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Will AI destroy the Earth?

Technology has been reasonably good to humanity, all things considered.

The Australian-invented Wi-Fi saved the word during the pandemic, and also stopped countless tonnes of CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere. Over the last 20 years, computers have made it easier to do everything from banking to grocery shopping.

That said, there is an environmental cost to all this, despite the positive impact of wi-fi. Satellite internet, for example, has a massive carbon footprint. The rocket launches involved are responsible for massive emissions of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide; this means that the carbon footprint of satellite-based internet services is 14 to 21 times greater than land-based internet options.1

Creating cryptocurrencies consumes massive amounts of electricity, and the phone in your pocket generally takes around a couple of tonnes of mined ore to build. Even streaming services have a carbon footprint, ranging from very small to the equivalent of some countries, depending on who you ask.

Artificial intelligence, however, doesn’t seem like it would have much of a carbon footprint; after all, it is just software, right?

Unfortunately software requires energy to train and run – a LOT of energy. Google, for example, is looking to supercharge its search engines with AI2, and there are no doubt benefits to this; but should Google move the entire search business to AI, it would consume as much electricity per year as the country of Ireland.3

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As law firms, government departments, courts, and almost everything else jump on the AI bandwagon, carbon emissions are likely to go up, significantly. That isn’t good news for the environment, no matter how convenient it is to use ChatGPT to draft a document.

Why should lawyers care?

In the simplest sense, we often hear that AI will replace lawyers; a good comeback might be that we are more environmentally friendly.

More important, though, is the fact that clients – from the average person in the street to globe-spanning corporations – care a lot more about social impacts and carbon footprints than they once did. A mid-size firm using Large Language Models to create template advices and documents may well find clients posing questions about carbon footprints; it would be prudent to have an answer.

Clients will also need to be aware of the climate impact of various technologies, especially as governments around the world move towards regulating carbon emissions and punishing those who fail to meet standards. Lawyers will need to know about these regulatory risks and where they can hide in order to properly advise clients.

Finally, there is the simple need for lawyers to be generally aware of the myriad issues technology brings and which we and our clients must confront. We cannot afford to be unfamiliar with AI, what it can do, and its costs and benefits; we don’t have to like it – a ditch-digger doesn’t have to like the ditches he digs4 – but we need to know about it. While the duty of competence does not yet specifically mention technology, it is clear that at some point soon it will; may as well get our heads around it now.

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Footnotes
1 New Scientist, 14 October 2023 No3460, p14
2 https://blog.google/products/search/generative-ai-search/
3 New Scientist, 14 October 2023 No3460 p11
4 C. B. Gilford, “Flora and her Fauna”, collected in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Hard Day at the Scaffold” (shout out to Philip Anthony for this excellent reference)

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