Is artificial intelligence smart enough to create a sustainable future?

November 2, 2022

Despite a hefty ecological footprint of its own, digital technology has the potential to contribute to a more sustainable future. A recent study highlights the fact that AI is particularly suited to make existing processes more sustainable. By analyzing tons of data from operational plants and factories, AI systems are able to control processes much more precisely than human operators can and, in doing so, save energy and other resources and reduce waste.

While optimizing existing processes is a good thing, in most cases such incremental improvements are not sufficient to make processes truly sustainable. To do so, more radical innovation, i.e. transformation, is needed and that requires genuine creativity; to think outside the box of known equations and parameters and to come up with ‘fantastic’ solutions. Going forward, the question is thus whether data, AI and other digital tools can contribute such a creative process? In that respect, the recent surge of ‘creative’ AI’s is promising, although human input will nevertheless remain essential.

Burning questions
  • Can current ‘creative’ AI’s already deliver valuable answers to serious problems, when working together with humans?
  • Should the intelligence of AI be used to minimize the footprint of digital systems themselves?

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The Tool
Category: Objects
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The Machine
Category: Objects
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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About the author(s)

Fascinated by the interplay between technology and society, Sjoerd has studied the role of different actors in the innovation and implementation of new technologies throughout his career. At the thinktank, he is mainly involved in research and consultancy projects for clients, and strategic and thematic research for sister company Dasym. Among other themes, Sjoerd frequently writes and speaks about the power and danger of digital technology, as well as sustainability in both technological and institutional innovation.

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