Artificial Intelligence a Double-Edged Sword for Environment

Mar 13, 2018

What if cars could learn to cheat?
Credit Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz /

When it comes to artificial intelligence, a lot of attention has been focused on issues of privacy and economics – on what happens if robots makes human workers obsolete. Now, a new report from the non-profit Environmental Law Institute highlights the potential environmental impacts of AI-driven technologies, from autonomous cars to smart thermostats.

“Part of what’s needed is actually a lot more discussions about what does this all mean," said lead author Dave Rejeski. "Who is in control?”

Take, for example, the Volkswagen scandal. Several models of Volkswagen diesel vehicles were programed to recognize when they were being tested for emissions, and turn on emissions reduction technologies. That's a human problem, not an AI problem. But what if those cars were able to learn, and determine how the car responded to testing? It could go either way, depending on the goals or values that the computer was taught.

Rejeski is even more concerned about self-driving cars. In this case, artificial intelligence isn't the crux of the environmental issue, it's the cars themselves; AI just makes the debate possible. If autonomous vehicles are electric cars deployed as a complement to public transportation, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation could drop dramatically. But, if self-driving cars are gas-guzzlers used to avoid public transportation and perpetuate car culture, the result could be an increase in emissions.

Rejeski says the environmental impacts of artificial intelligence need to be higher on the priority list of engineers, lawmakers, and citizens. Whether those impacts are positive or negative will depend on how the technology is built and used, and the time to start thinking about that is now.