Big tech is not an environmentally clean industry
Much more worrisome than annoying traffic jams and pollution caused by office-going IT programmers in India is the overall pivot that the world’s IT industry is making towards pervasive artificial intelligence (AI)
The events in Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) over the last several days take on additional meaning on June 5, World Environment Day. The debate about the “sustainability” impacts caused by heavy industry and by the extractors of oil and resources is well known. The flashpoints against these firms are usually mounted by local activists, and are rarely experienced at a national, let alone, global level. Nonetheless, such local action can be extremely potent.
Less obvious, and therefore insidious, is the effect that technology firms can have on the environment. IT is not an environmentally clean industry. This topic is too large to cover in one column, but I will attempt to open up a discussion here.
The IT boom has laid waste to Indian cities that are seen as technology hubs. Despite this, announcements of tech companies wanting to increase their employee footprint in a particular city are seen as glad tidings; the announcement of an IT major seeking to double its headcount in Hyderabad is a recent example.
Much more worrisome than annoying traffic jams and pollution caused by office-going IT programmers in India is the overall pivot that the world’s IT industry is making towards pervasive artificial intelligence (AI). Today’s AI boom is actually in large part simply a renaissance of AI concepts that are decades old. These old concepts have now turned into reality because they now finally have a huge step up in computing and data crunching power, which happens to be extremely energy hungry.
Companies such as Google and Facebook run massive data centres and consume immense amounts of energy. This computing power is needed to crunch through data and provide immediate results for decades-old algorithms so that they can be delivered to your smartphone in a flash—and entice you to linger or buy the products being advertised.
And now, new strictures around data privacy and accuracy have created even more demand for energy.
Search engines such as Google scrape in data from various sources and use AI-centric data crunching to provide results. Search results can be gamed, however, and there is an entire sub-industry around search engine optimization (SEO), which seeks to trick search algorithms to give its clients more prominence.
Vandals who actively falsify such data abound. Google recently listed Nazism as the ideology of the California Republican Party. This is false, of course, but it evidently came from Wikipedia, which is known for “crowdsourced” data, and has lax policing. A vandal had been able to add Nazism as an influence onto the Republican Party’s Wikipedia page. Google’s search engines picked up the “N” word, but weren’t able to filter it out.
Meanwhile, Facebook’s problems with data privacy, false news and hate speech are well documented.
In response, tech companies have been spending even more on “listening” AI algorithms, using training data to spot patterns and nip false news in the bud. This means more computing power will be needed. Facebook has said it expects its total expenses to grow from 45% to 60% this year, partly due to spending on AI monitoring of questionable content.
The electricity we use does not generate itself. Much of it comes from burning fossil fuels such as coal, and environmental pollution is a result. Renewable energy sources are still not pervasive enough to replace fossil fuel use. Whether US President Donald Trump or I want to believe it or not, science has overwhelmingly established that humans are contributing to global warming by burning fossil fuels.
In a fascinating turn of events, it seems local environmental activists now have the ability to use global concerns for local action. In January this year, seven Californian cities started a lawsuit against local oil companies for contributing to global warming that has substantially eroded their coastlines. The oil companies contend they can’t be held responsible simply for extracting the resource and that the real threat comes from resource users, big tech included.
How the local courts handle this will be interesting and may well set a precedent. After all, it wasn’t tobacco growers who were sued for lung cancer deaths—it was the cigarette manufacturers.
Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India.