Researchers say the methods used to create artificial intelligence (AI) systems require large amounts of water. As a result, people are calling on AI developers to reduce their water usage and take more responsibility for the environmental resources they use.
The Associated Press recently reported on water usage by American-based OpenAI, the company that launched the ChatGPT AI tool. ChatGPT is a so-called “chatbot” designed to interact smoothly with humans and perform high-level writing. Such tools are also known as “generative AI” or “large language models.”
The development and training methods used to create large language models require powerful computing systems. This process uses a lot of electricity and produces a lot of heat. Data center operators pump in water to keep equipment cool.
Open AI – which is backed by software maker Microsoft – operates a series of data centers in West Des Moines, Iowa. The city in the central part of the state is home to about 68,000 people.
“They’re building them as fast as they can,” said Steve Gaer, who served as the city's mayor when Microsoft first arrived. He said the software maker was attracted to the city because of its efforts to improve public projects. The former official also said Microsoft provided a huge amount of money in taxes in support of the efforts.
“But,” Gaer said of the company, “they were pretty secretive on what they’re doing out there.”
In 2020, Microsoft said it was developing one of the world's most powerful supercomputers for OpenAI. At the time, it did not name the Iowa city as home to the project. Microsoft described the effort as a “single system” with a huge number of semiconductors and processors to support AI workloads.
In late May, Microsoft President Brad Smith made his first public comment about the company’s new “AI supercomputing data center” in West Des Moines. He noted the center was built to support development efforts for the ChatGPT system.
Water is taken from the nearby Raccoon and Des Moines rivers to cool down the Microsoft-OpenAI computing equipment, the AP reports. In its latest environmental report, Microsoft said its worldwide water usage rose 34 percent from 2021 to 2022 to almost 1.7 billion gallons. Industry experts have suggested the large increase was directly linked to the company’s AI research.
“It’s fair to say the majority of the growth is due to AI,” said Shaolei Ren. He is a researcher at the University of California, Riverside who has been studying the environmental effects of AI products such as ChatGPT.
In a paper set to be published later this year, Ren’s team estimates ChatGPT takes up 500 milliliters of water each time someone asks the tool a series of between five and 50 questions. The estimate also includes indirect usage companies generally do not measure. This includes water used to cool power plants that supply the data centers with electricity.
“Most people are not aware of the resource usage underlying ChatGPT,” Ren said. “If you’re not aware of the resource usage, then there’s no way that we can help conserve the resources.”
Ren noted that Google reported a 20 percent growth in water usage during the same period. He believes that growth is largely linked to the American-based search engine company’s AI development work.
Microsoft said in a recent statement to the AP that it is investing in research to measure the environmental effects of AI activities. The company promised to work on ways "to make large systems more efficient, in both training and application.”
In its own statement, OpenAI said it had given “considerable thought" to the best use of computing power. “We recognize training large models can be energy and water-intensive," it said.
A West Des Moines government document from 2022 says the city “will only consider future data center projects" from Microsoft if those projects can “demonstrate and implement” technology to significantly reduce water usage from current levels.
I’m Bryan Lynn.