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Artificial intelligence's thirst for electricity

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Every major tech company is now working on artificial intelligence, but AI uses a ton of energy, and that spikes emissions that contribute to climate change. NPR's tech correspondent, Dara Kerr, reports.

DARA KERR, BYLINE: Here's an amazing stat from a research analyst at the Allen Institute for AI.

JESSE DODGE: One query to ChatGPT uses approximately as much electricity as could light one lightbulb for about 20 minutes.

KERR: That's Jesse Dodge, and he says every single question we ask an AI chatbot is routed to a data center.

DODGE: And then they feed that to their AI system.

KERR: When this process happens, a lot of energy is consumed. AI uses far more electricity from those data centers than traditional internet use, like posting on social media or storing our photos in the cloud. A majority of that electricity involves burning fossil fuels.

DODGE: You can imagine, with millions of people using something like ChatGPT every day, that adds up to a really large amount of electricity.

KERR: This proliferation of people using AI has fueled the growth of data centers. According to Bloomberg, the number of data centers worldwide has nearly doubled in the last 10 years, and when combined, they consume as much electricity per year as the entire country of Italy. Dodge says this surge in energy consumption is growing, especially for tech companies. Google alone says it's planning to spend billions of dollars this year on new data centers.

DODGE: Google's real motivation here is to build the best AI systems that they can, including things like training AI systems on bigger and bigger data centers - all the way up to supercomputers - which incurs a tremendous amount of electricity consumption and, therefore, CO2 emissions.

KERR: These emissions contribute to climate change, and Google notes a stunning revelation deep within its new, 86-page sustainability report - the company's total greenhouse gas emissions increased nearly 50% over the last five years. It says that's in a large part due to its growing AI push.

ALEX HANNA: There's a lot of people out there that talk about existential risk around AI, about a rogue AI thing that somehow gets control of nuclear weapons or whatever. That's not the real existential risk. We have an existential risk right now. It's called climate change, and AI is palpably making it worse.

KERR: Alex Hanna used to work on Google's Ethical AI team. She left the company over the handling of a research paper that highlighted the environmental costs of AI. Hanna now works at the Distributed AI Research Institute. In its report, Google says that as it continues to add more AI into its products, that, quote, "reducing emissions may be challenging." Google declined an interview with NPR. This spike in greenhouse gas emissions is a big change for Google, which has an ambitious climate pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2030.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUNDAR PICHAI: We have until 2030 to chart a sustainable course for our planet or face the worst consequences of climate change.

KERR: That's Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaking in a company video, but Hanna, the AI researcher, says the company's new report is telling.

HANNA: They turned around and said, Well, JK - we actually missed our carbon goals.

KERR: Microsoft has also reported surging emissions because of data centers. It says its greenhouse gas emissions are up nearly 30% since 2020, but the majority of companies working on AI have not disclosed this data, so researchers say it's hard to even know how big the problem really is. Dara Kerr, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KV'S "RUN")

PFEIFFER: And a note - NPR gets financial support from both Google and Microsoft, although we cover them the same way as we would if they didn't support us.

(SOUNDBITE OF KV'S "RUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.