AI, the future but at what cost?

With most of the major tech companies hedging their bets on Artificial Intelligence (AI), we’re set to see a future where this technology is at the forefront of innovation; but at what cost? As this area of tech is coming out of its infancy, we’re starting to see the impact AI is having on the environment – and it’s not looking good.

In Google’s 2024 Environmental Report, the company revealed that its carbon emissions spiked by nearly 50 per cent since 2019, largely due to the data centres required to power AI. This, of course, hampers the company’s mission of becoming carbon neutral, though it states that it’s still on track to meet this goal by 2030.

To put this into perspective, back in 2023 researchers at AI startup Hugging Face and Carnegie Mellon University found that a single AI-generated image can use as much energy as charging a smartphone. According to TechReport, as of August 2023, there’s an average of around 31 million AI images being generated per day.

So what does this mean for the tech industry? As AI becomes increasingly integrated into our everyday lives, be it in our online search results, in our emails, in hundreds of dedicated AI apps, or in our smartphones themselves, its carbon footprint will continue to grow. This will require companies behind these technologies to find ways to minimise or offset this impact.

As AI technology improves and its use is refined, more specialised and energy-efficient versions of the tech are likely to become widely available. It is also possible that AI will in fact contribute to the eventual reduction in its own carbon footprint. 

One potential example of this has been Helion’s announcement in May 2023 that Microsoft had agreed to purchase electricity generated from their ambitiously planned nuclear fusion power plant which Helion expects to become operational by 2028. Helion has received substantial investment from Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI which itself has an extensive partnership with Microsoft. In this way, the huge resources available to those at the front line of AI development can be applied to greener energy production in the future. 

Gallium has advised clients on how to develop their products while offsetting their emissions and we would welcome an increase in research and transparency on AI’s environmental impact to further help us understand how companies can do so. In the meantime, we will continue to encourage our clients to acknowledge the impact of integrating AI into their products and consider consumers’ increasing awareness of this issue as more data becomes available.

Aaron Richardson
Aaron Richardson
Consultant, content writer, musician, likes memes.