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AI: Environmental Concern, or the Key to a More Sustainable Future?

AI Environmental Concern, or the Key to a More Sustainable Future

The News: Artificial intelligence has been heavily criticized for its environmental impact. The technology requires immense energy consumption and can lead to a significant carbon footprint. Conversely, some applications of AI have been built specifically to solve sustainability challenges.

AI: Environmental Concern, or the Key to a More Sustainable Future?

Analyst Take: The entire world is in the midst of an AI craze. Everywhere you look there is a new AI application or someone talking about the best new ways to use ChatGPT or Bard. There is a good chance that if you are reading this blog, it is not even the first article you have read about AI just on this very day. AI is everywhere.

But AI has a serious problem. (Well, AI has a few serious problems, but I will leave my thoughts on other issues such as algorithmic bias, training data quality, and workforce displacement for another day.) AI poses a serious environmental concern. The infrastructure required for AI is incredibly energy intensive. It requires energy-hungry GPUs (and a whole lot of them) and additional energy to store the massive data sets it relies on.

To give some perspective, it has been reported that AI accounts for 10 to 15% of Google’s energy usage, which totaled around 18.3 terawatt hours in 2021. In comparison, the average home in the US used around 10,636 kilowatt hours in 2021. Or to put it in simpler terms, the energy used by AI applications alone could power entire cities. And this is not even considering the embodied carbon of manufacturing the GPUs and other devices required to run these AI applications. It should also be noted that these statistics are from 2021 – before the recent boom of generative AI seen over the last year. It is likely that the current focus companies are placing on AI has further accelerated AI’s energy consumption.

So, there you have it – AI is a major environmental concern. It’s as simple as that.

Well, maybe not. It is important to remember that AI is a tool. And like other tools, its effects are largely dependent on how it is used. While the energy consumption of AI is certainly concerning, its use to create sustainability-focused solutions may have a much more positive impact.

AI can be leveraged by organizations in several ways to optimize operations and potentially increase sustainability. Examples could include optimizing supply chains, intelligent routing of public transportation or aircraft, or optimized inventory management that allows stores and restaurants to reduce waste. Even in IT alone, AI could be used to intelligently optimize the data center to significantly reduce emissions.

Since I picked on Google earlier as a demonstration of AI’s enormous energy consumption, it is only fair that I use it again to highlight some of the ways AI can be leveraged to boost sustainability. Notably, Google has integrated machine learning (ML) into Google Maps to find more sustainable routes. It is also using AI for use cases such as helping people prepare for flooding and optimizing data center resources and computer systems. Recently, Google teamed up with American Airlines for a project that uses AI to reduce the environmental impact of contrails.

This shows that while companies such as Google are consuming huge amounts of energy for AI, they are also finding ways to apply the technology toward sustainability goals. While the energy consumption and carbon footprint of AI is clearly something to be concerned about, the potential benefits of utilizing the technology should not be ignored, either. It is quite possible that using these intelligent algorithms to unlock optimizations and efficiencies could be a key in overcoming many of the environmental and sustainability challenges that the world is facing today.

The crucial element moving forward is that those developing AI solutions keep sustainability at the forefront of the discussion. The energy usage and carbon output of AI needs to be kept in mind, and addressed as much as possible as organizations continue to focus on the emerging technology. It is promising to see AI-focused companies such as Weka recently call out the sustainability issues of AI, and committing to being a leader in the space. The use of renewable energy will also be a major factor in mitigating the environmental impact of AI, and many of the major cloud providers – where a large portion of AI will take place – are committing to goals around utilizing renewable energy and becoming carbon neutral (once again an example from Google). Development of new devices and accelerators that are optimized specifically for AI workloads may also contribute to better energy efficiency in the future.

The sustainability concerns of AI additionally surpass environmental sustainability – it is also economically unsustainable in its current state. The cost of running AI applications is currently extremely high, providing an additional signal that AI needs to change. And its likely that it will. Developing ways to minimize the compute cost of AI is currently a major focus as organizations struggle with the prohibitive cost of AI, and minimizing computation will further assist in lowering AI’s energy consumption. As new developments emerge, it is quite possible that both the economic and environmental challenges facing AI are significantly reduced in future iterations of the technology.

We are currently in the midst – or perhaps just the beginning – of an AI revolution, and there is plenty to be both excited and worried about. The technology presents great potential to solve many difficult challenges, including those related to sustainability, the environment, and climate concerns. On the other hand, AI will need to reduce its own carbon footprint before it can truly be the key to a more sustainable future that it has the potential to be.

Disclosure: The Futurum Group is a research and advisory firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this article. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this article.

Analysis and opinions expressed herein are specific to the analyst individually and data and other information that might have been provided for validation, not those of The Futurum Group as a whole.

Other insights from The Futurum Group:

The Cost of the Next Big Thing: Artificial Intelligence

Sustainability in IT – A Q3 Reflection

Are SSDs Really More Sustainable than HDDs?

Weka Launches Sustainability Initiative for AI, ML, and HPC

Author Information

Mitch comes to The Futurum Group through the acquisition of the Evaluator Group and is focused on the fast-paced and rapidly evolving areas of cloud computing and data storage. Mitch joined Evaluator Group in 2019 as a Research Associate covering numerous storage technologies and emerging IT trends.

With a passion for all things tech, Mitch brings deep technical knowledge and insight to The Futurum Group’s research by highlighting the latest in data center and information management solutions. Mitch’s coverage has spanned topics including primary and secondary storage, private and public clouds, networking fabrics, and more. With ever changing data technologies and rapidly emerging trends in today’s digital world, Mitch provides valuable insights into the IT landscape for enterprises, IT professionals, and technology enthusiasts alike.

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