AI is using vast amounts of water

Gallons of water are just one part of sustainability questions over the growth of artificial intelligence

Andrew Griffin
Monday 11 September 2023 17:44 BST
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(AFP via Getty Images)

Artificial intelligence is using gallons upon gallons of water.

Microsoft alone used more than 2,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools of water in its data centres last year. The latest numbers are leading to yet more questions about the sustainability and environmental dangers of the growth of artificial intelligence and related technology.

Artificial intelligence requires vast computing resources, undertaking deeply complex calculations on behalf of people around the world. AI systems tend to be run in the cloud rather than on individual people’s computers, meaning that companies running them must operate vast server farms to deal with the queries of their users.

Those server farms in turn need to pump in water to cool themselves down, because of the heat generated by those computers. That has long been a concern for environmentalists, but the sharp growth in artificial intelligence has led to even more use.

Microsoft’s water consumption rose 34 per cent between 2021 and 2022, according to its latest environmental report, highlighted by the Associated Press. It was up to almost 1.7 billion gallons.

Not all of that is from artificial intelligence. But Shaolei Ren, a researcher at the University of California, Riverside working to better understand the environmental impact of AI told the AP that the “majority of the growth” is because of the technology.

Google also said that its water use had increased by 20 per cent over the same period. That varied across its different data centres, which are based in different parts of the US.

For each 5 to 50 prompts, or questions, put to ChatGPT, it uses 500 millilitres of water, according to a paper that will be published by Professor Ren and his team later this year.

Many technology companies have expressed concerns about their own water use, and how to minimise any negative effects of their data centres. The environmental concerns can be especially pressing because the use of water can be focused in particular areas around a data centre, meaning that the damage may not be spread.

Google said last year for instance that “Wherever we use water, we are committed to doing so responsibly”. That includes analysing where water is being used and how much stress it might put on the surrounding area, for instance.

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