The real risk to Sustainability from AI…
My youngest is 11 and he’s obsessed with music, recently stunning his aunt by asking “Is that Nina Simone?” in response to a song on the radio he’d never heard before. His favourite rabbit hole to disappear down is YouTube Music, but I’ve noticed that, no matter where we start, the algorithm eventually brings us to Dani California by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, usually within 6 songs, often less. 18 months ago, we were holidaying in a cottage equipped with Alexa and found the same, only this time the unavoidable destination was Don’t Stop by Fleetwood Mac. Two fine songs, but how many times do you want to listen to them?
At the risk of sounding like the grumpy middle-aged man that I am, my son’s clicking through YouTube has none of the romance of flicking through the out-of-chart singles box in the back room of The Boulevard on the Stranmillis Road in Belfast under the smouldering gaze of Debbie Harry. Yes, I bought a lot of dross much of the time, but there were some real 25p gems in there, great tunes jumping off the vinyl when I got them home, giving me a massive endorphin hit.
My social feeds are currently filling up with ‘content’ about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Sustainability. While some of this is sensible such as smart control systems which adjust heating to building use patterns. I’m more worried about the use of AI for, say, Sustainability reporting, getting the algorithm to do the grunt work of gathering and merging information into a draft.
I know a little about AI or, more accurately, machine learning, as I coded a recurrent neural network for my final year engineering degree project in 1993. I understand the modern versions pretty much follow the same concept but have 7 or 8 intermediate levels where mine had just one (and still took hours of processing time before I could determine whether it was working or not). Neural networks discover patterns and try to give you the best fit, and, given they are training on huge amounts of data scraped off the web, this inevitably leads to conformism.
One of my concrete maxims is that the best in Sustainability look at problems from a different angle than everybody else. My own approach is based on two Venn diagrams: that your Sustainability/Net Zero strategy needs to be built on the sweetspot between Sustainability and the interests of your organisation, and your engagement needs to hit the sweetspot between Sustainability and the culture of your organisation (aka Green Jujitsu). How can an AI find those sweet spots?
The image on this post was generated by an AI which I instructed to design the cover for a Sustainability report – it gave me trees and some indecipherable text. No real creativity – just the visual equivalent of the middle of the road rock you eventually get led to on YouTube Music. And goodness knows how many jobbing photographers have unwittingly contributed their intellectual property into creating it – for zero recompense. I do worry that by contributing answers to the endless stream of ‘collaborative articles’ on LinkedIn, we are just feeding our sparkling ideas into an AI sausage machine which will process them into bland mush.
My other worry is that taking AI shortcuts will miss opportunities for genuine understanding of Sustainability issues. By writing this blog, I am being forced into turning an amorphous blob of an idea in my head into a reasonably cogent argument. Incidentally, this why I always turn down people who offer to generate ‘content’ for this site, it would completely miss the point of the exercise. Likewise, I recently interviewed my colleague Anna-Lisa Mills for a future episode of The Net Zero Business Podcast, and she explained it was the process of writing a Geography A Level essay on climate change that first gave her a proper understanding of its seriousness – reading about it wouldn’t have had the same life-changing, career-defining effect. If you use an AI to gather and synthesise information from across your organisation, will you really understand what it is saying to you?
The Sustainability world has a tendency to get swept along with the latest fad: mindfulness, blockchain and now AI. I am not dismissing the idea that any of these concepts can be helpful, but we need to think very hard about when they are useful and when they might be a problem. Sustainability is fundamentally about change and change requires creativity, not conformity. Conformity will never get us to Net Zero.