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ChatGPT's Surprising Environmental Footprint Revealed

  • Microsoft's global water usage rose by 34% in 2021-22, largely attributed to AI research and its partnership with OpenAI.
  • Research reveals that ChatGPT consumes 16 ounces of water for every 5 to 50 user prompts due to the water-based liquid cooling in massive data centers.
  • Despite the environmental concerns, ChatGPT and other LLMs have yet to face the same level of scrutiny as energy-consuming practices like cryptocurrency mining.

Climate alarmists have waged war on energy-intensive cryptocurrency mining operations but have yet to denounce large language models (LLMs) like Microsoft-backed OpenAI's ChatGPT that use 16 ounces of fresh water every time a user asks it a series of questions. 

Microsoft revealed in its latest environmental report that its global water consumption surged 34% from 2021-22 (to nearly 1.7 billion gallons), a massive increase versus the previous years primarily due to artificial intelligence research, according to AP News

"It's fair to say the majority of the growth is due to AI," including "its heavy investment in generative AI and partnership with OpenAI," said Shaolei Ren, a researcher at the University of California, Riverside who has been developing a new process to calculate the environmental impact of ChatGPT. 

Ren's team calculates that ChatGPT consumes 16 ounces of water for every 5 to 50 queries or prompts from a user. He noted, "Most people are not aware of the resource usage underlying ChatGPT." 

Ren added, "If you're not aware of the resource usage, then there's no way that we can help conserve the resources."

Given the chatbot's unprecedented popularity this year, environmental problems have emerged with LLMs as massive data centers that power the chatbot require huge amounts of water-based liquid cooling. 

Microsoft told AP in a statement last week that its AI research will soon have a measure on its energy and carbon footprint. The tech company said, "While working on ways to make large systems more efficient, in both training and application."

"We will continue to monitor our emissions, accelerate progress while increasing our use of clean energy to power data centers, purchasing renewable energy, and other efforts to meet our sustainability goals of being carbon negative, water positive and zero waste by 2030," it continued. 

OpenAI stated that it has given "considerable thought" to its computing power: "We recognize training large models can be energy and water-intensive" and work to improve efficiencies.

Despite significant energy and freshwater usage, ChatGPT and other LLMs have not faced the same scrutiny from environmental warriors as crypto mining has over the years.

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