We often think of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a thing of the immediate future. We are constantly bombarded by slogans of AI coming to change our life, whether we like it or not. We are reassured it will be a better life. A better capitalism. A better environment. From smart devices, to home voice assistants, image recognition and translation, AI is offered as the solution to the greatest challenges of this age. This portrayal of AI as a benevolent deity has a crucial effect: it obfuscates the materiality of the infrastructures and devices that are central to its functioning. In her new book “Is AI good for the planet?” (Polity, 2021) Benedetta Brevini asks us to think about AI in a different, and more material way than most of us have in the past.
In all its variety of forms, AI relies on large swathes of land and sea, vast arrays of technology, and greenhouse gas emitting machines and infrastructures that deplete scarce resources in their production, consumption and disposal. AI also relies on data centres that demand excessive amounts of energy, water and finite resources to compute, analyse and categorize.
Firmly situated in the critical tradition of political economy of communication, Brevini’s work forces us to reconsider the way we look at AI. For the first time, “Is AI good for the planet” brings the climate crisis to the centre of debates around AI developments.
Clearly, there are other important concerns about AI: from moral and ethical appeals for caution concerning use of AI in military operations, to loss of human expertise in safeguarding human rights (public health and the judiciary), from algorithmic racial and gender biases to fears that AI will make human labour redundant. However, Brevini argues, if we lose our environment, we lose our planet. So, we must understand and debate the environmental costs of AI.
CMDS Fellow Benedetta Brevini is a journalist, media activist and Associate Professor of communication at the University of Sydney. Before joining the academy she worked as journalist in Milan, New York and London for CNBC and RAI. She writes on The Guardian’s Comment is Free and contributes to a number of print and web publications including Index of Censorship, OpenDemocracy and the Conversation. She is the author of Public Service Broadcasting online (2013) and editor of Beyond Wikileaks (2013). Her latest volumes are Carbon Capitalism and Communication: Confronting Climate Crisis (PalgraveMacmillan, 2017), Climate Change and the Media (Peter Lang, 2018), and Amazon: Understanding a Global Communication Giant (Routledge, 2020). “Is AI good for the planet” (Polity,2021) is her newest work.
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