Is AI going to end the world, or save it? — Sustainability, product consumption, and artificial intelligence, part 2

This is part two of an article that highlights the current possibilities and uses of artificial intelligence, and AI and sustainability can go hand in hand, with a focus on how the technology can be used to make significant changes towards production methods that are genuinely sustainable.

 

Now that you’ve read part one of this post, are you ready to see how AI can be used for good? Great, Let’s get going!

The possibilities of AI to make the world better

While I highly detest giving my data to an algorithm that knows more about me than my spouse, I must admit AI harbors some amazing optional in regards to sustainability.

 

Several high rollers in the consumer packaged goods industries have started to use AI as a way of optimizing production.

 

It works by an algorithm combing through a list of tens of thousands of ingredients and simulating their interaction.

 

In human speak: The program can figure out how different components in a product, say a yogurt, or body lotion, will interact, without having to mix the ingredients. This saves companies loads of time and money because they can focus on a few, highly targeted product tests, instead of months and years of testing different products by methodically replacing various components.

 

This means it can allow product developers to find cleaner alternatives to their list of ingredients. And this is where we have potential!

 

Let’s look at some examples

Clothing

As you probably know our fashion industry is taking a heavy toll on the environment. Besides from the 79 billion cubic meters of water the industry uses per year, and the 92 million tons of solid waste dumped in landfills each year, the industry is also generating more greenhouse gas emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.

 

 

Yay, fashion!

But, our fashion needs and wants also has another consequence: Plastic pollution.

We all know microplastic pollution is bad, whether it’s polluting our oceans or floating around in the air we breathe.

 

While it’s wonderful to see national bans on everything from straws to single use-cups, there’s another overlooked culprit.

Our fleece sweaters and yoga pant are made from polyesters.

Polyester is a polymer, meaning a long chain of repeating molecular units (that’s science talk for plastic). And more and more of our clothes are made with plastic fibers.

You might have seen some fleece jackets being marketed as sustainable jackets. That’s because they are made from recycled plastic. Well, that’s still an issue.

When you wear and wash your clothing, pieces of the fabric will fall off. But this fabric is made of plastic.

That means your washing machine empties out its water, the tiny plastic threads are carried with the graywater.

The effect of micro- and nano plastic is still not fully research, but its documented that microplastic in fish results in brain damage and behavioral change.

Tiny note on biology: If other species with a central nervous system is affected, humans probably are as well.

 

Using AI to asses the durability and elasticity of more sustainable fabrics, like bamboo fibers, wool, and cotton blends could help pave the way for better fabrics, that are still soft and durable.

 

Beauty products and food

 

In the world of sustainable beauty products, there is one major villain. Palm oil.

 

Being the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, palm oil is believed to be in about 50% of products found in supermarkets and shops!

 

It sounds like a natural and healthy ingredient to use in beauty products, right? Palm oil can currently be found in everything from conditioner, to body lotion, toothpaste and, let’s not forget the Grace and Frankie special, lube.

 

On the food spectrum, palm oil can be found in anything from ice cream and margarine,

 

But the palm oil industry is insanely destructive on the environment and countries like Malaysia, and Indonesia suffer devastating loss in biodiversity as almost 50% of the local deforestation is a result of tropical forests being cut down to make way for palm oil plantations.

It’s estimated that palm oil responsible for 0.4% of global deforestation.

 

Pretty heartbreaking.

 

The reason palm oil is used in half of all super marked products is, that it’s safe and cheap

— that is, it’s cheap as long as you don’t count in the externalities (hidden costs) from biodiversity destructions.

 

 

Where AI could do the environment a solid, is by finding alternative ingredient combination to substitute palm oil.

Or at the very least, cut down on the amount of oil needed.

 

 

Think about it. AI’s are already being used to optimize products, by finding cheaper alternative ingredients that do not change the properties of the product.

 

If you made it analyze all known ingredients in the food and beauty industry, blacklisting some ingredients like pall oil.

 

Heck, maybe AI could even come up with the world’s first non-toxic nail polish (yep, nail polish is pretty toxic, and not great if you’re into green living).

 

 

Natural insecticides, to replace the neonicotinoids and fungicides that are killing off our pollinators

 

By now you likely know that colony collapse disorder, and the rapid decline in pollinations is linked to habitat loss and our current agricultural processes.

 

More precisely, the pesticide and fungicides we use in the agricultural sector have been shown to weaken the immune system of bees and mess with their navigation skills.

 

As a result, we are seeing an alarming drop in pollinators, including bees and butterflies.

 

In short, we need pollinators to, well pollinate, if we are to keep a healthy global food production system. It’s estimated that 1/3 of all global food, is dependent on pollinators.

The list of food that could possibly go extinct from lack of pollinators include Chocolate and coffee.

Back to AI!

One way futuristic computers could help us is by the deployment of smart robot bees. But, if you like me, have seen black mirror, you’re probably not going to be in favor of millions of tiny robots all mounted with cameras.

 

Instead, AI could be used to prevent the total collapse of our ecosystem.

Like all old school farmers know, there are alternatives to mainstream pesticides and herbicides. Things like eucalyptus and garlic, are known to keep unwanted pests abbey. As a bonus, your fields will be vampire free.

(Fun side note, My granddad, that I’ve mentioned before taught me how to use garlic as a pesticide when I was a kid. I think that might also be where I got the lame vampire joke. #SorryNotSorry.)

Again, AI could be tasked with sorting through knowledge about safer alternatives to common-use pesticides. That would creat recipes out of non-harmful ingredients.

 

This recipe could then be lab tested to make sure, they don’t have negative side effects on crops or wildlife.

 

The Greenenator — AI’s gear for improving the future of our planet

 

So there you have. A run through of how AI could be used to for good.

We could use a sustainability Terminator to stop some of our current harmful behaviors. Or, We could use it to save the millions of hectares of forest from being cut down, or by halting the causes of colony collapse disorder, or by limiting the amount of microplastic that ends up in our food stream.

 

We have a choice now. Either, we can use AI to sell more fast food, and make tastier beers, or…

Dear future, let’s work to make Alpha Go, go green.

 

 

 

Keep being awesome,
Mona

 

 

Endnote: if you are more curious about AI I recommend this lengthy post from WaitButWhy.

I also highly recommend this more general book about algorithms and al, The Formula, Luke Dormehl.

And lastly, for those of you who love exploring Sci-fi, this fanfiction is some of the best I’ve read about AI (surprisingly well researched), I advise you to check out Friendship is optimal.