AI and water? Two sides to the story

Last weekend one of my daughters asked, seemingly genuinely, on the family WhatsApp group, how many times I think about the Roman Empire.

Fearing for her sanity I enquired what she was talking about. Turns out, that this question is the latest in a social media trend that has captured the imaginations of everyone from Ant and Dec to professional footballers.

Like all bite-sized trends on social media its life span will be measured in days if that.

But one much talked about subject that is trending on social media and at dinner parties and in pub gardens, that isn’t going away anytime soon is ChatGPT and its musical and geographical derivatives. As the poster child of AI, Chat GPT is understandably causing a huge amount of excitement and fear in equal measure. If you don’t know what it is (have you been on a sabbatical?) check it out…maybe it even wrote this blog!

For supporters of AI it offers massive opportunities and creates possibilities we haven’t even thought of yet, but for those who fear it, AI is the realization of all of those movies about tech taking over the world.

And this, to me, is the interesting point; the fact that, as the accountants love to tell us, every debit has a credit (or is the other way round?). In other words, it is how we view new developments that dictate our reactions to them and there are always two sides to every story.

This is certainly true when we apply the concept of AI to environmental sustainability.

I was shocked the other day when someone sent me an article written in the Times by Mark Sellman with the intriguing headline:

“AI’s thirst for knowledge is bad for global water supplies.”

It opens with the statement “Chat GPT needs to “drink” a bottle of water every time you bombard it with queries, a study shows”.

According to researchers at the universities of California and Texas, for every 10 to 50 questions it is asked the chatbot consumes 500ml of water. At the recent EBN Live Show on the Tech industry, our esteemed panelists Mark Bjornsgaard (Deep Green), Rob Wright (Spaceology) and David Ellis (Station 10) discussed this very thing; namely the hidden cost to the environment of the tech industry.

Whilst we can all walk past construction sites where the impact of machinery on the environment is obvious, to most of us the equivalent impact in the tech sector is invisible. “Oh, we don’t have any carbon footprint from IT, we are in the cloud” people say, but what is being missed here is the massive environmental cost attached to the equally massive need to cool data centres which are generating massive computing power.

Chat GPT and other forms of AI is about to exponentially increase this.

Take water as an example.

In the Times article it states that Microsoft admits its global water consumption increased by 34% in one year to a staggering 1.7bn gallons!

1.7 billion gallons.

Google’s language model LaMDA needs a million litres of water for its training function alone. In a recent report Google admitted that 90% of its water consumption for cooling comes from the utilities.

In other words, drinking water!

To be fair to both Google and Microsoft they both have 2030 as a target to replenish the water they consume and the latter aims to be “water positive” by the same year, although exactly what this means I am not sure. They can’t manufacture “new” water can they?

The surprising aspect of the Times article is that normally we would not associate tech leviathans like Google and Microsoft with a natural resource like water. Other raw material in the creation of hardware and facilities and greenhouse gas from their emissions yes, but not something as ubiquitous as water. Except it isn’t ubiquitous any more.

It is this credit/debit concept that makes the whole environmental sustainability argument so fascinating. Fascinating? OK probably the wrong choice of word, given the seriousness of the climate crisis we face, but nonetheless it is still intriguing and a dilemma. We all revel in the freedom massive computing power created by some very, very clever people has given to us, but do we ever stop and think of the consequences?

Some form of widget in the bottom right hand corner of this screen telling us how much water has been consumed in the production of this blog would be a start.

At Xeed ESG we are working with a number of clients who are all amazed at the extent and reach of their environmental impact. In ways they had never even thought about nearly every decision they take in the course of running their business has a knock on effect to the environment. Oh, for those innocent pre-Covid days when all a business had to do was make a profit eh?

Running a business now is more complex than ever and if you aren’t thinking about your impact on natural resources like water or how much greenhouse gas you are responsible for and even how much waste and pollution your business creates, you are missing a trick. The good news is that you have maybe 3 to 5 years to change behaviour and gain competitive advantage. The bad news for the planet is that a lot of irreversible stuff can happen in that time.


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