Our New Artificial Intelligence Infrastructure: Becoming Locked into an Unsustainable Future

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Scott Robbins
Aimee van Wynsberghe

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming increasingly important for the infrastructures that support many of society’s functions. Transportation, security, energy, education, the workplace, the government have all incorporated AI into their infrastructures for enhancement and/or protection. In this paper, we argue that not only is AI seen as a tool for augmenting existing infrastructures, but AI itself is becoming an infrastructure that many services of today and tomorrow will depend upon. Considering the vast environmental consequences associated with the development and use of AI, of which the world is only starting to learn, the necessity of addressing AI alongside the concept of infrastructure points toward the phenomenon of carbon lock-in. Carbon lock-in refers to society’s constrained ability to reduce carbon emissions technologically, economically, politically, and socially. These constraints are due to the inherent inertia created by entrenched technological, institutional, and behavioral norms. That is, the drive for AI adoption in virtually every sector of society will create dependencies and interdependencies from which it will be hard to escape. The crux of this paper boils down to this: in conceptualizing AI as infrastructure we can recognize the risk of lock-in, not just carbon lock-in but lock-in as it relates to all the physical needs to achieve the infrastructure of AI. This does not exclude the possibility of solutions arising with the rise of these technologies; however, given these points, it is of the utmost importance that we ask inconvenient questions regarding these environmental costs before becoming locked into this new AI infrastructure.