The obscene energy demands of AI

The obscene energy demands of AI

Elizabeth Kolbert writes:

In 2016, Alex de Vries read somewhere that a single bitcoin transaction consumes as much energy as the average American household uses in a day. At the time, de Vries, who is Dutch, was working at a consulting firm. In his spare time, he wrote a blog, called Digiconomist, about the risks of investing in cryptocurrency. He found the energy-use figure disturbing.

“I was, like, O.K., that’s a massive amount, and why is no one talking about it?” he told me recently over Zoom. “I tried to look up some data, but I couldn’t really find anything.” De Vries, then twenty-seven, decided that he would have to come up with the information himself. He put together what he called the Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index, and posted it on Digiconomist. According to the index’s latest figures, bitcoin mining now consumes a hundred and forty-five billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, which is more than is used by the entire nation of the Netherlands, and producing that electricity results in eighty-one million tons of CO2, which is more than the annual emissions of a nation like Morocco. De Vries subsequently began to track the electronic waste produced by bitcoin mining—an iPhone’s worth for every transaction—and its water use—which is something like two trillion litres per year. (The water goes toward cooling the servers used in mining, and the e-waste is produced by servers that have become out of date.)

Last year, de Vries became concerned about another energy hog: A.I. “I saw that it has a similar capability, and also the potential to have a similar growth trajectory in the coming years, and I felt immediately prompted to make sure people are aware that this is also energy-intensive technology,” he explained. He added a new tab to his blog: “AI sustainability.” In a paper he published last fall, in Joule, a journal devoted to sustainable energy, de Vries, who now works for the Netherlands’ central bank, estimated that if Google were to integrate generative A.I. into every search, its electricity use would rise to something like twenty-nine billion kilowatt-hours per year. This is more than is consumed by many countries, including Kenya, Guatemala, and Croatia.

“There’s a fundamental mismatch between this technology and environmental sustainability,” de Vries said. Recently, the world’s most prominent A.I. cheerleader, Sam Altman, the C.E.O. of OpenAI, voiced similar concerns, albeit with a different spin. “I think we still don’t appreciate the energy needs of this technology,” Altman said at a public appearance in Davos. He didn’t see how these needs could be met, he went on, “without a breakthrough.” He added, “We need fusion or we need, like, radically cheaper solar plus storage, or something, at massive scale—like, a scale that no one is really planning for.” [Continue reading…]

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