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University of Basel

Should the hidden carbon footprint of AI be regulated, Frank Krysiak?

Text: Frank Krysiak

Is a legal framework needed to regulate energy-intensive artificial intelligence applications? A debate between an environmental economist and a computer scientist.

Prof. Dr. Frank Krysiak. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)
Prof. Dr. Frank Krysiak. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)

Developments in the realm of artifi cial intelligence (AI) are proceeding at an ever-faster pace. A technology that used to be restricted primarily to specialist fields has given rise to applications with the potential to radically transform our everyday life, such as voice recognition or self-driving vehicles. The flipside of these developments is steadily growing resource consumption. Training AI applications is a hugely energy-intensive process that is expected to become a key driver of global electricity consumption in the medium term. On the surface at least, this runs counter to the aspiration of many industrialized nations to scale back their demand for energy. Accordingly, some studies have recommended regulatory interventions, for instance mandatory efficiency standards or a requirement to power computing centers with energy from renewable sources.

However, it is important to ask ourselves first whether the energy use inherent to AI applications is really a problem. Interestingly, there is no firm evidence for this as yet: the diversity of AI applications and the complex behavioral changes they often trigger makes it difficult to assess their overall impact.

Self-driving vehicles are a good example. On the one hand, this is a technology that requires intensive use of various AI applications involving extensive – and recurring – training. On the other hand, driverless vehicles have the potential to lower overall energy consumption in the mobility sector substantially: by eliminating the cost of a driver, public transport or cab journeys can be offered at lower prices. This makes car ownership less attractive, which in turn can lead to a significant reduction in energy and resource consumption in the vehicle manufacturing industry as fewer (but more efficiently utilized) vehicles are needed. Then again, we could also see a rise in demand for mobility services, so the technology’s overall effect on energy demand is difficult to predict.

Frank Krysiak is Professor of Environmental Economics at the University of Basel and head of the SCCER CREST energy research center. He works primarily on the long-term effects of environmental and energy policy on technological progress

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