In today’s digital landscape, the development of groundbreaking artificial intelligence products like ChatGPT is shrouded in complexity.
Microsoft-backed OpenAI, the visionary powerhouse behind ChatGPT, harnessed the abundant waters of central Iowa’s Raccoon and Des Moines rivers to fuel the growth of its AI technology. This resource-intensive endeavor was essential in teaching AI systems to emulate human writing.
As tech giants such as Microsoft, OpenAI, and Google fervently chase the generative AI trend, they confront the stark reality of escalating costs.
These expenditures span from pricey semiconductors to an unprecedented surge in water consumption. However, these endeavors often remain veiled in secrecy, unbeknownst to the residents of Iowa, who were blissfully unaware of their state’s pivotal role as the birthplace of OpenAI’s magnum opus, GPT-4. This revelation only surfaced when a high-ranking Microsoft executive proclaimed that it “was literally made next to cornfields west of Des Moines.”
Constructing a colossal language model necessitates the analysis of extensive human-written text. Such computational demands result in substantial electricity consumption and heat generation. To combat this, data centers must employ water, typically channeled to cooling towers adjacent to their colossal warehouse-like structures.
In its most recent environmental report, Microsoft disclosed a 34% spike in global water consumption from 2021 to 2022, surpassing 1.7 billion gallons – equivalent to over 2,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools. This significant uptick, according to external researchers, can be directly linked to its AI research endeavors. Shaolei Ren, a researcher at the University of California, Riverside, asserts that “the majority of the growth is due to AI,” notably its substantial investment in generative AI and partnership with OpenAI.
In a forthcoming paper, Ren’s team estimates that ChatGPT consumes approximately 500 milliliters of water, equivalent to a standard 16-ounce water bottle, each time it processes a series of 5 to 50 prompts or questions. This figure varies depending on server location and season, encompassing indirect water use, such as cooling power plants supplying data centers with electricity – a facet typically overlooked.
Google, a formidable player in the AI arena, reported a 20% increase in water usage during the same period. Ren attributes this surge primarily to Google’s robust AI initiatives. Interestingly, this augmentation in water consumption exhibited geographical variation, remaining steady in Oregon, surging outside Las Vegas, and is particularly pronounced in Iowa, where Google’s Council Bluffs data centers drew a substantial amount of potable water.
Microsoft and OpenAI have articulated their commitment to mitigating their environmental impact. Microsoft, in a statement, expressed its dedication to researching AI’s energy and carbon footprint while striving to enhance the efficiency of large systems. OpenAI echoed these sentiments, emphasizing their ongoing efforts to optimize computing power utilization.
Microsoft’s initial $1 billion investment in OpenAI in 2019 marked the inception of their collaboration. This partnership facilitated the supply of essential computing power for training AI models. To undertake this monumental task, both entities turned to West Des Moines, Iowa, where Microsoft has steadily expanded its data center infrastructure over the past decade. The fourth and fifth data centers are poised to open later this year, underscoring Microsoft’s commitment to the region.
West Des Moines emerged as an efficient hub for training potent AI systems, especially when compared to Microsoft’s water-intensive data centers in Arizona. The temperate climate of Iowa enables Microsoft to employ outside air for cooling the supercomputer, resorting to water usage only when temperatures exceed 29.3 degrees Celsius (approximately 85 degrees Fahrenheit).
Despite the efficiency of Iowa’s climate, the water requirements remain substantial, particularly in the summer. In July 2022, as OpenAI concluded the training of GPT-4, Microsoft injected roughly 11.5 million gallons of water into its Iowa data centers, equivalent to 6% of the district’s total water usage. This prompted the West Des Moines Water Works and city government to insist that future data center projects must demonstrate technology to significantly reduce peak water usage, preserving the resource for residential and commercial needs.
Microsoft has responded by collaborating with the waterworks to address their feedback, showcasing a commitment to sustainability. The waterworks acknowledged Microsoft as a valuable partner, emphasizing their collaborative efforts to reduce water consumption while satisfying operational requirements.
In conclusion, the genesis of ChatGPT in Iowa, powered by the region’s abundant waters, exemplifies the transformative potential of AI technology. As Microsoft and OpenAI chart a course toward a sustainable future, their pioneering work continues to reshape the landscape of artificial intelligence, all while staying mindful of its environmental impact.