A ‘thirsty’ generative AI boom poses a growing problem for Big Tech
A ‘thirsty’ generative AI boom poses a growing problem for Big Tech

Dubai, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — A international rush for the following wave of generative synthetic intelligence is rising public scrutiny on an often-overlooked however critically essential environmental difficulty: Big Tech’s increasing water footprint.

Tech giants, together with the likes of Microsoft and Alphabet-owned Google, have just lately reported a substantial upswing of their water consumption and researchers say one of many essential culprits is the race to capitalize on the following wave of AI.

Shaolei Ren, a researcher on the University of California, Riverside, published a examine in April investigating the sources wanted to run buzzy generative AI fashions, akin to OpenAI’s ChatGPT.

Ren and his colleagues discovered that ChatGPT gulps 500 milliliters of water (roughly the quantity of water in a normal 16-ounce bottle) for each 10 to 50 prompts, relying on when and the place the AI mannequin is deployed.

Hundreds of millions of monthly users all submitting questions on the favored chatbot shortly illustrates simply how “thirsty” AI fashions could be.

The examine’s authors warned that if the growing water footprint of AI fashions isn’t sufficiently addressed, the difficulty might grow to be a main roadblock to the socially accountable and sustainable use of AI sooner or later.

People participate in a protest known as by Uruguay’s Central Union (PIT-CNT) in “protection of water” towards the dealing with of the nationwide authorities with respect to the administration of the scarcity of consuming water reserves in Montevideo on May 31, 2023.

Eitan Abramovich | Afp | Getty Images

ChatGPT creator OpenAI, half owned by Microsoft, didn’t reply to a request to touch upon the examine’s findings.

“In common, the general public is getting extra educated and conscious of the water difficulty and in the event that they study that the Big Tech’s are taking away their water sources and they aren’t getting sufficient water, no person will prefer it,” Ren instructed CNBC through videoconference.

“I believe we’re going to see extra clashes over the water utilization within the coming years as effectively, so any such danger should be taken care of by the businesses,” he added.

‘A hidden value’

Data facilities are a part of the lifeblood of Big Tech — and a lot of water is required to maintain the power-hungry servers cool and operating easily.

For Meta, its these warehouse-scale knowledge facilities that generate not only the highest percentage of its water use but in addition the lion’s share of its power use and greenhouse gasoline emissions.

In July, protesters took to the streets of Uruguay’s capital to push again towards Google’s plan to construct a knowledge middle. The proposal sought to make use of huge portions of water at a time when the South American nation was struggling its worst drought in 74 years.

Google reportedly mentioned on the time the undertaking was nonetheless at an exploratory part and burdened that sustainability remained on the coronary heart of its mission.

With AI, we’re seeing the traditional problem with expertise in that you’ve got effectivity beneficial properties however then you might have rebound results with extra power and extra sources getting used.

Somya Joshi

Head of division: international agendas, local weather and techniques at SEI

In Microsoft’s newest environmental sustainability report, the U.S. tech firm disclosed that its international water consumption rose by greater than a third from 2021 to 2022, climbing to just about 1.7 billion gallons.

It implies that Microsoft’s annual water use could be sufficient to fill greater than 2,500 Olympic-sized swimming swimming pools.

For Google, in the meantime, whole water consumption at its knowledge facilities and workplaces got here in at 5.6 billion gallons in 2022, a 21% enhance on the yr earlier than.

Both corporations are working to cut back their water footprint and grow to be “water constructive” by the tip of the last decade, that means that they purpose to replenish extra water than they use.

Google plans to operate its data centers on carbon-free energy by 2030

It’s notable, nonetheless, that their newest water consumption figures had been disclosed earlier than the launch of their very own respective ChatGPT opponents. The computing energy wanted to run Microsoft’s Bing Chat and Google Bard might imply considerably greater ranges of water use over the approaching months.

“With AI, we’re seeing the traditional problem with expertise in that you’ve got effectivity beneficial properties however then you might have rebound results with extra power and extra sources getting used,” mentioned Somya Joshi, head of division: international agendas, local weather and techniques on the Stockholm Environment Institute.

“And relating to water, we’re seeing an exponential rise in water use simply for supplying cooling to among the machines which might be wanted, like heavy computation servers, and large-language fashions utilizing bigger and bigger quantities of information,” Joshi instructed CNBC through the COP28 local weather summit within the United Arab Emirates.

“So, on one hand, corporations are promising to their prospects extra environment friendly fashions … however this comes with a hidden value relating to power, carbon and water,” she added.

How are tech companies lowering their water footprint?

A spokesperson for Microsoft instructed CNBC that the corporate is investing in analysis to measure the power and water use and carbon affect of AI, whereas engaged on methods to make massive techniques extra environment friendly.

“AI can be a highly effective instrument for advancing sustainability options, however we want a plentiful clear power provide globally to energy this new expertise, which has elevated consumption calls for,” a spokesperson for Microsoft instructed CNBC through electronic mail.

“We will proceed to watch our emissions, speed up progress whereas rising our use of fresh power to energy datacenters, buying renewable power, and different efforts to fulfill our sustainability targets of being carbon damaging, water constructive and 0 waste by 2030,” they added.

Aerial view of the proposed website of the Meta Platforms Inc. knowledge middle exterior Talavera de la Reina, Spain, on Monday, July 17, 2023. Meta is planning to construct a 1 billion ($1.1 billion) knowledge middle which it expects to make use of about 665 million liters (176 million gallons) of water a yr, and as much as 195 liters per second throughout “peak water stream,” in accordance with a technical report.

Paul Hanna | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Separately, a Google spokesperson instructed CNBC that analysis exhibits that whereas AI computing demand has dramatically elevated, the power wanted to energy this expertise is rising “at a a lot slower charge than many forecasts have predicted.”

“We are utilizing examined practices to cut back the carbon footprint of workloads by massive margins; collectively these ideas can scale back the power of coaching a mannequin by as much as 100x and emissions by as much as 1000x,” the spokesperson mentioned.

“Google knowledge facilities are designed, constructed and operated to maximise effectivity – in contrast with 5 years in the past, Google now delivers round 5X as a lot computing energy with the identical quantity {of electrical} energy,” they continued.

“To help the following era of basic advances in AI, our newest TPU v4 [supercomputer] is confirmed to be one of many quickest, best, and most sustainable ML [machine leanring] infrastructure hubs on the planet.”

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