Moving towards the dream, are we?
“Moving towards the dream, are we?” is an immersive speculative experience that confronts the implications of both sea-level rise and our over-reliance on artificial intelligence to create solutions for climate change. The purpose of this project is to realize our responsibilities to impede the drastic implications of rising sea levels and communicate the importance of ethical use of technology, while raising awareness of our over-dependence on artificial intelligence to solve climate problems-the problem to which, ironically, artificial intelligence is one of the biggest contributors.
Being a nature lover, I have been working on numerous projects highlighting the implications of climate change in the past two years. I have been experiencing the effects of climate change very evidently in my hometown, New Delhi, India. I live in the central prime location of the city, which has water supply for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening due to the rapid decrease in groundwater levels as a result of rising temperatures. Last summer, New Delhi recorded one of the hottest days in history, a temperature of 48 degrees Celsius. I wanted my thesis to reinforce the fact that climate change is not a far-off thing; it is happening now and requires us to act now. The effects are evident and prevalent around the world in varied forms. Scientists say that within the next 12.5 years, it will become impossible to lessen the severity of these implications due to global warming and climate change. Still, we have already reached a stage at which the harm done can’t be undone; nonetheless, taking small steps would go a long way in alleviating further damage.
While studying the various impacts of climate change in the form of flooding, heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, rising temperatures, and extinction of species, now becoming evident in different parts of the world, I shifted my focus to studying the impacts of climate change on New York City.  I wanted the project to confront the threats climate change poses to the city on a local scale so that people relate and have a deeper connection in understanding the severity of the situation. I have been in New York for almost two years now. Last year, I was very excited to experience the different seasons here in New York as the changes in the seasons are not very evident in my hometown back in India. I noticed that fall was very short, and before the majority of the trees could turn into orange and red colours, the season was over. By diving into some research last year, I realized the seasons becoming shorter in length is an implication of climate change too. In New York, a coastal city, rising sea levels due to global warming pose the biggest threat to the city.
Implications of sea-level rise due to climate change
According to the measurements recorded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), global sea level has risen by about eight inches since 1880. It is projected to rise between 18-50 inches by 2100. Sea level rise is caused primarily by two direct implications of climate change: the added water from the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers, and the expansion of warming sea waters due to rising global temperature.
Flooding due to sea-level rise has already been evident in some parts of the world. Last year, the city of Venice was submerged and called for a state of emergency after being hit by an exceptionally high tide, the worst in 50 years. Parts of Mumbai, Shanghai, and Bangkok are at risk of being wiped out. Britain’s coastal wetlands are under threat of vanishing. Heritage sites in Venice and Pisa will be threatened by sea-level rise within decades. In fact, rising sea levels pose a major threat for flooding in many regions around the world, especially when combined with other implications of climate change, such as storm surges and high tides. It is estimated that rising sea levels and catastrophic storm surges could displace 280 million people around the world by the end of the century.
The melting of polar ice-caps and the retreat of glaciers across the globe in Greenland, the Arctic, Iceland, Alaska, and other places match the expectations of the impacts predicted based on the current level of warming. The frequency of droughts and heatwaves around the world has significantly increased in the past few decades. With biodiversity facing high levels of threat, we are headed towards the start of many mass extinctions. Birds, butterflies and many other species are having to alter their ranges across the planet in response to climatic changes. The world population is 7.8 billion people, as of March 2020, and the predicted global temperature rise based on natural and anthropogenic factors spans between 1.5-4 degrees. These projections are based on the rising carbon emissions being added into the atmosphere over the past decades. Rising global temperatures have a direct impact on the melting of glaciers and warming of the seas, leading to an increase in sea levels.
In response to the rising sea levels, cities around the world are proposing urban planning models to adapt to the predicted increase in sea levels. Some of these adaptations referred to the science of restoring ‘carbon balance’, which is an essential part of life on earth. Other proposals included “smart cities” and “floating cities”, all-inclusive of advanced technologies to create urban models that artificially increase the level of the land to prevent flooding from rising sea levels.
Sea level rise and the imminent threat to New York City
By 2050, New York City’s average temperature is expected to rise between 4.1 and 6.6 degrees Fahrenheit, with annual precipitation expected to increase between 4-13%. This could lead to dangerous waves resulting from drastic rise in the sea level due to rapid melting of the Antarctic ice sheets as the ocean warms. Worst case scenario, this could lead to a rise in the sea levels between 18-50 inches.
With New York’s coastal marine counties being home to more than half of New Yorkers, it is imperative we understand how our actions can make even the smallest difference in lessening carbon emission. Sea level rise poses a major threat to the lives of New Yorkers, as flooding would affect the availability of resources and the economy. Flooding would damage homes near the water and lead to the displacement of more than half of New Yorkers. It would shut down businesses and impact sales. Underground tunnels would flood, rendering subways impossible to operate, which is the primary mode of transportation for a large number of people in New York City.
Evaluating the sources for carbon emissions
When considering the implications of rising sea levels, it was important to evaluate the different sources of carbon dioxide (CO2) that are contributing to atmospheric contamination. Today, CO2 levels are higher than they have ever been in the last 650,000 years; the Earth is warmer than it has been in the past 1,000 years. There are numerous factors that have contributed to this rise, from our carbon footprints as individuals, to pollution by industries and corporations around the world.
I started my project by analyzing individual contributions to emissions. According to calculations done by the Climate Central, an average American has a carbon footprint of about 20 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. Global estimates indicate that an average human has a footprint of about 5.5 tons, as opposed to the world target of a footprint of 2 metric tons of CO2 per individual to impede the implications of climate change. My next step, to evaluate if the individual contribution to emissions should be the primary point of focus moving forward in the project, was to collate all my research data and visualize the different sectors that contribute most to carbon emissions. According to the emissions data by the Environmental Protection Agency, energy consumption is a huge sector adding to carbon emissions, contributing almost 28% of 6,457 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent as in 2017. The most significant sources of these emissions are data centres and industries using advanced technologies. On learning this information, I became interested in the question of the harm versus the convenience caused by evolving technologies which lead to more consumption of electricity and energy emissions. This led me to narrow down my focus specific to the emissions from advanced technologies like artificial intelligence.
Fig. The path of my research process
Carbon footprint of advanced technologies
Artificial Intelligence (AI): A recent study, “AI needs more energy than five cars”, by Lu, Donna published in June 2019 by New Scientist, proves that artificial intelligence is an energy-intensive technology. It raises questions over the carbon footprint of training machine learning models: “New estimates and research analyze and prove that the carbon footprint of training and creating a single AI is equivalent to as much as 284 tons of carbon dioxide, which is five times the lifetime emissions of an average car.” It examines and confirms the fact that artificially intelligent models are trained via deep learning, which involves processing vast amounts of data. The greater the complexity of the problem the model is being trained for, the greater the requirement of data that needs to be fed to the AI model to be able to aptly analyze and give results. This means greater energy consumption and higher emissions.
The study continues: “A process called neural architecture search, which produces accurate AIs by automating the design, was particularly energy-intensive and time-consuming. Training a transformer without this process takes 84 hours, but more than 270,000 hours with it, requiring 3,000 times the amount of energy. Such training is split over dozens of chips, so takes months to complete rather than years.” The authors also question the energy emissions by big tech firms and the huge emissions from data centres. They state that to get a more accurate picture of the associated carbon footprint, the analysis would have to account for the actual energy mix used by these companies.
Blockchain: Based on the most detailed analysis to date of cryptocurrency’s carbon footprint, the studies and research point at the huge carbon footprint of Bitcoin, which creates approximately 22 megatons in CO2 emissions annually—comparable to the total emissions of cities such as Hamburg or Las Vegas.
Data centres: Computer servers, which store website data and share it with other computers and mobile devices, create the magic of the virtual world. But every search, click or streamed video sets several servers to work which activates servers in six-eight data centres around the world, consuming real energy resources. Data centres store electronic information like emails, photos and videos, and consume around 10% of the total global electricity worldwide. One drastic comparison that struck me was between the ‘likes’ that a YouTube video gets and the amount of energy that gets released by data centres to process that online traffic. “The music video for ‘“Despacito’” set an Internet record in April 2018 when it became the first video to hit five billion views on YouTube. In the process, ‘”Despacito’” reached a less celebrated milestone: it burned as much energy as 40,000 U.S. homes used in a year.”
The study, Bitcoin emissions alone could push global warming above 2°C, analyses the emissions from data centres, explaining in-depth the energy consumption by complex and advanced technologies like Bitcoin. It examines and explains that for a data centre to remain functional, it either needs to have been built in a country with a naturally cold climate or to be housed in a temperature-controlled environment that must be maintained round the clock. According to the study, around 40 per cent of the total energy that data centres consume goes into cooling the information technology (IT) equipment. Coolants are often made of hazardous chemicals, and battery backups at data centres, needed for when there are power shortages, cause an environmental impact both due to mining for battery components and the disposal of the toxic batteries afterwards.
Emissions from millions of data centres worldwide using energy extensive hardware to train data account for draining country-sized amounts of electricity and generation of carbon emissions as much as the global airline industry. Several models predict that the energy usage from data centres around the world, if left unchecked, could account for over 10% of the global electricity supply by 2030. The same predictions say that by 2040, storing digital data can account for as much as 14 per cent of the world’s emissions.
Are data centres destroying the environment? Are they a huge contributor to emissions, adding to climate change? The short answer: YES.
Artificial intelligence and climate change solutions
Artificial intelligence is present around us in numerous forms, from models being developed to assist educational systems, to involvement in medical science such as detecting cancer cells. Artificially intelligent models, neural networks, and deep learning are all being used to predict and create solutions for climate change implications, too. While studying the different solutions being proposed, I came across numerous projects and proposals using artificial intelligence as the key to creating solutions for climate change.
“Neureal” is a prediction engine, founded by Wil Bown, that combines blockchain, artificial intelligence technology and cloud technologies, currently working on an AI-based method to predict the exact path of hurricanes due to climate change. “AI for Earth” is an initiative by Microsoft to tackle various implications of climate change, including the tracking of endangered species around the world. Artificial intelligence models being trained to create solutions for climate change, such as the above-mentioned examples, requires the model to train on millions and millions of datasets, which can take years to yield results based on the above-stated analysis, adding massive amounts of emissions into the atmosphere.
The numerous projects being launched and massive models being trained to create solutions for climate change raise questions about the ethical use of technology. With proven research and analysis on the massive carbon footprint of advanced technologies, I was led to ask: is it right to rely on it to solve the problem it is massively adding to? Is our over-dependence on one of the biggest contributors to climate change, to solve climate change, justified and ethical? Suggesting a solution which adds more to the cause of the global crisis in question, doesn’t sound like the best solution to me.
An immersive speculative world to confront the realities of sea level rise
The motive from the very beginning of my project was to inculcate the viewer with a sense of loss, depicting the change in landscapes and portraying the future of this global issue. My aim in building a speculative and immersive world into the future was to stimulate a sense of loss and responsibility towards the impending changes around the world due to climate change. The primary focus was to confront the implications of sea level rise and the consequences of our over-reliance on advanced technologies like artificial intelligence, with massive carbon footprint, to create solutions for it. I chose world-building employing what Jacques Derrida termed a “philosophy of hauntology”, to create shock value and to trigger a sense of “solastalgia”, nostalgia due to terrain lost to climate change. The motive was to reinforce the fact stated by Barack Obama that, “Climate change is no longer some far–off problem; it is happening here; it is happening now.”
Fig. Still from the world
According to von Stackelberg & McDowell in the study Worldbuilding in Science Fiction, Foresight and Design, world-building is the process of constructing a complete and plausible imaginary world that serves as a context for a story. In my world-building project, my aim was to highlight the massive footprint of the technologies being extensively used to create solutions for climate change, in an interactive speculative world which is easily understood by people.
As a designer, I believe that visuals work better than words. When you show someone what the future looks like, it has a lasting impact upon their minds. My project does not aim to sugarcoat reality or give false hope that there is a great chance to reverse climate change. It confronts and depicts what the world would look like when these drastic implications of climate change would occur in the next 20 years. It works in tandem with scientific data to show what sea-level rise at the predicted levels will look like for New York City in the near future. It also aims at bringing to light the analysis and research on the massive carbon footprint of advanced technologies, adding to climate change.
The world is designed to reflect the implications of sea level rise in New York City in different zones between the years 2020 and 2100, with a primary focus on two major aspects. The first is the emotional aspect that triggers a feeling of loss from the impacts of flooding due to sea level rise, which happens in the world in the form of audio and video triggers that tell “stories from the past”, shared by people who suffered loss due to the implications of sea level rise in the speculative world. And the second is the scientific aspect that focuses on delivering proven projections for carbon emissions and sea level rise over the different zones and highlighting emissions sources in the form of data centres and conversations with artificial intelligence. The world dynamically points at the emissions and sea levels based on the position of the user in a particular zone and year, informed by the emission source near them.
Fig. Still from the world
Moving towards the dream, are we?
My thesis is about taking responsibility for actions that contribute to climate change. It is about understanding the ethical use of advanced technologies that emits huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. It is about understanding loss, due to the implications of sea level rise leading to the displacement of lives and destruction of property. It is about being clear of what we want to leave behind for future generations. It is a journal of loss, a speculative world that maps the history of loss to inculcate an understanding of human actions and decisions influencing change.
The biggest problem in discussing climate change is that when we talk too far into the future, people have a hard time visualizing that change, due to the fact that they might not be a part of that future timeline. It is crucial we understand that these predictions are based on reliable scientific data and that this is going to happen. If not to us, then to our future generations. It is time we take action, even if in our own small ways to reduce emissions and impede these drastic impacts of sea-level rise due to climate change. Because one day of our negligence is one day closer to the drastic impending implications of this global crisis around the world. We have only 12.5 years before the harsh impacts of climate change become irreversible.
“Moving towards the dream, are we?” points at the irony of the dream of progressing in every field with technological advancement. While, in reality, the emissions from these sources are actually adding to the severity of the global crisis in a way that may actually be advancing us more rapidly towards mass extinction and loss due to the impacts of climate change.