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AI can help us fight climate change. But it has an energy problem, too

Artificial intelligence (AI) technology can help us fight climate change – but it also comes at a cost to the planet. To truly benefit from the technology’s climate solutions, we also need a better understanding of AI’s growing carbon footprint, say researchers.
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The algorithms that tells us, for example, what to watch on Netflix tonight have an environmental impact, according to Prof. Dignum. ‘AI uses a lot of energy,’ said the computer scientist, who is part of a 52-person expert group advising the European Commission on trustworthy and ‘human-centric’ AI.

The storage, and particularly the processing, of data to train algorithms – the ‘recipes’ computers use to make calculations – in data centres or in the cloud across different centres with rows of machines doing computations consume energy, she says.

For one algorithm to train itself on whether an image shows a cat, for instance, it needs to process millions of cat images. The ecosystem for information and communications technology, of which data centres are a part, are comparable to aviation in terms of fuel emissions.

‘It’s a use of energy that we don’t really think about,’ said Prof. Dignum. ‘We have data farms, especially in the northern countries of Europe and in Canada, which are huge. Some of those things use as much energy as a small city.’