As the world marvels at advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), the environmental toll, particularly in water consumption, remains largely overlooked. A recent revelation about ChatGPT, the conversational AI model by OpenAI, has brought this issue to the forefront. The model has been consuming a staggering amount of water to cool its data centers in Iowa, a state already facing water supply challenges.

The Birthplace of ChatGPT: More Than Just Cornfields

Iowa, primarily known for its cornfields, has another claim to fame—it’s the birthplace of OpenAI’s most advanced language model, GPT-4, which powers ChatGPT. “It was literally made next to cornfields west of Des Moines,” said a top Microsoft executive in a speech. However, the water consumption of these data centers has been a closely guarded secret until now.

The Water Footprint of AI: Numbers Speak

According to a paper by Shaolei Ren, a researcher at the University of California, Riverside, ChatGPT consumes approximately 500 milliliters of water for every 5 to 50 prompts or questions it answers. “Most people are not aware of the resource usage underlying ChatGPT,” Ren said. “If you’re not aware of the resource usage, then there’s no way that we can help conserve the resources.”

Microsoft’s global water consumption spiked 34% from 2021 to 2022 (to nearly 1.7 billion gallons, or more than 2,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools), largely attributed to its heavy investment in generative AI and partnership with OpenAI. “It’s fair to say the majority of the growth is due to AI,” Ren added.

The Iowa Context: A Balancing Act

While Iowa’s weather allows for efficient cooling most of the year, the summer months are a different story. In July 2022, Microsoft pumped in about 11.5 million gallons of water to its Iowa data centers, accounting for 6% of all water used in the district. This comes at a time when Des Moines is facing a precarious water situation, with challenges like drought, pollution, and the looming threat of climate change affecting its water supply.

Drought and Pollution: A Double Whammy

The Raccoon River, one of the two primary sources of water for Des Moines, has been experiencing low flow due to lack of rainfall. The Des Moines River, the other source, has been contaminated with toxins produced by blue-green algae. While there are no immediate water outages or restrictions, the utility has been urging residents to conserve water, especially during the summer when demand typically increases.

Corporate Responsibility and Future Outlook

In response to growing concerns, Microsoft said in a statement, “We will continue to monitor our emissions, accelerate progress while increasing our use of clean energy to power data centers, purchasing renewable energy, and other efforts to meet our sustainability goals of being carbon negative, water positive and zero waste by 2030.”

OpenAI echoed those comments, stating it’s giving “considerable thought” to the best use of computing power. “We recognize training large models can be energy and water-intensive” and work to improve efficiencies, it said.

Final Remarks

As we navigate the intersection of technological advancement and environmental sustainability, it’s crucial to weigh the unseen costs. While AI offers unprecedented capabilities, it also poses questions that society must address, particularly when it comes to resource consumption in vulnerable areas.

For more insights into the water supply situation in Des Moines and the environmental impact of AI, stay tuned to our upcoming reports.