How to invest sustainably in AI

By Professor Mark K. Smith, CEO at ContactEngine
Professor Mark K. Smith, CEO at ContactEngine shares their insights into artificial intelligence and how to invest sustainably into the technology

Images of wildfires, hurricanes and droughts blaring from every news channel and social feeds have pushed the majority of people over the cultural tipping point on environmental issues. 

The result has been millions of more sustainable choices being made every day and this has now reached a critical mass where individual choices are prompting companies and organisations to change, along with investment habits. 

There are plenty of good moral reasons to invest in sustainable AI businesses but increasingly now there are good business reasons to do so as well. Sustainable businesses place emphasis on reducing waste and maximising their own resources – habits that are essential for businesses to be successful. 

Sustainable investments weigh up three factors – Environmental, Social & Governance, or ESG. ESG investments attracted $51.1bn of net new money from investments in 2020, that’s more than double the level of investment of the previous year. 

And while it’s not guaranteed that ESG investments will always outperform the environmental laggards, there is evidence to suggest that putting money behind these companies is the right thing to do for strong returns. But how do you identify the companies that are genuinely making a difference? Thankfully there are numerous tools and methods out there to make the right decision.

Apps make it easy

Values are incredibly personal and individual but there are apps that can help you invest in tech companies that align with your own beliefs. Public, for example, organises stock within certain themes, so you can search for ‘Combat Carbon’ for environmentally friendly businesses or look for ones that do all their manufacturing in their home territories. 

The app also enables you to search for terms like ‘Women CEOs’, enabling you to find businesses that are living up to the values most important to you. 

Use dedicated green platforms

Platforms like Clim8 enable investors to move their money towards businesses working towards a more sustainable future with confidence. They have a very strict exclusion policy that removes any activity associated with fossil fuels, tobacco, gambling, weapons and big tech companies, focusing instead on six themes – clean energy, smart mobility, clean technology, clean water, sustainable food and a circular economy. 

All businesses go through extensive screening before being added, meaning you can invest with confidence. 

Watch out for smoke and mirrors

ESG fund managers tend to seek companies that have science-based targets that are vetted by outside experts. Many companies talk about reaching net-zero using technology that doesn’t exist yet, which doesn’t quite cut it for a truly savvy sustainable investor. Companies that are the most serious about climate change will publish specific plans for reducing carbon across all of their supply chain. 

If a company is simply promising to plant thousands of trees to offset their activity, then that raises alarm bells. Offsets are a short-term solution and do not represent any real meaningful change. Don’t be fooled by greenwashing. 

One other promise to look out for is when companies suggest they are moving towards net-zero but exclude what happens to their product when used. 

This is especially common in the oil industry. Imagine a scenario where you extract oil using power only generated sustainably – wind, wave, solar etc. Well that’s all well and good – but when the product you are extracting is inevitably used – mostly burnt – then the fact that you extracted it at net zero is irrelevant at best, and net-zero claims are disingenuous at worst.

Pay attention to the leaders 

No company is perfect, but leaders deserve praise when they go for change, not least because, more often than not, it prompts the rest of the market to do the same. Google, for example, has been leading the charge on net zero for years, but has more recently changed its focus to eliminating ‘legacy carbon’. Microsoft has similar plans. The idea behind this approach is to remove everything they’ve emitted since launch. Very, very soon carbon neutral will no longer be considered enough to be sustainable, it’ll be: ‘Go carbon negative or bust’.  

Beware the unexpected

I have always been an advocate for technology – it seems as though the collective intelligence of our species can rise to most occasions and solve the seemingly intractable. It’s what we are best at, who would have believed 2 years ago that the World might be able to provide a vaccine for COVID19 in less than one year? Remarkable. 

However other advances – such as the extraordinary progress made with Natural Language Understanding brings with it some quite unexpected environmental consequences. When OpenAI announced its latest language model (GPT-3) in 2020 it represented some 175 billion parameters. 

That leap forward comes at a significant environmental cost because accuracy improvements depend on the availability of exceptionally large computational resources that necessitate similarly substantial energy consumption. 

Work by Emma Strubell (Assistant Professor in the Language Technologies Institute at Carnegie Mellon University) a year earlier had suggested that training for just one model consumes some 626,155 pounds of CO2. Putting that in context it is the equivalent to the CO2 used by 5 average cars in their lifetime, or 315 flights between New York and San Francisco. 

Conclusion

AI sustainability is a paradigm of consilience – economics, ethics, ecology and technology combined. ContactEngine’s AI has a personality of its own, which reflects our team and our approach to sustainable AI. 

We train our models microscopically and mindfully with serious intentions to make a difference, avoiding large speculative language model pre-training tasks and hyperparameter tuning, for example, effectively avoiding unnecessary cloud compute usage wherever we can. 

Equally, and regarding the cloud, our choice of provider has been made with sustainability and the environment in mind. It’s for that reason why we are so keen to champion investments in sustainable AI more broadly and ensure that individuals are holding companies to account for their claims and aspirations.

We’re upfront and honest about ours and there’s no reason why other companies can’t be the same. 

It’s time to ensure that we are investing in the right direction for a more sustainable future, with AI front and centre. 

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