We’ve got to talk about the environment when we talk about AI

The biggest trend in tech could have serious consequences.

At this point, the “A” and “I” keys on our keyboards are wearing thin from how much we’ve covered the topic.

The earth on a background of a circuit board

But most headlines focus on what AI can make better, not what it might destroy along the way. And, it turns out, there’s something very important at stake: the earth.

As the tech ramps up, some concerning data has emerged:

  • Google’s new AI Overview uses 10x the amount of power as a traditional Google search, per The Lever. Adding AI snapshot answers to all Google searches could use the same amount of electricity needed to power all of Ireland.
  • Using AI to generate a single image can gobble up as much energy as fully charging your smartphone.
  • The global data centers that power AI platforms account for 2.5% to 3.7% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions — surpassing the aviation sector.
  • AI’s water usage is projected to hit 6.6B cubic meters by 2027. In 2018, before its AI development amped up, Google alone was already using 15.8B liters of water to cool its data centers.

The Electric Power Research Institute predicts that AI will use as much as 9.1% of the country’s energy by 2030.

And it’s not exactly a great time to be burning through natural resources: Earth has gotten progressively hotter, with 2023 being the warmest year on record — for now (2024 is expected to supplant it soon).

With great power…

Since the AI explosion is still new, organizations like the US Energy Information Administration aren’t tracking data centers as they do other industries, and big tech companies offer little transparency.

Plus, corporations like Shell are working to accelerate AI development, knowing it would lead to further fossil fuel use — another environmental risk.

Hold out some hope, though: It’s not all bad news when it comes to AI and the earth. Some startups are using the tech to preserve the world’s oceans, monitor emissions, and manage recycling.

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