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Pumpjacks extracting oil during sunset

Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are developing machine learning tools for the fossil fuel industry even as they pledge to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

What’s new: A report from the environmental group Greenpeace spells out partnerships between Big Tech and Big Oil, and contrasts them with each company’s promises to cut atmospheric carbon. Google responded by promising to stop developing new AI products for “upstream extraction” of fossil fuels.

What they found: The report details 14 cases in which tech companies have built models to help oil and gas giants find, transport, and store fossil fuels.

  • ExxonMobil uses Microsoft’s Azure Cloud to monitor thousands of drilling sites across the American Southwest, boosting profits and production. Greenpeace estimates that the resulting atmospheric carbon will equal 21 percent of Microsoft’s current emissions.
  • Amazon helped Willbros, a Texas-based oil infrastructure company, develop software that maps optimal routes for new pipelines. The tool will accelerate pipeline building by as much as 80 percent, bringing fossil fuels to market faster.
  • Google said it will continue to honor existing partnerships including a deal with Chevron, which licenses Google’s AutoML platform to help discover previously undetected oil deposits.

Behind the news: Training the latest deep learning models consumes immense quantities of energy, and all three companies have made substantial commitments to reduce the toll.

  • Amazon aims to be carbon neutral by 2040.
  • Microsoft plans not only to go carbon-neutral but to invest $1 billion in carbon-capture technology to account for all of the company’s historical emissions.
  • Since 2017, Google has purchased enough renewable energy to match its annual electricity consumption.
  • Employees at Google, Microsoft, and Amazon have protested against their companies’ ties to fossil fuel companies.

Why it matters: The apparent contradiction between oil-industry work and efforts to cut carbon emissions highlights a tension between AI’s industrial potential and Big Tech’s corporate values. The Covid-19 pandemic has hit oil and gas hard, and AI could help it recover once energy demand revives. At the same time, the technology can be a powerful tool in efforts to reduce greenhouse gases widely understood to be driving global climate change.

We’re thinking: Private companies shouldn’t have the burden and responsibility of deciding which industries deserve access to AI resources. We would welcome a consistent framework crafted by governments or international bodies to promote uses of AI for net social benefit.


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