Environmental impact of ubiquitous generative AI | by Kasper Groes Albin Ludvigsen | Jul, 2023

What could happen to our environment if billions of people began to use generative AI technology on a daily basis?

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

This article ponders the question: What would be the environmental impact of large-scale adoption of generative AI like ChatGPT? That is, what might the environmental impact be if billions of people began to use generative AI extensively on a daily basis?

The reason this question is interesting to contemplate is that we can use its answer to inform how worried we should or shouldn’t be about the speedy adoption of this new technology.

As AI models have grown larger and larger [1] and as they have been made widely accessible by companies like OpenAI and Google, the environmental impact of AI models — eg. carbon and water footprint — have become the subject of inquiry and debate. First in academia (e.g. [2] and [3]) and later in mainstream media (e.g. [4] and [5]).

With ChatGPT reportedly having hundreds of millions of users – if not billions [6] – and Google embedding generative AI into several products [7], generative AI is arguably the most widely adopted type of AI at the moment. Combined with the immense size of generative AI models like GPT-4 – rumored to be almost 6 times larger than its predecessor [8] – generative AI is likely also the type of AI to have the largest environmental impact for the foreseeable future.

This article is a thought experiment that contemplates what the environmental impact might be of large-scale adoption of generative AI. Will it lead to environmental catastrophe, will it be a drop in the ocean or somewhere in between? The purpose of this article is to provide a basis for beginning to shed light on that question.

Many assumptions went into making the estimates presented in this article, and if you’d like to play around with your own assumptions, you can do so in this spreadsheet.

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