Elemental Ethics for AI: Mobilising Water in Data Centres and Lithium Activism in Chile

On Wednesday, 25 Oct 2023, Dr Sebastián Lehuedé, CGHR’s Postdoctoral Scholar, spoke to packed room of students, practitioners and academic staff about his theoretical explorations and empirical fieldwork he conducted during his time at CGHR.

Sebastián held that research and activism have increasingly denounced the problematic environmental record of the infrastructure and value chain underpinning Artificial Intelligence (AI). Water-intensive data centres, mineral extraction and e-waste dumping are incontrovertibly part of AI’s footprint. Sebastián turned to areas affected by AI-fuelled environmental harm and identifies an emerging form of activism, which he termed ‘elemental ethics’. Elemental ethics interrogates AI’s problematic relationship with the elements that make up the world (such as water), critiques the undermining of local and ancestral approaches to nature and unearths the vital and quotidian harms engendered by so-called ‘intelligent’ systems. 

While this ethics is emerging from grassroots and Indigenous groups, it also connects with discussions within environmental philosophy on the capacity of elemental thought to prompt practical action. In empirical terms, this talk looked at two groups in Chile centring water in their struggle against a Google data centre project in Santiago and lithium extraction (used for rechargeable batteries) in Lickan Antay Indigenous territory, Atacama Desert. As Sebastián showed, elemental ethics expands ‘counting carbon’ approaches to sustainable AI and questions whose lived experience counts in debates about extinction scenarios brought about by AI. 

We would also like to highlight and congratulate Sebastian on his appointment to a Lectureship in Ethics, AI and Society in the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London.