The story you are about to read was not generated by artificial intelligence. It was, in fact, written by a real-life human being. But as the world becomes more reliant on AI and leans into its seemingly endless applications, it’s becoming more and more apparent that this technology boom comes with an environmental cost, namely water.
Earlier this year, Microsoft, backers of Open AI who own ChatGPT, released their latest sustainability report, which found that between 2021 and 2022 the software company saw a massive increase in water usage. Rising nearly 35 percent, they reportedly used an eye-popping 1.7 million more gallons of water year over year. In 2021, Microsoft used 4,772,890 cubic meters of water compared to 6,399,415 in 2022. Either somebody was really thirsty or something has drastically changed.
Google’s 2023 Environmental Report found their water usage increased by 20 percent, which is largely being attributed to their foray into AI.
Before we proceed, in real world terms, as few as five queries on ChatGPT use approximately 16 ounces of water according to a forthcoming study from the University of California.
“Most people are not aware of the resource usage underlying ChatGPT,” Shaolei Ren, a researcher at the University of California, Riverside, and one of the paper’s authors, told the Associated Press. “If you’re not aware of the resource usage, then there’s no way that we can help conserve the resources.”
For a while now it’s been no secret how much water, energy and resources crypto currency depends on, but as A.I. is still so new in the public space, this is the first time its environmental impact has really been quantified.
“The shadowy realm of AI development and utilization breeds a lack of transparency and accountability regarding its environmental impact,” wrote Alokya Kanugo for Earth.org. “Certain companies put their financial well-being and competitive edge ahead of any potential negative effects that AI technologies may have on the environment. Users find it challenging to completely appreciate their environmental footprint due to the complexity of AI systems. Accurate evaluation of their carbon footprint or potential environmental impact is hampered by the secretive methods and hidden data used to train AI models.”
In terms of water usage, the main issue is that running all of the computers and servers required to make something like ChatGPT requires a ton of energy and the machines get hot. Water is used to keep these data centers cool, especially on hot days. For example, in Iowa, OpenAI, which is supported by Microsoft, uses watersheds of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers. Meanwhile, Google’s in a little hot water (pun intended) in Oregon for their water usage. Their water usage in the Las Vegas area has doubled.
The issue of how to cool these super computers and data centers is being compounded by record breaking heat waves around the world. Basically, the hotter it is the more water it takes to cool everything down. Makes sense, but given the climate trends we’ve seen over the last year, the problem is not going to just go away.
In July 2021, Oracle’s data center was forced to shut down as temperatures topped 100 degrees. A few short months later, that September, Twitter’s data center in Sacramento, California, was forced to close down during a heat wave.
Other tech companies have experienced challenges with keeping their centers online during especially hot weather. Last September, Twitter’s data center in Sacramento shut down during a heat wave. Increased instances of heat waves due to the climate crisis have also plagued data centers overseas. Last July, Google and Oracle’s London-based data centers went offline as England baked through sky-high temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
For their part in it, Microsoft released a statement to the AP that read, “We will continue to monitor our emissions, accelerate progress while increasing our use of clean energy to power data centers, purchasing renewable energy, and other efforts to meet our sustainability goals of being carbon negative, water positive and zero waste by 2030.”
ChatGPT wasn’t released to the public until November 30, 2022. As with any emerging technology, it’s going to take time to really understand both the power and impact of A.I. It’s reshaping everything from how music is written, to those annoying ads littering social media feeds, to how natural resources like water are utilized and shared by local communities and big business.
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