AI requires significant amounts of water: GPT-4, the latest version of ChatGPT, was trained in Iowa where Microsoft tapped local rivers to cool its data centers. The company would have increased its water consumption by 30% between 2021 and 2022. For Google, it is 20% more. Which poses a problem, at a time when the planet continues to heat up.
When we think of ChatGPT or its competitors, we imagine supercomputers and semiconductors. But we often forget that it takes titanic quantities of fresh water to train generative AI tools. Last April, a study carried out by researchers from two American universities had already sounded the alarm. On September 9, we learnedAssociated Press that other scientists have closely studied the water consumption of AI systems from OpenAI and Microsoft. Although their research has not yet been published – they promise it will be done before the end of the year – their initial results confirm the findings of the previous study.
According to these researchers, the company that developed ChatGPT and the software giant that invested billions in it had to use tons and tons of liters of water to teach the AI to generate writing or code. And to do this, the two partners sourced their supplies in the United States, from the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers located in central Iowa. Few people in this American state know that GPT-4 “ was literally made next to the cornfields west of the city of Des Moines », Declared a Microsoft executive recently, in a speech cited by our colleagues.
If the temperature exceeds 29.3°C, water is needed
Building a large language model requires a lot of calculations which, in addition to being energy-intensive, generate a lot of heat. Behind ChatGPT, you have to imagine huge warehouses which house data centers and computer servers. However, during the summer, the temperature can quickly rise there – if it rises too high, the centers will overheat, and the computers will shut down. To avoid this scenario, they must be cooled.
While Iowa’s air is enough to carry heat away from buildings most of the year, whenever the temperature rises above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, water is needed, the company said in a public statement. cited by our colleagues. The water will help maintain the temperature at a reasonable level throughout the infrastructure. And important point: you need fresh water, not salt water which could cause “ corrosion, blocked water pipes and bacteria growth », Underlined the study published in April. Enough to constitute a real problem at a time of global warming where the availability of fresh water, coming from melting snow, is expected to decrease. The quantity of water has already been reduced over the past thirty years in more than half of the world’s lakes and reservoirs, according to a study published in Science last May.
You write between 5 and 50 prompts: this requires half a liter of water
Shaolei Ren, a researcher at the University of California, set out with his team to calculate the environmental impact of ChatGPT. According to these researchers, the conversational agent swallows half a liter of water every time you ask it 5 and 50 questions (or prompts). The April study estimated that ChatGPT needed this same 500 ml of water each time the threshold going from 20 to 50 questions was crossed. Half a liter doesn’t seem excessive. But we have to think about the millions of ChatGPT users who will ask more than 20 questions, the researchers explained in essence.
For Shaolei Ren, interviewed by our colleagues, “ The majority of people are not aware of the use of resources inherent in ChatGPT. However, if you are not aware of the use of resources, we cannot help you preserve them “.
An increase in water consumption of 34% between 2021 and 2022
The latest reports from AI giants confirm that they consume more water than before the era of generative AI. Microsoft estimates that its global water consumption has increased by 34% between 2021 and 2022, according to its latest environmental report. For the researcher, the reason for this increase is obvious: it is AI. Same story for Google, where the increase in water consumption is 20%, according to its report published in July 2023.
In the Microsoft-OpenAI partnership, it was up to Microsoft to provide the computing power needed to train the AI models. The software giant therefore began building data centers in West Des Moines, Iowa, a city of 68,000 inhabitants where the company already had infrastructure. In late May, Microsoft President Brad Smith confirmed that the company had built its ” advanced AI supercomputer data center » in this American state. The goal was to allow OpenAI to train what became its fourth generation model, GPT-4.
The company also plans to open its 4th and 5th center there this year. But there might not be a 6th center, precisely because of the large quantity of water withdrawn in the summer. According to a document published by the water management company in April 2022, the “West Des Moines Water Works”, the city and the managing company “ will not consider future data center projects » from Microsoft only on one condition. It will be necessary ” demonstrate and implement technology to significantly reduce peak water use from current levels “. The goal is to preserve the water supply for the needs of residents and local businesses.