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  • Writer's pictureSimon Kaack

Eco-Friendly AI? Southeast Asia’s Early Adopter Advantage

AI applications became most common tools on many Southeast Asian phones. ©Focal Foto.Flickr.CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED.

Southeast Asia, a diverse and dynamic region, is rapidly embracing artificial intelligence (AI). Such applications are deeply embedded in daily lives throughout the region, driving our cars, curating our newsfeeds, and even diagnosing our health conditions. However, the integration of AI technologies is not only reshaping lives of tech-savvy Southeast Asians, but also raising important questions about its implications for the future.

While the potential of AI is immense, it comes with a set of challenges. One of the primary concerns is the impact on the environment. Large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT are widely used in Southeast Asia and have revolutionised how we interact with technology, offering unprecedented capabilities in natural language processing. However, as these models grow in size and complexity, their ecological impact becomes an increasingly important topic for discussion.

Data Centres like Google's in Iowa require immense energy supplies. ©Chad Davis.Flickr.CC BY 2.0 DEED

One of the most pressing concerns about AI's ecological impact is its carbon footprint. Training sophisticated AI models requires an enormous amount of computational power, which, in turn, consumes significant energy. For instance, the training process for a single AI model can emit as much carbon as five cars over their lifetimes. This is mainly due to the energy-intensive nature of data centers that power AI computations, which often rely on fossil fuels.

The energy consumption of AI extends beyond just training models. AI systems need to be constantly updated and maintained, requiring continuous energy input. Data centers, the backbone of LLM operations, are notoriously energy intensive. They not only require power for computing but also for cooling systems to prevent overheating. As the demand for more sophisticated AI tools grows, the energy consumption of these data centers escalates, contributing to higher carbon emissions unless powered by clean energy sources.

Another ecological concern is the generation of electronic waste (e-waste). AI-driven devices and infrastructure have a limited lifespan and, without proper recycling protocols, end up contributing to the growing problem of e-waste, which can release harmful toxins into the environment. The hardware used in data centers has a finite lifespan and, without proper recycling protocols, contributes to the global e-waste problem. Additionally, the production of this hardware requires significant raw materials and resources, further amplifying its environmental impact.

While the ecological impact of AI is significant, it's also important to acknowledge how AI can contribute positively to environmental sustainability. AI can optimise energy use in various sectors, from reducing power consumption in data centers to enhancing the efficiency of renewable energy systems. For instance, AI algorithms can predict demand and supply in the energy grid, enabling more effective use of renewable resources.

Wildfires and other disastrous environmental impacts can be closely monitored with the help of AI.

Moreover, the agriculture sector, vital for Southeast Asia’s economies, is witnessing significant advancements through AI. Farmers are using AI-driven analytics to optimise crop yields, manage resources more efficiently, and predict market trends. The technology can be instrumental in addressing food security challenges and promoting sustainable farming practices.

Furthermore, AI can play a pivotal role in monitoring environmental changes and biodiversity. For example, AI-powered drones and satellite imagery can track deforestation, illegal fishing, or wildlife movements, providing valuable data for conservation efforts. Simultaneously, climate modeling efforts, providing us with pivotal information on climatic change, are, at least partly, driven by AI applications.

Additionally, AI can also help reduce waste by optimising supply chains and predicting maintenance needs, thereby extending the lifespan of devices, and reducing the volume of e-waste. Implementing robust recycling and repurposing programs for obsolete tech equipment can help address the e-waste challenge.

The key to mitigating AI's ecological impact lies in balancing its benefits and drawbacks. This includes investing in greener energy sources for data centers, improving the energy efficiency of AI algorithms, and developing policies for the responsible use and disposal of AI-powered devices. In addition, improving the energy efficiency of these data centers and the algorithms themselves can significantly reduce their environmental impact.

With large young populations applying AI from an early age, ASEAN holds a significant advantage. ©Asian Development Bank.Flickr.CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED.

To accurately kickstart all the described possibilities, educating users and creators about the ecological impact of AI tools is of paramount importance. Hence, policymakers need to factor environmental dimensions of AI into their governance models. Currently, the ASEAN AI policy is centered around the ASEAN Guide on AI Governance and Ethics, as a framework for responsible and ethical AI usage across member countries. This initiative reflects a commitment to align with global standards while addressing the unique needs of the ASEAN region. However, environmental concerns but also potentials only play a subordinate role.

Thus, a social rethink is required to collectively make sense of the major challenges of our time, such as climate change and AI. By leveraging AI responsibly, we can harness its potential to contribute to a more sustainable and environmentally conscious future. Southeast Asia and its people have the best prerequisites for this much-needed change.



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