Couple of lions lying in Savannah, Kruger Park, South Africa

Book review: ‘AI in the Wild – Sustainability in the Age of Artificial Intelligence’

Image credit: Maximiliane Wagner/Dreamstime

Artificial intelligence has played a positive role in preserving our natural environment over the years, but it does make you wonder about the dire consequences of using such technology to advance global sustainability.

There’s no doubt that AI has done wonders for conservation. You can equip drones to monitor a pride of lions roaming the African plains, underwater robots can help patrol and restore coral reefs, and even remote sound monitors can alert rangers to illegal logging operations and poaching of endangered species. Such tools are increasingly being used to help achieve a fully sustainable planet.

But as we all know there is a dark side to AI, one that we cannot choose to ignore on the journey toward a more sustainable future. In fact, “those searching for pathways toward sustainability need to keep in mind Elon Musk’s warning that we risk 'summoning the demon' with AI,” Professor Peter Dauvergne writes in his book ‘AI in the Wild: Sustainability in the Age of Artificial Intelligence’ (The MIT Press, £20, ISBN 9780262539333). This raises the question as to whether there should be a set of rules, or ‘safeguards’, to ensure such genius technologies don’t stray down the path of madness and disarray.

Dauvergne explains that the “growing proficiency” of AI is “opening up a myriad of opportunities” to improve environmental management, and also feels a sense of awe at the ingenuity of these applications. For example, he writes about an organisation called Rainforest Connection who repurpose second-hand phones into solar-powered wireless devices. These devices alert rangers in the remaining rainforests across the globe to the presence of endangered species, and potential sounds of illegal logging, mining, and poaching – this is done through the detection of rumbling trucks and chainsaws among other things.

At the other end of the spectrum, the book also aims to unravel the political and economic causes of planetary destruction, where AI also plays a part. Indeed, Dauvergne argues that the rising power of AI is one of the most significant, and least understood, sustainability stories of our time. Here, he intends to break that cycle, providing an insightful analysis into whether AI can be used responsibly for environmental and social good as well as the hidden, or even unperceived, costs of using these technologies.

Dauvergne calls for us to look through a "political economy lens" to help us see the many limits, risks and damages of using AI. “This lens sees technology not as benign or neutral, but rather a reflection of capitalism and an instrument of power,” he writes. It also alerts us as well to the potential of AI to help states repress environmental activism, indoctrinate citizens, and perhaps even wage war. It seems here that while AI can be a powerful tool for good as it has the potential to be for wildlife and environmental conservation, it also has the potential to show its “dark side” when misapplied or misused – this perhaps could be down to political agendas or even the motives of bad actors.

In ‘AI in the Wild’, Dauvergne takes readers on a journey through some of the most incredible achievements applications of AI have made possible in the fight to protect the natural world, all the while highlighting its failures (in some cases) and unveiling the social and environmental costs of its development and deployment. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the global impact of using AI and how those who wield it have the potential to shape our world’s environment for the better.

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