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How smart technology is impacting environment

Dec 12, 2018, 4:58 pm

Everyone loves smart technologies. Barking orders to your Google Home or Amazon Alexa and having the little device actually do what you ask it to is a wonder of artificial intelligence and smart home connectivity that makes you feel like you’re living in the future. Who doesn’t love telling their mobile phone to turn the lights on in the living room while you’re still miles from home?

Yet there are issues to AI-based smart home automation, ones that we might not give much thought to. The truth is that using advanced technologies to provide a higher standard of living for ourselves might have some unintended side effects when it comes to the environmental impact of these technologies. Here’s how smart technology can sometimes be a double-edged sword when it comes to environmental impact — and how we can reduce that impact.

Growing Popularity Means Widespread Adoption

Sources say that up to 25% of Americans use smart technology in their homes. That number will only climb higher as smart devices become more refined and less expensive, and that means that the popularity of smart home integration is only going to increase. At the same time, innovations into artificial intelligence programming applications will improve as well, making today’s crop of Amazon, Google, and Apple AI assistants look like E.T.’s Speak-and-Spell tomorrow; this will further drive adoption of AI-assisted smart home devices.

On the surface this sounds great — more integration means better automation. Consumers will have less to worry about when it comes to the minutiae of running a household if they can set their lights to turn on in conjunction with sunset, have their thermostat automatically adjust its settings according to the weather report, and have the refrigerator generate a shopping list — or even order a delivery — when we run out of milk and eggs. If everyone wants a smart home, this will drive innovation in a major way, leading to newer, better, and more effective devices. How could there possibly be a downside?

Electric Avenue is Closed for Repairs

In a word — energy. The electricity needed to run smart devices may, in some instances, be so much greater than the automation and lifestyle benefits may be outstripped by the increased energy consumption of these devices. While in some instances the idea of self-regulating smart houses can have a positive impact on the environment (energy-efficient automated heating and cooling, for example, has the potential to reduce a house’s CO2 emissions by up to 13 percent), energy consumption has continued to be a major issue in the modern world.

High-tech innovations tend to lead to high energy consumption. An excellent example of this is how the electricity requirements of global bitcoin mining throughout a year are roughly equal to the annual energy requirements of the entire country of Ireland. While no one is mining cryptocurrencies with their smart toasters, the always-on nature of connected devices leads to higher energy requirements overall when compared to their not-so-smart counterparts. In fact, some research has shown that, over five years, smart plugs cost more in electricity than any benefit they may have to CO2 reduction.

Don’t Throw Out That Google Home Mini Just Yet

If you scratch the surface of any tech-head, you’re going to find an environmentalist underneath. We want amazing technologies, and we want them running on futuristic power sources that don’t involve burning coal or oil. That’s why the idea that our beloved smart devices are potentially ruining the environment is so completely upsetting — we want to be living in a utopian Star Trek world, not something that looks more like it came out of the pages of a Judge Dredd comic book.

But you don’t have to toss your smart thermostat in the trash just yet. There are plenty of ways, both currently in existence and on the horizon, that we can manage the double-edged sword of smart tech’s heightening power requirements. One method is fairly obvious: continuing the push towards renewable energy resources. Whether it’s wind, solar, tidal, or geothermic power generation, using green energy takes the pressure off fossil fuel-based energy generation, and it’s already making a difference — around 18% of energy in the US alone currently comes from green sources.

Moving Beyond Green Energy

Renewable energy resources are one way to reduce the impact of smart technology’s higher electricity requirements, but they’re not the only method that we can employ in our quest to achieve guilt-free (or at least low-guilt) enjoyment of automated tech. One of the most promising methods for reducing smart tech energy impact comes from the same features that are increasingly being integrated into smart tech today: artificial intelligence.

AI has always been destined for more than just providing you with a virtual assistant that can make appointments for you and then remind you that they’re coming up. There are, in fact, dozens of AI applications being researched and in development right now that are specifically geared towards providing higher levels of energy efficiency in some different environments, from energy grid, consumption, and storage management to energy forecasting and even accident management.

The Future of the Environmental Impact of Smart Technology

So where does this leave the average technology fan of today? Do we need to avoid adopting high-usage electronic devices until energy consumption issues are resolved? Do we just blithely use them anyway without worry, safe in the reassurance that “we’ll get there eventually” when it comes to green energy and AI-managed smart devices?

The answer, as always, is “that depends”. There’s no way of knowing for sure what the future holds. What is clear, though, is that research and innovation will continue until these issues are resolved — it’s not a question of if but of when. Until then, there’s no harm in using these new technologies. As long as we remain aware of the issue, we can enjoy smart tech both moderately and responsibly and to their full effect.

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