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Rethinking the Inevitability of AI: The Environmental and Social Impacts of Computing in Historical Context

In late 2023, news broke that Microsoft was looking into developing nuclear reactors to power their forays into AI. According to the International Energy Agency, data centers may be on track to double their energy usage by 2026 thanks in large part to AI and other power-hungry computing applications.

At the same time, companies globally have begun pushing their free or low-cost “AI” tools to consumers, businesses, on many college campuses, and in K-12 education. Many educators have come under intense pressure to “integrate” these largely untested, energy hungry tools into their teaching, while multiple industries have undergone premature labor corrections due to the expectation that AI will soon diminish the need for workers.

To date, the burgeoning demand for power and water to support data centers across the U.S. and globally has occasionally made headline news, but impacts on the environment are usually overshadowed by the tech industry’s need for more power, both literally and figuratively.

Mar Hicks and Erik Linstrum, who recently received an EI Spark Grant for their work, are convening a one-day, online conference for the purpose of historically contextualizing AI and computing, particularly with respect to the environment. The goal of this conference is to highlight and share work that helps us better understand this history, our current situation, and our potential futures.

The impacts of computing infrastructures on the natural environment, the built environment, energy consumption, and water use will be a particular focus, but because the environmental and social impacts of computing technologies are deeply intertwined--from mining and manufacture, to data centers, to end users--the conference also welcomes work on the meanings of AI and associated computing technologies for education, labor, racial justice, gender norms, and other areas. Drawing on the work of scholars such as Mél Hogan and Tamara Kneese, who will keynote the conference, and journalists such as Karen Hao and Chris Stokel-Walker, among many other people doing work in this and allied spaces, this online conference will create an opportunity to share new work on computing infrastructure’s past, present, and future, and all the ways so-called AI winters and AI booms have changed the landscape and the wider world.

Registration required and available online here.

8:00 am - 5:00 pm

Event Resources