Groundbreaking Research Reveals Hidden Water Footprint of AI


  • AI uses a ton of water, especially when training.
  • Big tech is starting to care about water usage.
  • Smart scheduling of AI tasks can save water and cut carbon.

In a groundbreaking study, researchers from the University of California, Riverside, and the University of Texas at Arlington have shed light on the previously overlooked water footprint of artificial intelligence (AI) technology. The team, led by Associate Professor Shaolei Ren, quantified the water consumption associated with training and running large-scale AI models, bringing attention to an aspect of sustainability often overshadowed by discussions of carbon emissions.

Revealing findings on AI

The research team’s findings reveal staggering water consumption by AI models, particularly in the training phase. For instance, training GPT-3 in Microsoft’s U.S. data centers alone can consume 700,000 liters of clean freshwater. This amount is equivalent to the water required to produce hundreds of electric vehicles. 

Moreover, the water footprint triples if training is conducted in Asian data centers. Even during inference, a short conversation with ChatGPT can require as much as a 500-milliliter water bottle, highlighting the amount of water consumption associated with AI usage.

Comparing the water footprint of AI to traditional industries like agriculture, the study reveals significant differences. While industries such as beef production and clothing manufacturing have well-known water footprints, these often include nonpotable water and consider the product’s life cycle. 

In contrast, the study focuses solely on the operational water footprint of AI, excluding the embodied water footprint associated with server manufacturing and transportation. However, researchers estimate that if embodied water footprint were considered, the overall water footprint of AI could increase significantly.

One of the key insights from the study is the tension between carbon reduction and water conservation efforts. While carbon-efficient hours and locations may differ from water-efficient ones, strategic scheduling of AI workloads presents an opportunity to optimize both. For example, scheduling AI training during low-demand periods or in regions with better water efficiency could help reduce the overall water footprint without compromising carbon reduction goals.

Tech giants’ response

Amidst growing concerns about the environmental impact of data centers, major tech companies like Google, Microsoft, and Meta are increasingly prioritizing sustainability in their development processes. 

However, the study suggests that more can be done to address the water footprint of AI technologies. While efforts to improve on-site water efficiency, such as utilizing recycled water and enhancing cooling tower efficiency, are underway, significant challenges remain, especially in drought-prone regions like California.

The researchers emphasize the importance of transparency in addressing the water footprint of AI. Developers can make informed decisions about scheduling and resource allocation by providing information on the water consumption associated with AI models. Furthermore, transparency enables users to understand and potentially minimize their water footprint by utilizing AI services during water-efficient hours or in regions with better water efficiency.

Moreover, collaboration between academia, industry, and policymakers is essential to develop effective regulatory frameworks and incentives that promote sustainable AI practices. This collaborative effort can foster innovation while safeguarding our planet’s precious water resources for future generations.

The study’s findings underscore the need for a holistic approach to sustainability in AI development. As technological advancements continue to reshape industries and societies, it is imperative to consider the environmental consequences of AI usage. By integrating water conservation efforts into AI development and operations, stakeholders can work towards a more sustainable future where innovation coexists harmoniously with environmental stewardship.

Disclaimer. The information provided is not trading advice. Cryptopolitan.com holds no liability for any investments made based on the information provided on this page. We strongly recommend independent research and/or consultation with a qualified professional before making any investment decisions.

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James Kinoti

A crypto enthusiast, James finds pleasure in sharing knowledge on fintech, cryptocurrency as well as blockchain and frontier technologies. The latest innovations in the crypto industry, crypto gaming, AI, blockchain technology, and other technologies are his preoccupation. His mission: be on track with transformative applications in various industries.

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