1 August, 2018

The role of AI in sustainability

People have a negative perception of AI (Artificial Intelligence). They also have only a vague idea of what circular economy means. So combining AI (fear) with circular economy (ignorance) equals a lack of understanding of how one can develop the other. That is a gigantic, missed opportunity...

David Newman
Written by David Newman
The role of AI in sustainability

The role of AI in sustainability

People have a perception of AI (Artificial Intelligence) which is negative – they are afraid of what robots and the invasion of privacy through technologies will do to our lives. They fear jobs will be lost. They also have only a vague idea of what 'circular economy' means. Indeed Dan Botterill (Ditto Sustainability CEO) recently asked a room of (100+) people to define 'circular economy' in ten seconds. Just four people thought they could. So combining AI (fear) with circular economy (ignorance) equals a lack of understanding of how one can develop the other. 

That is a gigantic, missed opportunity...

Traditional housesThe circular economy is a very elite concept. In most of the world, the 'take-make-use-throw' linear economic model is still totally predominant. Political elites and the rich talk of circular economy, the poor survive and live in their own trash. Meanwhile, commodity prices tend to fall in real terms as we use them more efficiently (and yes, recycle more of them too), so making recovery of more recyclable wastes less competitive – why recycle when you can make new for less? A paradox of our times as population growth increases in a way that is impossible to stop or prevent, even though, in the older economies, population is often falling.

So where does AI fit into all this?

Well, technology is transforming our lives more rapidly than we think – look at shopping. High street stores and restaurants are closing by the shed load as Amazon, Deliveroo, Just Eat, and a million online shops offer the same goods and services without having to go look for them. You can eat, drink, work, read, watch films, talk, and meet your friends from your phone. Why go out? Who needs a bank branch anymore? Journeys on the London public transport system are falling while population is increasing. Why? The above, plus Uber. So the next step into AI is actually smaller than you think.

No need to be afraid...

...if managed properly, AI will reduce costs, increase access, improve life quality. Elon Musk can sleep at night.

What does AI do?

Voice recognition technologies will allow computers to talk to patients about their ailmentsIt automates functions. These can be boring functions like welding two steel plates together in a car factory. Or more excitingly, operating on cataracts in your eyes. These are robotic machines using AI to do repeat operations. But now we can use similar technology to “think through” processes. Such processes could be, for example, related to medicine – voice recognition technologies will allow computers to talk to patients about their ailments, analyse symptoms, make a diagnosis and write a prescription, or suggest a specialist consultation.

AI can crowd source information and spread knowledge, currently in the hands of human “experts”. Legal processes, which are often extremely repetitive, can be automated (think of house buying or environmental compliance or permitting). AI can allow real-time and continuous monitoring of events, applications, performance, spending and thereby allows for simpler data collection. This will free employee time to get on with the real thing companies do, business. At the same time, it improves employee involvement and skills – taking away the drudge of data collecting – no need to wait for that annual Sustainability Report, the data can be online hour by hour.

In terms of suppliers to companies, AI will allow real-time monitoring of their performance – taking risks out of, and enhancing environmental and sustainability credentials of, supply chains. As consumers become more involved in the ethical choices of your business (think palm oil and plastics, or slavery and child labour, burning coal and fracking), AI gives your business the opportunity to monitor data through the supply chain. That enhances sustainability.

Ditto Sustainability 

Ditto SustainabilityIt all seems complicated but teams of people in companies like Ditto Sustainability are working away to simplify processes to make them accessible to the wider audience. Their mission is to democratise the knowledge process, taking it out of the hands of small groups of expensive consultants. Monitoring and real-time data will empower the consumer – and businesses will need to understand the need for transparency and accountability across their value chain.

That is a revolution when compared to ten/twenty years ago when access to information, knowledge and data were the realms of the privileged. By using AI we can open those processes to interested audiences and they will drive businesses to step up their performance and tread more lightly on the planet.

Not bad, eh?