Hidden ecological impact of voice assistant devices exposed

The top award winner from the Design Museum in London in 2019 demonstrates that voice-activated devices in the workplace don’t come without an environmental cost

As AI in general and voice assistant devices in particular start to flood into the workplace, have you ever stopped to think about the social and environmental impact of these technologies? We often assume that digital innovation will in some way offset the threat to sustainability posed by our accelerating working life…but we’d be wrong.

An infographic and research project ‘Anatomy of an AI System’ by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler explores the amount of human labour, data and resources required in the making and lifespan of just one voice assistant device. It takes the Amazon Echo as an example to produce a visual diagram illustrating the real-world consequences of such an innovation – from the environmental effects of extracting rare earth metals and the wide disparity in income of the workers involved, to the data that these devices can gather without the users’ knowledge.

‘It seemed the perfect moment to analyse its impact of AI…’

Anatomy of an AI System’ was named as the overall winner of the Beazley Designs of the Year 2019 by London’s Design Museum in November 2019. According to the chairman of the judging panel, Dr Paul Thompson of the Royal College of Art, ‘AI is such a prevailing feature of the future of technology it seemed the perfect moment to analyse its impact, which this project does. In the future, when you purchase a piece of digital hardware it could have the ingredients listed. This project shows how this might look and makes everyone who sees it think about all the unseen impact.’

Other work-related projects in the Design Museum award scheme, which is widely seen as a barometer of emerging trends in design and innovation, include a self-driving bus by Muji and Sensible 4; an elegant wayfinding system by Sascha Lobe of Pentagram for architect David Chipperfield’s cosmetics company HQ in Seoul, South Korea; and an expandable performance centre on wheels called The Shed designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro with the Rockwell Group, which redefines the essence of large-scale flexible architecture.

The Shed from Diller Scofidio + Renfro on Vimeo.

An exhibition of the Beazley Designs of the Year runs at the Design Museum in London until 6 January 2020


See a video of the award-winning ‘Anatomy of an AI System’ here
Find exclusive content in the


Premium content for Global Partners, Corporate and Community Members.
The latest analysis and commentary on the future of work and workplace in four distinct themes: Research & Insights, Case Studies, Expert Interviews and Trend Publications.