The ascendency of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are quickly going beyond what humans ever imagined.
Over 20 years ago, American technologist and futurist Ray Kurzweil coined the "law of accelerating returns" which demonstrates that the pace of technological progress speeds up exponentially through history. “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate),” he wrote in a 2001 essay on the subject.
When left to think about this, I have mixed feelings of exhilaration at the potential of technological progress, as well as fear over the notion of singularity, the merging of humans and robots to the extent that it collapses human civilization as we know it. There are two sides to everything and whilst no one knows exactly what the long-term impact of AI will be, it’s best not to venture into this minefield and focus on what we know can help businesses tackle their biggest challenges today.
Companies are facing complex challenges in their attempt to balance business demands while adhering to sustainability goals. Achieving a net-zero emissions economy by 2050, as 197 governments agreed to do under the Paris Agreement, will require dramatic transformation in every sector of the economy. One undeniable area where AI can help leaders is by bringing insights from data at a massive scale and helping them to make smarter, more sustainable decisions.
“AI can accelerate an organization’s progress toward its goals through automation of slow points in decision-making with [environmental, social and governance (ESG)] constraints in mind; elimination of human error; and speeding up processes that can slow down an organization's progress,” says Sarah Thuo, global sustainable sourcing and managed services leader for IBM Consulting Sustainability Services. For instance, in energy management, AI can be used to make decisions around when machines should be used, when electricity can be turned off, and how to balance grids while conserving the use of resources, Thuo says.
In an IBM survey of over 3,000 CEOs, nearly half ranked sustainability as a top priority for their organizations, an increase of 37 percent from 2021. However, 51 percent also cited sustainability as one of their greatest challenges.
“It is virtually impossible to make a positive sustainability impact if you haven’t set goals and cannot measure how your actions affect ESG goals,” Thuo says. “Setting and tracking sustainability goals requires data gathering, curation, and analysis from multiple data sources that reside in multiple systems around the company and even outside the company.” AI can solve for this. IBM, for example, is using AI to build a base of data for all underlying facilities and assets needed for the sustainable management of over 50 million square feet of space across 800 locations in 100 countries.
“AI can help companies measure ESG data where it’s stored and transform it into predictive insights," Thuo explains. "These insights can be used to assess progress toward sustainability benchmarks and help reduce the environmental impact of daily business operations, for example, by improving how companies manage their facilities, physical assets, data centers and supply chains."
Ensuring responsible supply chains is another enormous issue for multinational corporations. Although companies pledge to work only with suppliers that adhere to social and environmental standards, it is hard to put this into practice as visibility deep into the supply chain is limited. “AI and automation can enable organizations collect data, identify risk, validate documentation and provide audit trails, while also managing their carbon, waste, energy, water consumption and materials,” Thuo says.
Failure to mitigate climate change, inability to adapt to climate change, and extreme weather events are the top three risks for businesses over the next 10 years, according to the World Economic Forum's most recent Global Risk Report.
The U.S. economy alone stands to lose an estimated $500 billion per year by 2090 if we fail to act on climate change. "AI can be the game-changer here — helping companies analyze climate, weather and geospatial data, and bringing that data together with business operations to manage risk," Thuo says.
Using AI applications for the environment has the potential to boost global GDP by 3.1 percent to 4.4 percent, while reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by 1.5 percent to 4 percent, by 2030. The productivity benefits of AI applications that result from optimizing data and automation of manual tasks could generate anywhere from $3.6 trillion to $5.2 trillion and create up to 38.2 million jobs globally.
A 2022 Boston Consulting Group study found that the organizations harnessing advanced digital technology solutions for emissions measurement are twice as likely to reduce them in line with their ambitions.
As companies look to shift from a triple to quadruple bottom line — people, planet, profit and impact — advanced technologies like AI are essential catalysts in enabling a more sustainable future, faster.
Image credit: Tara Winstead/Unsplash
Abha Malpani Naismith is a writer and communications professional who works towards helping businesses grow in Dubai. She is a strong believer in the triple bottom line and keen to make a difference. She is also a new mum, trying to work out a balance between thriving at work and being a mum. In her endeavor to do that, she founded the Working Mums Club, a newsletter for mums who want to build better careers and be better mums.