I spent a week asking AI about sustainability, resulting in tasty meals and a lot of circular conversations.
Most of us want to be more sustainable. So why isn’t everyone living the ideal eco-friendly life?
Sometimes the cost of living sustainably can throw us off track. Other times, we simply don’t know where to start.
The internet is an infinite trove of information - and misinformation. Sifting through it has become increasingly mind-boggling, many times leaving us unsure what path to take.
With ChatGPT hitting one hundred million global users last month, I set out to see if the AI tool can help me make sense of it all. Over the course of the week, I called on the AI bot to help me make affordable green lifestyle changes. Here’s how it went.
ChatGPT: Clever personal assistant or glorified search engine?
I started my week with a few goals related to my own lifestyle habits. Firstly, I wanted to find out if my transport is as sustainable as it can be. Next, I wanted to reduce my food waste. Finally, I wanted to see if AI could come up with some creative solutions that I hadn’t yet considered.
I’d heard that AI is only as good as the information you put in. So I spent about an hour giving it details about what my common modes of transport were and what food I already had in my cupboards.
It was a pretty tedious task. Halfway through, I remembered that you can ask ChatGPT to change how it speaks to you. I asked for a friendly and positive tone, which prompted it to congratulate me every time I made an entry. I quickly asked it to tone this element down.
Once we’d got to know each other, I put the bot to its first real test: to weigh up different modes of transport for getting from my flat into the centre of Edinburgh.
It gave me a long list of options, essentially telling me what I already knew (human-powered or public transport is more sustainable than a car) without being able to make any definitive decisions.
This was the theme of the week: despite the fact I gave it a decent amount of information about myself, ChatGPT behaved much like a hyper-personalised search engine. It can regurgitate information and you can finetune how it speaks to you - but it’s far from a clever personal assistant.
ChatGPT helped me to avoid food waste
Despite a rocky start, I persisted in my ChatGPT quest - and I won some small victories.
Later on in the week, I asked the bot to create me a meal based on ingredients that were about to go off: pine nuts, cherry tomatoes and onion.
It immediately came up with a fairly straightforward recipe, but one that included couscous, something I didn’t have to hand. I asked it to swap it out and it had plenty of suggestions, including ones that I had in the cupboard. Job done in seconds, rather than the painstaking half hour that I usually spend scouring recipes to find one that ticks every box.
I had a tasty dinner and minimised my contribution to the UK’s annual 9.5 million tonnes of food waste.
Can ChatGPT really create sustainable behaviour changes?
My experience showed that ChatGPT can be pretty hit-and-miss. Even though it does have its uses, I was left unconvinced it was my path to a greener future.
As a tool for creating habit and lifestyle changes, like any other, it’s reliant how much its users genuinely want to change.
For example, if you often waste food, there may be other forces acting against your desire to stop the habit.
“The question [is] whether AI will somehow cause those who are prone to wasting food to change,” says Dr Matthew Bell, senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Ecology and Evolution.
He says you need to consider why you are wasting food in the first place.
“It may come down to a desire for novelty and variety in food, and the relative affluence to be able to afford chucking away the less appealing food,” he continues.
As to whether ChatGPT can combat this behaviour, he’s sceptical.
“Will AI change this? I doubt it.”
Here lies the root of the issue: AI can certainly offer us clever ways to be more sustainable, but it still takes that first spark of motivation to carry this through into everyday life.
What the tool can do is help you know where to start.
ChatGPT is the internet’s best record keeper
At the end of the week, my experiment with AI was not in vain.
ChatGPT wasn’t just handy for prompting me with ideas; it’s also a meticulous record keeper.
I fed in information about what I had in my cupboards at the beginning of the week and it remembered that data flawlessly - certainly better than I could. This helped me avoid the usual routine of making several trips to the fridge to double-check what I have while trying to do an online shop.
“It has the potential to provide the sort of organisational efficiency to a domestic kitchen that is required in professional kitchens,” agrees Dr Bell. “The value is not in… reminding you to be sustainable, but simply in being a sort of pantry steward.”
ChatGPT is a ‘co-pilot, not an oracle’
It’s also important to remember that ChatGPT is still learning and improving. AI researcher Brady Neal noted that the tool, even in its most recent updates, is far from infallible.
“It’s good for being your co-pilot, such as iteratively brainstorming with you,” explains Brady. “It's not necessarily good as an oracle, [providing] facts and answers that are hard to verify.
“Generally, I'd say it is useful for tasks where conscious thinking and intelligence are useful.”
Ultimately, I had a lot of fun with my AI pal over the course of the week and the novelty of using the tool certainly got me thinking more about the impact of my decisions.
For basic questions, like how best to store onions to avoid them going off, it could help a lot. Anything more subjective than that, and it started to flounder.
Will I continue letting it make all my decisions for me? Probably not. But I’ll certainly be making good use of the most meticulous pantry assistant out there and letting it devise more tasty meals for me to eat.