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Climate Summit embraces AI, with reservations

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Artificial intelligence was a star feature during the opening days of COP28, the United Nations climate summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Entrepreneurs and researchers dazzled attendees by predicting that rapidly improving technology could accelerate global efforts to combat climate change and adapt to rising temperatures.

But they also expressed concerns about AI’s potential to devour energy and harm humans and the planet.

Exactly one year after the blockbuster debut of ChatGPT, the chatbot that introduced AI to hundreds of millions of people, the climate summit opened last week with a series of events and announcements focused on AI technology. Many were filled with representatives from Microsoft, Google and other powerful players in the emerging AI sector.

Hope for AI breakthroughs in combating rising global temperatures stems from the technology’s ability to process large amounts of information. This allows it to produce knowledge and efficiency that far exceeds what computers and data scientists have been able to do, with a wide range of climate applications.

The United Nations said on the opening day of the summit that it was partnering with Microsoft on an AI-based tool to monitor whether countries are meeting their commitments to reduce fossil fuel emissions, helping to solve this problem. which has been one of the most vexing problems facing the international community. climate diplomacy.

Other groups have proposed research highlighting AI’s potential to reduce emissions in the manufacturing and food sectors, help locate new renewable energy projects, and balance electrical loads during weather events extremes.

Officials from Google and the Boston Consulting Group have predicted that AI could help reduce up to a tenth of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. A team of researchers led by David Sandalow, former official of the U.S. Department of Energy in President Barack Obama’s administration, now at Columbia University, released Sunday what it calls a roadmap for the role of AI in accelerating reducing emissions across a wide range of sectors.

In an interview at the conference, Sandalow said he was particularly excited about ways in which AI could accelerate the discovery and design of new materials for low-emissions energy technologies like advanced batteries.

“When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, he physically took different metals to test how they would react to electrical charges. It took him months to identify the best options,” Sandalow said. “Today, with AI tools, we can test a million different options in a second and impose chemical structural constraints to determine what is realistic and quickly accelerate the pace of innovation.”

At a panel discussion Sunday morning, business executives said AI is already helping their companies send alerts to people at risk of flooding, send text messages with hyperlocal planting advice to farmers facing drought and helping people exposed to high levels of air pollution decide. the safest times to venture outside.

They also said concerns about technology were stopping them from doing more.

“Climate change is an existential, man-made threat,” Natalie Blyth, global head of commercial banking sustainability at HSBC, said at the event. “What we don’t want is to move from one man-made situation to another,” she said, referring to crises. “So we need to be responsible, ethical and very careful in how we publish and understand some of these technologies.”

Executives of companies developing AI technology have already warned that it could one day pose an extinction risk to humanity, comparable to nuclear war. COP28 researchers focused on a different risk: The computing power required to run advanced AI could be enormous. This appetite for electricity could cause emissions to skyrocket and worsen climate change.

A peer-reviewed analysis published in October estimates that the world’s AI systems could consume as much energy in 2027 as the whole of Sweden. This would almost certainly increase emissions, even if countries delay meeting their commitments to reduce them. (A Boston Consulting Group study for Google also noted that powering AI would most likely require large amounts of water and produce an increasing amount of waste.)

Researchers and business representatives said they hope AI’s relative climate benefits will outweigh the significant energy consumption needed to operate it. But they weren’t sure.

Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, said in an interview that AI creates a huge additional demand for energy. To address this issue, he said Microsoft is working to improve the sustainability of its data centers and help develop more renewable energy.

“We need to maximize the benefits this can create across the economy, including sustainability, and ensure all of this is powered by carbon-free energy with more energy-efficient data centers,” Mr. Smith said. “Can I do a math equation?” Not yet.”

Environmental groups at the summit appeared to largely embrace the technology. One, called We Don’t Have Time, released a series of videos last week from young activists calling for more urgent climate action, with a twist.

The activists appeared as simulated middle-aged versions of themselves, as if they were talking about the future. Aging, according to the group, was managed by AI

David Gelles reports contributed.

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