AI is a Double-Edged Sword for Climate Change

Dec 14, 2023

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(Bloomberg) -- Tech companies have pitched artificial intelligence as a powerful tool to address climate change, but first they may need to stop AI from making the problem even worse. 

 “It is absolutely true that AI is an energy-intensive technology,” said Sims Witherspoon, climate action lead at Google DeepMind. “Until we have a grid that is run completely on clean energy, those technologies will have a carbon footprint.” 

Witherspoon made the remarks during an interview for the latest episode of the Bloomberg Originals series AI IRL, available to stream now. 

Data centers around the world currently comprise about 1% to 1.5% of global electricity use, according to the International Energy Agency. But AI requires more energy than other forms of computing. As companies like Microsoft Corp., OpenAI Inc. and Google-parent Alphabet Inc. race to develop ever more sophisticated AI systems, the energy demands will only grow.  One peer-reviewed study published in October estimating the AI industry could consume as much electricity as a country the size of the Netherlands by 2027.

Witherspoon said Google is looking for ways to reduce the amount of computing power required to train models. It has also developed a carbon emissions dashboard with “levers” that allow researchers to reduce the impact of their experiments. A researcher could, for example, choose to shift computing processes to greener energy grids in another region. 

Though the net effect of AI’s impact on carbon emissions is still in question, Witherspoon said there are other ways AI can be used to help address climate issues. “Ecology and biodiversity is a huge area that we can use AI for,” Witherspoon said, pointing to a DeepMind project called Serengeti that uses AI  to detect and label animals in order to help researchers understand migration patterns. 

This week, the US Department of Energy announced it would launch a new office tasked with funding initiatives in AI and other emerging technologies to tackle climate change among other priorities. That followed the COP28 climate talks in Dubai, during which world leaders and executives convened to discuss AI-powered solutions for climate action. 

Watch the full episode of AI IRL now or catch up on all previous episodes.

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