Skip to main content

AI in the Wild - Peter Dauvergne ***

Sometimes a science book can highlight a totally new connection between two disciplines, and that was certainly the case here - linking environmental science and sustainability with artificial intelligence. Peter Dauvergne shows how (as is also in the case in many other fields) AI can both be a positive and a negative influence on the environment.

On the plus side, we see how AI is being used for everything from sending semi-intelligent drones out to look after the Great Barrier Reef to detecting illegal activities in protected areas by monitoring sounds and identifying those identified with, say, illegal logging in a forest. Perhaps the biggest impact comes from the use of AI in smart resources to reduce climate impact of everything from domestic houses to data centres.

This is all great stuff, but Dauvergne also shows the dangers that AI can present to the environment. This can come from misuse of the technology, but also from the resources needed to make the technology work. Often this results in a balancing act. So, for example, self-driving electric cars are good for the environment when used, but have a negative impact when the raw materials for the batteries and electronics are mined. What we don't really get is a feel for how to quantify this balance. This is a notoriously difficult activity - see, for example, the (failed) attempts to assess which is more environmentally friendly of reusable and disposable nappies.

The subject, then, is important, and Dauvergne uncovers some real positives and issues than many readers will not find familiar. However, the way he goes about it is not great. I was struck by one of the blurb comments on the back where a professor says 'this book is as fast-paced and thrilling as any sci-fi storyline.' All I can say is, this professor must read really boring novels, as the writing style here is classic dull academic: the book is packed with fact statements and is almost entirely lacking in any narrative flow.

To make matters worse, a lot of these statements that are thrown at us are not backed up with evidence or balance. As an example, there are dramatic statements of the way AI is sweeping the world, for example in the deployment of self-driving cars - but very little about all the issues self-driving car manufacturers face in going from localised trials to proper implementation, for example, the limitations of computer image recognition which can be fooled by small constructed patterns and the lack of consideration of resistance to the very idea of self-driving cars as more people are killed by them. 

The author's politics also come through extremely strongly, which leads to the extension of the argument well beyond the environment, diluting the thrust of the book. So, for example, we are told (without evidence) that ‘Global sustainability is going to require a fairer, more just distribution of wealth and resources’. I am not saying this is necessarily untrue, but it’s not an obvious conclusion and it's not really about the environment. Dauvergne emphasises the existence of inequality but doesn’t mention the vast improvements in the circumstances of many at the bottom end of this scale - it's almost as if Hans Rosling's Factfulness didn't exist.

There's a core of interesting and useful information here, but it's a shame it's not presented better.


Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Tim Harford - Four Way Interview

Photo by Frank Monks Tim is an economist, journalist and broadcaster. He is author of the million-selling The Undercover Economist. Tim is a senior columnist at the Financial Times, and the presenter of Radio 4’s More or Less the iTunes-topping series Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy, and the podcast Cautionary Tales. Tim has spoken at TED, PopTech and the Sydney Opera House. He is an associate member of Nuffield College, Oxford and an honorary fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. Tim was made an OBE for services to improving economic understanding in the New Year honours of 2019. His latest book is How to Make the World Add Up . Why statistics? Statistics tend to be viewed as a vector for misinformation - hence the popularity of Darrell Huff's book How To Lie With Statistics (said to be the most popular book about statistics ever written) and numerous modern classics such as Bad Science and Innumeracy. But statistics are also a vital tool for understanding the world

There are Places in the World where Rules are Les Important than Kindness - Carlo Rovelli ****

This is, without doubt, Carlo Rovelli's best book. I have not been impressed by his previous popular science titles - too much purple prose and not enough depth. But in this collection of wide ranging short articles, he has found his metier, able to flit from interest to interest, often captivating with his enthusiasm for everything from Nabokov to Newton’s alchemy. And, unlike its predecessors, this book is a decent length. Rovelli is clearly far more interested in philosophy than many physicists, rightly criticising those who make blanket denials of its value. A good number of the pieces touch on philosophy and its application to science, on subjects from quantum mechanics to consciousness. However, having as he does a scientific viewpoint, those who are put off by philosophy should still find the pieces interesting, if challenging to their prejudices. Some of the articles are solid science - for example a trio of articles on black holes. Others take us into perhaps surprising as

Cosmic Odyssey - Linda Schweizer *****

Based on its generic-sounding title, you might expect this to be a broad-ranging history of astrophysical concepts – and if you buy it on that basis you won’t be disappointed. From stellar evolution and the structure of galaxies to supermassive black holes, quasars and the expansion of the universe, Linda Schweizer shows – in admirably non-technical detail – how our understanding of the fundamental pillars of modern astronomy developed over several decades from a standing start. In spite of that, this isn’t a generic history at all. It has a very specific remit, encapsulated in the subtitle: ‘How Intrepid Astronomers at Palomar Observatory Changed our View of the Universe’. California’s Palomar Observatory is home to the ‘200-inch’ (5.1 metres – the diameter of the main mirror) Hale telescope, which was the premier instrument for optical astronomy from its inauguration in 1949 until the Hubble telescope became fully operational 45 years later. This was perhaps the most eventful and fas