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AI and sustainability: a new strategic area of activity

In the global debate about the risks to society posed by and the economic potential of artificial intelligence, two complementary lines of argument stand out in striving for specific approaches to a “sustainable” use of AI. Both topics are of relevance to all companies wishing to develop a long-term AI strategy. However, they are usually not differentiated sufficiently in practice. An attempt at clarification by Andreas Neef, Managing Partner of Z_punkt.

26.04.2019

In the global debate about the risks to society posed by and the economic potential of artificial intelligence, two complementary lines of argument stand out in striving for specific approaches to a “sustainable” use of AI. Both topics are of relevance to all companies wishing to develop a long-term AI strategy. However, they are not usually differentiated sufficiently in practice. An attempt at clarification. 

Responsible AI – which rules should be applied to the development of AI applications in future?

In the current, increasingly heated discussion concerning the future of “responsible AI” or “trustworthy AI”, attention is focused on the complex question of the principles that governments, authorities or companies should apply in developing and using AI systems responsibly both to develop their economic potential on a sustainable basis in global competition without, however, risking negative repercussions for societies and their citizens? The crux of the matter is therefore the “how” of a future involving AI, the ethical principles involved, regulatory frameworks required to guarantee fairness, to avoid programmed prejudices or to safeguard individual freedom and protect personal rights. 

It is clear that we will not be able to separate the debate about values, principles and regulations for the AI of tomorrow from a consideration of the global competitive situation. Are Europe and European companies to campaign as pioneers of a responsible use of AI – either as a voluntary obligation or a mandatory legal framework? Will this strengthen or weaken Europe long-term in the face of tough competition from China and the USA in the AI sector? 

The challenges are well-known. Europe is now seeking an attitude and a position. The High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligenceemployed by the European Commission has now presented its first recommendations for Europe’s strategy on the path to “trustworthy AI”. Here, the experts are seeking a third way for Europe – quasi a social AI economy that promotes prosperity without disregarding ethical questions. Similar initiatives are to be observed throughout the world from Singapore through Australia to the United Arab Emirates. 

Major companies are also positioning themselves with the publication of AI principles. The consensus among all those involved seems to be that AI needs binding rules, however, over-regulation is of benefit to nobody if one looks at the pace at which China and the USA are driving AI development. There is a considerable risk of falling behind in both technical and economic terms. Companies that are currently investing massively in AI solutions are well-advised, given this, to grapple promptly and proactively with the consequences of possible regulation of AI. 

AI for Good - can artificial intelligence make the world more sustainable?

The second global argument focuses on the “what” of artificial intelligence, on the search for “good” AI applications, which mitigate the effects of climate change or solve the challenges of a rapidly increasing global population. From the “AI for Good” initiative by the UN through the World Economic Forum and the AI XPRIZE Competition to major AI players such as Google, Microsoft or Siemens, there are already large numbers of players and projects looking for answers to whether use of AI can trigger the paradigm shift needed to set us on course to living and doing business sustainably. 

For the most part, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, in which the global community specified its goals for sustainable development, serve as a reference point here. The list of “Sustainable AI Use Cases” is expanding, from AI-optimised wind farms to the automated evaluation of satellite images to manage aid measures in disaster areas. The Earth Lab– a cooperative venture which combines the numerous Fraunhofer institutes, technical universities, the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) with Microsoft, companies and NGOs to develop AI application scenarios to protect the earth is also of interest. However, exciting projects must ultimately become functional “sustainable AI business cases”. The potential for this exists. The time has come for new approaches.  

Companies must develop their own attitude

Many companies are already working hard at a strategic level on their contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals and their transformation to a “Responsible Business”. The specific potential of artificial intelligence is already being gauged as a matter of urgency. The next future issues to which there are no easy answers are waiting at the interfaces of AI strategy, business development and corporate sustainability. However, without these answers, the technical potential of artificial intelligence cannot be translated into sustainable commercial success.

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