Massive benefits of AI come with environmental and human costs. Can AI itself be part of the solution?

Massive benefits of AI come with environmental and human costs. Can AI itself be part of the solution?

Generative AI has a large carbon footprint and other drawbacks. But AI can help mitigate its own harms—by plowing through mountains of data on extreme weather and human displacement.

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The recent explosion of generative artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT and Dall-E enabled anyone with internet access to harness AI’s power for enhanced productivity, creativity, and problem-solving. With their ever-improving capabilities and expanding user base, these tools proved useful across disciplines, from the creative to the scientific.

But beneath the technological wonders of human-like conversation and creative expression lies a dirty secret—an alarming environmental and human cost. AI has an immense carbon footprint. Systems like ChatGPT take months to train in high-powered data centers, which demand huge amounts of electricity, much of which is still generated with fossil fuels, as well as water for cooling. “One of the reasons why Open AI needs investments [to the tune of] $10 billion from Microsoft is because they need to pay for all of that computation,” says Kentaro Toyama, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan. There’s also an ecological toll from mining rare minerals required for hardware and infrastructure. This environmental exploitation pollutes land, triggers natural disasters and causes large-scale human displacement. Finally, for data labeling needed to train and correct AI algorithms, the Big Data industry employs cheap and exploitative labor, often from the Global South.

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Payal Dhar
Payal is a writer based in New Delhi who has been covering science, technology, and society since 1998.
A new oral vaccine could prevent urinary tract infections for years

Urinary tract infections account for more than 8 million trips to the doctor each year.

Getty Images

Few things are more painful than a urinary tract infection (UTI). Common in men and women, these infections account for more than 8 million trips to the doctor each year and can cause an array of uncomfortable symptoms, from a burning feeling during urination to fever, vomiting, and chills. For an unlucky few, UTIs can be chronic—meaning that, despite treatment, they just keep coming back.

But new research, presented at the European Association of Urology (EAU) Congress in Paris this week, brings some hope to people who suffer from UTIs.

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Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.

MILESTONE: Doctors have transplanted a pig organ into a human for the first time in history

A surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital prepares a pig organ for transplant.

Michelle Rose/Massachusetts General Hospital

Surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital made history last week when they successfully transplanted a pig kidney into a human patient for the first time ever.

The recipient was a 62-year-old man named Richard Slayman who had been living with end-stage kidney disease caused by diabetes. While Slayman had received a kidney transplant in 2018 from a human donor, his diabetes ultimately caused the kidney to fail less than five years after the transplant. Slayman had undergone dialysis ever since—a procedure that uses an artificial kidney to remove waste products from a person’s blood when the kidneys are unable to—but the dialysis frequently caused blood clots and other complications that landed him in the hospital multiple times.

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Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.