David Rejeski, visitor scholar at the Environmental Law Institute, describes efforts to obtain objective information about the “green” impacts of technological innovations such as blockchain, platform sharing and artificial intelligence.
When the environmental community addresses advances in technology, it often does so “10 to 15 years too late,” says Rejeski. In the process, it tends to get pulled in opposite directions — viewing a particular aspect of technology as either the destruction or salvation of the planet.
ELI’s recent research in this area is an attempt to find middle ground, with conclusions driven by objectivity and analytical rigor. Such an approach has been lacking when it comes to modern-day advances in tech, Rejeski says. Not enough money or effort is being spent by governments and independent research groups on assessing the true impact of technology on the environment. As a result, “The questions are really hard to answer.”
Notwithstanding the preliminary nature of ELI’s own studies, Rejeski is largely bullish on the prospects of blockchain. The technology has been tied to cryptocurrencies, for which it was invented as a means of recording transactions of bitcoin, raising concerns over the immense amount of energy it takes to create and maintain a blockchain. Recent research, however, suggests that blockchain draws far less energy than bitcoin mining, he says. And it offers substantial benefits to supply chains looking to trace the provenance of products from raw materials to consumption.
The same misconception about excessive energy usage applies to server farms, which are employing artificial intelligence to determine the optimal amount of cooling that’s required in big data centers.
Rejeski says the environmental community should engage with new technology at an earlier stage, working with engineers to understand the true impact of ever-evolving systems, and how they might become more energy-efficient.
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