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AI and Life Cycle Assessment

Using artificial intelligence responsibly

You might have heard about the field of artificial intelligence, and perhaps you have heard of life cycle assessment too? Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a technique to assess environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product’s life.

Companies working within the field of artificial intelligence or buying products may want to know that this process was undertaken in a responsible manner. If so where does it begin (cradle) and where does it (stop) in each individual case? In a wholesome manner one may have to consider the computer, the data centre, the AI chip so on and so forth — how much of the wider ecosystem of services integrated in the product or service that is delivered as AI has to be considered.

Before we talk specifically about the field of artificial intelligence and why LCA may be relevant it might be worth taking a look at what this cycle means.

The International Organization for Standardization is an international standard-setting body composed of representatives from various national standards organisations.

According to standards in the ISO 14040 and 14044, an LCA is carried out in four distinct phases. The phases are often interdependent, in that the results of one phase will inform how other phases are completed.

What are the aforementioned ISO?

Environmental management

Let us start with ISO 14040:2006 Environmental management — Life cycle assessment — Principles and framework.

“ISO 14040:2006 describes the principles and framework for life cycle assessment (LCA) including: definition of the goal and scope of the LCA, the life cycle inventory analysis (LCI) phase, the life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) phase, the life cycle interpretation phase, reporting and critical review of the LCA, limitations of the LCA, the relationship between the LCA phases, and conditions for use of value choices and optional elements.”

Therefore as it covers inventory it does not describe LCA technique, nor methodologies for individual phases of the LCA. Intended is considered within goal and scope, yet application is not in this standard.

In the introduction section of ISO14040 there is short summary of what LCA can assist in:

  • “Identifying opportunities to improve the environmental performance of products at various points in their life cycle,
  • Informing decision-makers in industry, government or non-government organizations (e.g. for the purpose of strategic planning, priority setting, product or process design or redesign),
  • The selection of relevant indicators of environmental performance, including measurement techniques, and
  • Marketing (e.g. implementing an ecolabelling scheme, making an environmental claim, or producing an environmental product declaration)”

As mentioned the four phases are as follows:

This is listed in the ISO14040 in the current manner:

“a) The goal and scope definition phase,
b) the inventory analysis phase,
c) the impact assessment phase, and
d) the interpretation phase.”

The first details subject and intended use, this can vary depending on goals.

The second is a collection of data necessary to meet the goal.

The third part is about understanding a product system’s environmental significance. This can be helped by examining the life cycle inventory analysis done in the second phase.

The fourth deals with summaries, conclusions, recommendations and decision-making.

LCA is not always right, and does not cover everything — for example it covers neither economic or social aspects of the product (that one may argue could be relevant for the overall life cycle).

“LCA is one of several environmental management techniques (e.g. risk assessment, environmental performance evaluation, environmental auditing, and environmental impact assessment) and might not be the most appropriate technique to use in all situations. LCA typically does not address the economic or social aspects of a product, but the life cycle approach and methodologies described in this International Standard can be applied to these other aspects.”

ISO14040 definitions

The ISO14040 contains a series of definitions that I thought to list. I will not list all, but I will mention a few.

Life cycle: consecutive and interlinked stages of a product system, from raw material acquisition or generation from natural resources to final disposal.

Life cycle assessment: compilation and evaluation of the inputs, outputs and the potential environmental impacts of a product system throughout its life cycle.

Life cycle inventory analysis: phase of life cycle assessment involving the compilation and quantification of inputs and outputs for a product throughout its life cycle

Life cycle impact assessment: phase of life cycle assessment aimed at understanding and evaluating the magnitude and significance of the potential environmental impacts for a product system throughout the life cycle of the product.

Life cycle interpretation: phase of life cycle assessment in which the findings of either the inventory analysis or the impact assessment, or both, are evaluated in relation to the defined goal and scope in order to reach conclusions and recommendations.

Comparative assertion: environmental claim regarding the superiority or equivalence of one product versus a competing product that performs the same function.

Transparency: open, comprehensive and understandable presentation of information.

Environmental aspect: element of an organisation’s activities, products or services that can interact with the environment.

Data quality: characteristics of data that relate to their ability to satisfy stated requirements.

System boundary: set of criteria specifying which unit processes are part of a product system.

Recognition of EU

The EU recognises that LCA is a valuable way to assess the potential impact of products.

In its Communication on Integrated Product Policy (COM (2003)302), the European Commission concluded that Life Cycle Assessments provide the best framework for assessing the potential environmental impacts of products currently available”
European Platform on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

How could it be implemented for AI?

The typical approach within LCA is natural science based.

“Decisions within an LCA are preferably based on natural science. If this is not possible, other scientific approaches (e.g. from social and economic sciences) may be used or international conventions may be referred to.”

I think there is a lot to be said for measuring energy and resources, there has to be a broad approach to thinking about how different LCA’s of various components needed to make AI happen could be coordinated. Indeed who would be responsible and how would it be clarified?

Perhaps there are people within the field of AI doing LCA’s already in a complex manner, if so I would very much like that you commented on this article so I could learn more.

AI could be used as well in the process of LCA as I previously have described in the case of forest management with 20tree.ai.

This is #500daysofAI and you are reading article 304. I am writing one new article about or related to artificial intelligence every day for 500 days.

AI Policy and Ethics at www.nora.ai. Student at University of Copenhagen MSc in Social Data Science. All views are my own. twitter.com/AlexMoltzau