Two months after its release in November 2022, OpenAI’s ChatGPT had 100 million active users, and suddenly tech corporations were racing to offer the public more “generative A.I.” Pundits compared the new technology’s impact to the Internet, or electrification, or the Industrial Revolution — or the discovery of fire.
Time will sort hype from reality, but one consequence of the explosion of artificial intelligence is clear: this technology’s environmental footprint is large and growing.
A.I. use is directly responsible for carbon emissions from non-renewable electricity and for the consumption of millions of gallons of fresh water, and it indirectly boosts impacts from building and maintaining the power-hungry equipment on which A.I. runs. As tech companies seek to embed high-intensity A.I. into everything from resume-writing to kidney transplant medicine and from choosing dog food to climate modeling, they cite many ways A.I. could help reduce humanity’s environmental footprint. But legislators, regulators, activists, and international organizations now want to make sure the benefits aren’t outweighed by A.I.’s mounting hazards.
“The development of the next generation of A.I. tools cannot come at the expense of the health of our planet,” Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey (D) said last week in Washington, after he and other senators and representatives introduced a bill that would require the federal government to assess A.I.’s current environmental footprint and develop a standardized system for reporting future impacts. Similarly, the European Union’s “A.I. Act,” approved by member states last week, will require “high-risk A.I. systems” (which include the powerful “foundation models” that power ChatGPT and similar A.I.s) to report their energy consumption, resource use, and other impacts throughout their systems’ lifecycle. The EU law takes effect next year.
Meanwhile, the International Organization for Standardization, a global network that develops standards for manufacturers, regulators, and others, says it will issue criteria for “sustainable A.I.” later this year. Those will include standards for measuring energy efficiency, raw material use, transportation, and water consumption, as well as practices for reducing A.I. impacts throughout its life cycle, from the process of mining materials and making computer components to the electricity consumed by its calculations. The ISO wants to enable A.I. users to make informed decisions about their A.I. consumption.