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Media hype aside, real evidence shows that artificial intelligence (AI) already drives a major shift in the global economy. You now use it in your day-to-day life, as you look to Netflix to recommend your next binge or ask Alexa to play music in your home. And the benefits of AI are driving the technologies into every corner of the global economy. Look, for example, at the number of times the largest U.S. companies mention artificial intelligence in their 10-K filings.
Will AI mean a massive technological boost to sustainability priorities? Or will the rapid changes associated with AI give us a net negative sustainability outcome? By mining the narrative disclosures that companies make about their CSR activities, we can derive some insights into how AI is transforming corporate sustainability activity. Using keyword searches in ESG Trends, a dataset of corporate sustainability disclosures, we looked across thousands of CSR reports and CDP disclosures from large, global companies to see what, if anything, companies are disclosing about the impact of artificial intelligence. This analysis below, which measures mentions of AI in corporate sustainability reports and CDP filings, can help us start to answer the question: What does AI mean for sustainability?
What we see is that AI is already having an impact on corporate sustainability activity. Companies already are making use of AI to achieve step changes in, for example, efficiency and emissions reductions, and to innovate new products and services. These AI applications for sustainability are not widespread, and they are early stage, but the data suggests that AI can bring significant benefits for sustainability in the medium term. What we don’t see, however, is much evidence that companies are understanding the numerous and serious risks that AI presents.
Artificial intelligence is already here. It will continue to gain in complexity and sophistication. It presents excellent opportunities for efficiencies and innovation, many of which were unthinkable just a few years ago.
Many of these innovations will allow us to make significant progress on the most difficult environmental and social problems facing humans. At the same time, these same efficiencies and innovations bring with them new risks, such as automated bias and large-scale job losses. More companies quickly must come to grips with both the sustainability opportunities and risks that AI brings.
by Conor Riffle