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Generative AI's Environmental Costs Are Soaring

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giant initials 'AI' on floor of a forest

Proposed legislation would create a framework for developers and operators to report on AI's environmental impact.

Credit: Shutterstock

Generative AI systems will consume vastly more power in the coming years, and energy systems will struggle to cope, OpenAI chief executive Sam Altman warned the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, last month.

"There's no way to get there without a breakthrough," Altman said.

What breakthrough is Altman banking on? Nuclear fusion. He has skin in that game, too: in 2021, Altman started investing in fusion company Helion Energy.

Most experts agree that nuclear fusion won't contribute significantly to the crucial goal of decarbonizing by mid-century to combat the climate crisis. Helion's most optimistic estimate is that by 2029 it will produce enough energy to power 40,000 average U.S. households; one assessment suggests that ChatGPT, the OpenAI chatbot, is already consuming the energy of 33,000 homes. It's estimated that a search driven by generative AI uses four to five times the energy of a conventional web search.

It's not just energy. Generative AI systems need enormous amounts of fresh water to cool their processors and generate electricity.

From Nature
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