sword – not only changing the face of work as it currently exists but affecting large swaths of the economy of how people are valued and provide value at work. 

As highlighted in a recent Bloomberg article (and covered by Wired), generative AI and building LLMs (large language models) require significant resources in terms of electricity and hardware. However, the ongoing costs to maintain a system decrease significantly. 

This raises two important questions: 

1) how much energy does generative AI actually use? 

According to this TechHQ article, training ChatGPT used 1.287 gigawatt-hours, roughly equal to the annual consumption of 120 homes in the United States.

2) how does generative AI’s energy usage compare to traditional systems when considering time, energy, and human resources?

For instance, imagine a scenario where a business or employee needs an answer quickly to determine the optimal marketing strategy, ship a product, understand consumer behavior, or optimize supply chain logistics. Waiting for team input, executive feedback, or delivery of parts delayed due to illness, vacations, supply-chain bottlenecks, or other factors results in expensive delays and missed opportunities.

In such cases, AI’s efficiency and potential sustainability benefits become even more apparent, as it can quickly process large amounts of data and provide insights without being affected by the limitations and time constraints that human experts may face.

These questions encourage us to think beyond simply comparing resource usage at specific moments in time and to consider the broader implications of AI’s efficiency and potential sustainability benefits.

Did you know?

In March 2021, the cargo ship Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal for nearly a week. Experts estimated the economic impact at $400,000,000 per hour.

Lloyd’s List Maritime Intelligence

Image Credits: https://flic.kr/p/2o8QSYq

AI and the Environment: Impact of Consumer Goods and the Fashion Industry

In his book “Empire of Things,” Frank Trentmann provides a historical perspective on global production and consumerism development, exploring how consumer culture has evolved since the fifteenth century. The rise of mass production during the Industrial Revolution made products more affordable and accessible, leading to a growth in consumerism. 

Trentmann also addresses consumerism’s political, social, and environmental implications, highlighting the influence of governments and institutions in shaping consumer behavior and the consequences of mass production and consumption on the planet. This exploration of consumerism’s history and impact reveals the complex relationship between global production, consumer habits, and their effects on society and the environment.

The growth in consumerism over the past decades can be seen in the increasing number of household items in various countries. Factors such as increased disposable income, easier access to credit, mass production, and globalization have contributed to this rise.

Rethinking Fashion with AI and Sustainable Practices

We do not think about it often, but as consumers, the items around us represent millions of hours of labor and investment.

“Fast fashion is often cited as the poster person for over production, a staggering volume of discarded clothing in landfills, and large footprint stores.

In terms of waste, these are all compelling issues to address. In addition we cannot leave the production resources out of the equation for fast fashion or any other fashion label.

For example, we take essentional fabrics like cotton for granted. We are unaware that producing one kilogram of cotton requires up to 20,000 liters of water, which the average American uses in 2.5 weeks, and results in toxic runoff that also requires resources to clean up. 

While some people tout using AI for sizing, the result of individual sizing of a garment means that economies of production will not be achieved, even if customers get a better fit the first time around.

As we are starting to see in luxury goods, approaching product design and manufacturing from a durable and therefore sustainable standpoint helps items last longer, reducing waste. Moreover, such items can make their way to resale, extending their lifecycle even longer.

Sustainable production is the new luxury and it can be extended to all types of fashion, and AI can power the production process to improve on human error and inefficiencies in the entire process and free up humans to manage that AI and find new ways to make use of it.”

Timothy Connor, Synnovate

Everyday Products and Sustainability

Our clothes may be a blend of cotton and polyester, natural and chemical materials that were grown or refined, processed, dyed, woven, planned, cut, sewn, packaged, and shipped across oceans and continents. 

The fashion industry is a significant contributor to environmental waste. Fast fashion retailers churn out new clothing at breakneck speeds, yet according to Global Fashion Agenda, 20% of items are never sold, contributing to the growing issue of textile waste. According to Earth.org, 92,000,000 tonnes of fast fashion waste is produced annually, which will likely increase.

For every item sold, how many items end up in landfills, incinerated, or recycled? In “The Ugly Truth of Fast Fashion”, Hasan Minhaj discusses the resources required to produce a piece of clothing – what happens when the inputs (water, electricity, labor, raw materials, transportation, etc.) to produce cheap fast fashion become prohibitively expensive?

Rethinking Retail

Retail and consumerism may need a rethink. Climate change, geopolitics, and shortages of raw materials and other resources could drastically change the current business model. Small pop-up kiosks or showrooms, apps, or suits like the ZOZOFIT body scanning suit could replace enormous retail outlets yet still allow consumers to have a tactile or virtual experience with clothing before they purchase. 

For example, replacing large retail stores that each carry their own stocks could be replaced with small pop-up stores or kiosks. These would allow consumers to feel and try on different samples and then order, which would be sent to a central production facility. Items such as printed t-shirts would be printed on demand and could be shipped directly to the customer or picked up in-store. This could bypass the need for a large retail space, reduce staff, and minimize in-store inventory management. A firm like Printful can help creators and designers to reduce the time and expense of shipping an item overseas or dealing with inventory or minimum lot orders by fulfilling their order on an as-needed basis from a facility closer to the customer.

The Energy-Intensive Journey of Your Morning Coffee

You may not think about the laborious conditions that growers and energy-intensive processes require to bring your morning cup of coffee from around the world. Business Insider’s “So Expensive Food” video on single-origin coffee shows the process from bean to cup. As highlighted by the Inter-American Development Bank, many coffee-producing regions, such as those in Central and South America that produce Arabica beans, are at serious risk of being impacted by global warming.

AI’s Growing Role in Professional Services and Knowledge Work

Current AI systems are already surprising experts in various fields. For example, AI has succeeded in science, passing medical and legal bar exams, and medicine. 

AI has shown remarkable capabilities in various fields, such as DeepMind’s AlphaFold, which has made groundbreaking advancements in predicting protein folding structures, and Hawkcell, which benefits pet owners, veterinarians, and medical researchers. These achievements demonstrate the potential for AI to enhance the quality and efficiency of professional services, ensuring greater access to expert help.

The Potential for AI to Revolutionize Business Models and Improve Sustainability

A Goldman Sachs report on the impact of generative AI on 300 million knowledge workers highlighted the potential for AI to revolutionize the way we work and live. This will likely lead to an upheaval of business models and some uncomfortable decisions; however, the costs of a non-decision decision, aka “doing nothing,” are likely to be significantly larger.

Embracing AI for a Greener Earth and an Ongoing Commitment to Sustainability

In conclusion, developing and implementing AI technologies present challenges and opportunities in pursuing a sustainable future. While concerns about job loss and high initial energy consumption are valid, AI has the potential to revolutionize various industries, reduce waste, and improve overall efficiency, ultimately leading to a greener Earth. 

We must approach AI development and deployment responsibly, ensuring ethical considerations are taken into account and potential negative impacts are mitigated. 

Collaboration between governments, industries, and individuals is essential to harness the power of AI for the greater good while minimizing any adverse consequences. By working together, we can create a sustainable future where AI is vital in protecting and preserving our planet.

Andrew’s journey to understand the potential of AI to create a sustainable future exemplifies the importance of incorporating environmentally-friendly practices into our everyday lives. With the power of AI and the collective determination of people everywhere, the potential for a sustainable future becomes an attainable reality. As we celebrate Earth Day 2023, remember that it is not just about a single day but an ongoing commitment to protect and preserve our planet for generations.