New InterNET ZERO project will help combat energy-hungry autonomous systems

A new £250K project involving Lancaster University researchers and Energy Systems Catapult will examine the environmental impacts caused by autonomous Internet technologies, including AI and Machine Learning, and how design-led research can help to redress these issues.

As the Internet evolves through new modes like smart devices, multi-player gaming and the Metaverse, autonomous systems built on AI and Machine Learning are often promoted as resource efficient technologies which help to mitigate the unsustainable impacts of this rapidly expanding data-driven ecosystem.

However, these systems can themselves be extremely energy hungry and create huge amounts of CO2 emissions. Subsequently, they contribute to digital technology’s growing global carbon footprint which is currently around 4% of worldwide emissions.

Funded by the UKRI EPSRC TAS Hub, the InterNET ZERO project will aim to help tackle the environmental, social and technical challenges being presented by autonomous Internet technologies by transforming academic knowledge into practice.

To do so, the 15-month project will draw upon expertise and techniques from across the fields of Design, Human-Computer Interaction and Science & Technology Studies.

Led by Dr Michael Stead from Lancaster University’s design research laboratory ImaginationLancaster, the research team comprises Imagination colleagues Professor Paul CoultonFranziska PillingDr Neelima SailajaProfessor Andy Crabtree and Professor Derek McAuley from Horizon Digital Economy Research Centre at the University of Nottingham, and Dr Ola Michalec from the University of Bristol’s Cybersecurity Group.

“Due to their ubiquity and scale, the environmental impacts of the autonomous systems which drive the Internet are intensifying and their sustainable trustworthiness can be called into question” says Principal Investigator Dr Stead.

“AI and Machine Learning are making more of the key decisions regards the Internet’s energy use and emissions, with less human oversight.

“There is consequently a growing argument that if society is to successfully transition to a digital Net Zero future, we should start to consider these technologies as key mediators that must be actively negotiated with, in the same way that we work to build trust between one another.”

To explore these issues, the researchers will collaborate with cross-sector partners Energy Systems Catapult, Blackburn’s digital fabrication lab The Making Rooms, and climate data cooperative Subak.

Together, they will run a programme of work that will engage with a range of stakeholders – including technologists, policymakers, and citizens – to rethink current autonomous system design and co-create new visions and pathways for more resource responsible and trustworthy Internet infrastructures.

Senior Digital and Data Consultant at Energy Systems Catapult, Greg Johnston will work with the research team.

He said: “The InterNET ZERO project provides us with a fantastic opportunity to focus on how the decentralisation of digital systems and energy can have impact for communities across the UK. The work will explore how autonomous systems are trusted, explained, and held accountable as they perform a larger role in society.”

The project will run until June 2024.

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