Apr 03, 2023

Sustainable development and ChatGPT: Some meaningful conversations

Shalini Talwar, Associate Professor, Finance & Economics and Research Lead, CISD, SPJIMR

ChatGPT, a language model trained by OpenAI, has intrigued the world with its potential to impact professional and personal life. It is a powerful interactive tool capable of understanding and responding to prompts and questions in a manner that the human brain does.i It is acknowledged across the globe that this form of generative AI will revolutionize sectors from healthcare to banking. Since its launch in November 2022, ChatGPT has continued to make headlines for its outstanding performance. Its latest act of a lawyer for a design agency has helped recover $109,500 from a client who ghosted after extracting maximum work from the agency.ii The impact of ChatGPT on education has also been much debated. It has surpassed all expectations, passing every school exam, whether law, medical, or business.iii Academic research has also had its fair share of ChatGPT moments, with some research papers citing ChatGPT as one of the authors . This has also unleashed an extensive discussion about ethics, plagiarism, and other potential grey areas.iv Nevertheless, ChatGPT is a valuable resource, and not leveraging it correctly would not be an optimal decision.

All types of conversations with ChatGPT in different contexts motivated me to converse with it on sustainable development. To my knowledge, such a conversation has yet to be reported/published online. There are some instances of conversation about climate tech and sustainability.v

I must admit that it was an engaging and intelligent conversation, with the generative AI not failing even once to impress me with its to-the-point and relevant responses, so much so that I am sharing some extracts of the conversation.

Me: How would you define sustainable development?

ChatGPT: Sustainable development is a concept that refers to meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It involves balancing economic, social, and environmental considerations to ensure long-term viability and prosperity.

Me: That’s a great definition. Can you give me some examples of sustainable development practices?

ChatGPT: Sure. Sustainable development practices can include things like reducing energy consumption, using renewable resources, minimizing waste, promoting biodiversity, and supporting social equity. For example, using solar or wind energy instead of fossil fuels is a sustainable development practice because it reduces greenhouse gas emissions and helps protect the environment.

Me: That makes sense. What do you think are some of the biggest challenges in sustainable development today?

ChatGPT: One of the biggest challenges is population growth. As more people enter the world, there is a greater demand for resources, which can put a strain on the environment. Another challenge is the fact that many of our current practices and systems are not sustainable and changing them can be difficult and expensive. Additionally, there is a lack of awareness and education around sustainable development, which makes it harder to implement effective solutions.

Such ease, lucidity, and preciseness have responses reinforced the positive experiences shared by others. Motivated by such engrossing responses, I continued the conversation by asking, “What do you think of the three-pillar conception of sustainability?”. My surprise knew no bounds at the response I got: As an AI language model, I don’t have personal opinions or beliefs, but I can provide you with information and insights about the three-pillar conception of sustainability. The three-pillar conception of sustainability, also known as the triple bottom line, consists of three interconnected and interdependent dimensions: economic, social, and environmental. This conception recognizes that sustainability requires balancing the needs and interests of people, planet, and profit.

The three-pillar conception of sustainability provides a useful framework for understanding and addressing sustainability challenges. However, some critics argue that the conception doesn’t fully capture the complexity and interconnectedness of sustainability issues and that it doesn’t prioritize the needs of marginalized communities.

I then revised my question: “What are the three pillars of sustainability?”. This time around, I got a straightforward response: The three pillars of sustainability, also known as the triple bottom line, are economic, social, and environmental sustainability. These three pillars are interconnected and interdependent, and they must be considered together to achieve long-term sustainability. Together, these three pillars provide a framework for sustainable development that balances the needs and interests of people, planet, and profit, and ensures a sustainable future for generations to come. Interestingly, in response to this question, ChatGPT did not share the critics view.

This confirms that the phrasing of questions is critical, and being careful about the wording of questions can extract more appropriate responses. I persisted with another question: What role can you play in sustainable development? to which it responded: As an AI language model, I can play a role in sustainable development by providing information and insights on sustainable practices, promoting awareness of sustainability challenges, and supporting sustainable initiatives through my responses. Overall, as an AI language model, I can support sustainable development by providing accurate information, promoting awareness, highlighting sustainable initiatives, and encouraging sustainable behaviors.

When I revised the question to: What role can ChatGPT play in sustainable development?, to my astonishment, I got a sharper response: As an AI language model, ChatGPT can play a significant role in sustainable development by providing information and insights on sustainable practices, promoting awareness of sustainability challenges, and supporting sustainable initiatives through its responses. Overall, ChatGPT can contribute to sustainable development by providing accurate information, promoting awareness, highlighting sustainable initiatives, encouraging sustainable behaviors, and supporting sustainable decision-making.

After confirming with Chat GPT that it was a generative AI, or more specifically, a language model, I rephrased the above question to ask: “How can generative AI support sustainable development?” I got the following response: Generative AI has the potential to support sustainable development in several ways. Overall, generative AI has the potential to support sustainable development by optimizing resource use, developing sustainable products and services, predicting, and mitigating environmental risks, supporting sustainable decision-making, and promoting sustainable behaviors.

The above conversation confirms that as an innovation, ChatGPT has an undeniable bright side. However, to put its relevance as innovation for sustainable development in the proper perspective, I also tried to understand its dark side. To this end, I asked: “What are the pros and cons of using ChatGPT for sustainable development?”

After enumerating accessibility, scalability, efficiency, and personalization, as its strengths, ChatGPT quite unabashedly recounted its cons as limitations in accuracy, bias, lack of emotional support, issue of data privacy and security, reliance on technology, and reduction in human-to-human interactions. It concluded by cautioning that the cons need to be considered carefully when using this technology for sustainable development. I persisted further, asking, “How does the use of ChatGPT hinder sustainable development?” and it responded by replying: The use of ChatGPT itself is not inherently detrimental to sustainable development. However, its potential limitations related to accuracy, bias, reliance on technology, and lack of emotional support need to be carefully considered when using this technology to support sustainable development.

As one last question to close the loop on the topic, I queried: “Is ChatGPT sustainable?”, and true its form ChatGPT replied: As an AI language model, ChatGPT does not have a direct impact on the environment or natural resources, and thus its use does not have a significant effect on the sustainability of natural resources or ecosystems. However, the sustainability of ChatGPT can be assessed based on factors such as energy consumption, resource efficiency, and ethical considerations. Overall, while ChatGPT itself may not directly impact sustainability, its development and use must be guided by principles of sustainability, energy efficiency, resource efficiency, and ethical considerations.

Succinctly, the essence of using ChatGPT effectively is asking the right questions and using it as a starting point to built-up on rather than using it as the only tool for researching a particular topic/theme.

iBarnard, M. (2023, January 9). 7 Things You Can Do to Drive Climate Action: ChatGPT Can Help You Get Started. CleanTechnica . https://cleantechnica.com/2023/01/09/7-things-you-can-do-to-drive-climate-action-chatgpt-can-help-you-get-started/

ii Jose, B. (2023, February 28). ChatGPT as lawyer helps CEO recover $109,500 from client who ghosted. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/technology/artificial-intelligence/chatgpt-as-lawyer-helps-design-agency-recover-109500-8466316/

iiiVaranasi, L. (2023, January 28). ChatGPT is on its way to becoming a virtual doctor, lawyer, and business analyst. Here’s a list of advanced exams the AI bot has passed so far. Business Insider India. https://www.businessinsider.in/tech/news/chatgpt-is-on-its-way-to-becoming-a-virtual-doctor-lawyer-and-business-analyst-hereaposs-a-list-of-advanced-exams-the-ai-bot-has-passed-so-far-/slidelist/97388435.cms#slideid=97388478

ivStokel-Walker, C. (2023, January 18). ChatGPT listed as author on research papers: many scientists disapprove. Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-023-00107-z

vMakower, J. (2023, February 6). My exclusive interview with ChatGPT about AI, climate tech and sustainability. GreenBiz. https://www.greenbiz.com/article/my-exclusive-interview-chatgpt-about-ai-climate-tech-and-sustainability

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