Why AI is not just another tool
10 points techno-optimists and techno-pessimists should not ignore.

Part 1

Slide from Nate Hagen’s lecture “The Superorganism and the future‍” at the Stockholm Impact/Week 2023.

I am missing a few points among AI proponents and AI opponents that I would like to bring up for discussion. The naive version of techno-optimism ignores the costs and consequences of AI. The naive version of techno-pessimism ignores the urge and compulsion to remain competitive, but also the opportunities AI offers.

The dynamics surfacing in the light of the popularization of AI are of great interest to me because I, too, promise greater efficiency with my teachings of Flexible Systems for Visual Identities. A few years ago, I would have considered efficiency as one of the most important advantages of Flexible System Design. Now, however, my perspective has radically changed. Automation and increased efficiency have become possible through AI in almost all (digital) parts of our lives. At first glance, this may seem like a positive development. To make it understandable why developments that seem positive and intentions that are good can have negative consequences, I need to elaborate a bit.

Increased efficiency leads to increased energy and material consumption

Let’s assume that the developers and users of AI have good intentions. Why even good intentions can have negative consequences can be illustrated with the Jevons Paradox.1 Jevons was an English economist who looked at the more efficient use of coal due to James Watt’s steam engine. During the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century, coal consumption increased immensely.

More efficient use of a raw material that takes 250 million to 350 million years to form and thus cannot be replenished in our lifetime seems to be a positive development at first glance. Thomas Newcomens’ previous model used much more coal with less power. Jevons’ analysis found that more efficient use of the resource caused the cost of the resource to fall, thereby expanding its use to other uses.

Thus, more efficient use led to increased consumption rather than decreased consumption. Over a hundred years later, with fatal effects on the environment, and many wars fought over diminishing raw materials and resources, we should be smarter. AI means a rapid increase in efficiency, which also means a rapid increase in the consumption of energy and materials.

Even with a more “sustainable” power supply, total energy and material consumption will increase because increased efficiency also means total increased use. A hundred years ago, when resources seemed infinite, a blind spot to the consequences in the first and second instance (second-order effect) was understandable. With the knowledge we have today, however, a blind spot to the consequences of our actions is just naive or worse, ignorant. Just because digital tools don’t create big clouds of smoke or steam doesn’t mean they don’t exist. A study from the University of Massachusetts Amherst states that training a single AI model can generate as much carbon emissions as five cars in their entire lifetimes.2

AI is not just another tool. AI is a technology with exponential growth and high optional uses. While steam engines could only be built and used by a few, AI can be used by just about anyone.

ChatGPT is the fastest-growing consumer internet app of all time, according to UBS.3 Instagram took two and a half years to be actively used by over 100 million people every month, TikTok took nine months, and ChatGPT only two months. By January 2023, 13 million people were using ChatGPT every day. Meanwhile, AI is integrated into just about every piece of software, and new AI-based apps are emerging daily.

Branding is the communication from companies to consumers. It (for a big part) defines the visual communication of our public analog and digital spaces. With AI we have a tool in our hands that can communicate with unprecedented efficiency and effectiveness. We need to be aware of this. Do we want to co-create an unstoppable seduction machine with uncalculable costs and consequences?

If we look only at ourselves, then the negative and positive consequences of our actions may seem of little relevance. But when we look at ourselves in a larger system, we realize that our behavior can also affect others in that system, precisely because we are part of the system. AI, as well as the decision to use it or not with criteria still to be developed by us, is an opportunity for new planet-centered perspectives and behaviors.


1 In economics, the Jevons paradox (/ˈdʒɛvənz/; sometimes Jevons effect) occurs when technological progress or government policy increases the efficiency with which a resource is used (reducing the amount necessary for any one use), but the falling cost of use induces increases in demand enough that resource use is increased, rather than reduced. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jevons_paradox

2 AI is harming our planet: addressing AI’s staggering energy cost

3 ChatGPT sets record for fastest-growing user base – analyst note https://www.reuters.com/technology/chatgpt-sets-record-fastest-growing-user-base-analyst-note-2023-02-01/

More not directly related sources:

Five ways AI might destroy the world: ‘Everyone on Earth could fall over dead in the same second’ https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2023/jul/07/five-ways-ai-might-destroy-the-world-everyone-on-earth-could-fall-over-dead-in-the-same-second

The hidden costs of AI: Impending energy and resource strain
Deep Jariwala and Benjamin C. Lee on the energy and resource problems AI computing could bring. https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/hidden-costs-ai-impending-energy-and-resource-strain

Energy and Policy Considerations for Deep Learning in NLP

AI Can Do Great Things—if It Doesn’t Burn the Planet
The computing power required for AI landmarks, such as recognizing images and defeating humans at Go, increased 300,000-fold from 2012 to 2018. https://www.wired.com/story/ai-great-things-burn-planet/