ChatGPT: definition and birth

ChatGPT was born on November 3, 2022, thus starting a real global change. In just a few months, the way of doing online research and writing documents has changed, also revolutionizing the world of marketing.

A huge change which, however, we have found to have a disastrous environmental impact.

That’s because every action we use to perform online involves a consequent emission of CO2 into the atmosphere: every new click activates different servers, devices which require more electricity (thus producing CO2) as our online activities increase.

Therefore when we talk about an artificial intelligence system which carries out thousands of searches in a few seconds, electricity consumption rises dramatically. A few articles ago (The Carbon Footprint of ChatGPT), we discovered that some scientists were able to calculate that just the training needed to operate ChatGPT generates as much CO2 as a car traveling twice the distance between the Earth and the Moon.

The war for technology

Apart from the pollution issue, the artificial intelligence system developed by OpenAI represents a real technological breakthrough, a revolution that the digital giants certainly could not miss.

On February 6, 2023, Google announces Bard: an experimental Google chatbot based on the digital language model called “LaMDA”. It is a generative AI that accepts requests and performs tasks such as providing responses and summaries, creating various forms of content. In a nutshell, a kind of ChatGPT made by Google.

On February 7, 2023, exactly the day after Bard’s announcement, Microsoft announced the launch of the new Bing, integrated with OpenAI’s ChatGPT model. The use of this search engine is already available, in essence it is like using ChatGPT but through the new Bing.

Even if Bing is responsible for only 3% of online searches, against 93% for Google, the advent of the new artificial intelligence system has allowed Microsoft’s search engine to relaunch itself, starting a real war for the best technology.

The environmental impact of the war between Google and Microsoft

Today, the Internet pollutes around 1.6 billion tons of greenhouse gasses every year. A frightening event which is increasing dramatically because of the conflict between the digital giants to excel in the control of the new AI systems.

In an interview with Wired Alan Woodward, professor of computer security at the University of Surrey (UK), expresses enormous skepticism and concern about this digital warfare. In fact, he declared that “the resources required for indexing and searching for content on the Internet are already enormous, however the incorporation of artificial intelligence requires a much greater mass of energy than at present” and continues “every time we are noticing a dramatic shift in online content processing, we are also seeing a significant increase in the power and cooling resources required by large computing centers.”

Experts have also stated that the combination of artificial intelligence with search engines could increase the amount of computing power needed by up to 5 times, consequently increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

As mentioned before, training and using ChatGPT causes a devastating amount of CO2, things obviously change negatively when “you integrate this artificial intelligence system with Bing, a search engine that manages around 500 million searches every single day,” says Carlos Gómez-Rodríguez, a computer scientist at the University of A Coruña.

Another worrying element is the fact that there are no third parties which can verify the actual consumption of these AI systems, since this huge electricity consumption can only be managed by large companies such as Google or Microsoft.

Furthermore, nowadays data centers are already responsible for 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but in a fairly near future we should also take into account the need to build many more, necessary to make Bard, Bing and ChatGPT work.

After reading these statements, a spontaneous question arises: if the Internet already pollutes as if it was the fourth country in the world for CO2 emissions, are we ready for a further increase?

How to reduce this digital footprint?

However, this article does not want to be just a complaint for its own sake, criticizing a new technological event which, despite its negative consequences, is still part of the digital progress. We must now look for remedies to integrate these new technologies with life on Earth, thus promoting more sustainable development at a social and environmental level. So how can we increase such energy-intensive systems in symbiosis with the environment and with everyone’s health? We tried to summarize a few points below:

  • Increase the use of clean energy sources
  • The use of renewable energy sources can reduce the amount of energy needed to power data centers and all digital devices, thus helping to reduce the environmental impact, offsetting the enormous consumption of new artificial intelligence systems.

    In a statement to Insider, Google spokeswoman Jane Park said the company will initially roll out a “lighter” version of Bard that would require less computing power. “We have published detailed research on the energy costs of state-of-the-art language models,” Park said in a statement. “Our results show that combining efficient models, processors and data centers with clean energy sources can reduce the footprint of carbon of an AI system up to 1000 times”.

    For this reason, Park herself said that initially the company will launch a “lighter” version of Bard, which should require less computing power.

    Increase the use of sustainable clouds

    Speaking of renewable energy sources, it is essential to mention the extreme need from now on, to exclusively use sustainable cloud data collection solutions. These are precisely cloud providers that are powered exclusively by clean energy sources, with a consequent lower carbon footprint and with greater energy efficiency compared to the classic corporate server.

    Implement digital sustainability

    As we often repeat, any type of practice in the field of digital sustainability is essential to ensure sustainable development. Evaluating the environmental impact of a website, for example, is the beginning of a correct awareness from the point of view of environmental sustainability, which then allows the development of strategies to reduce emissions. This practice will be increasingly fundamental in an era of extremely energy-intensive technological changes.