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While generative AI is all the hype, there is a side to it that the users of the technology do not realise. These LLM-based models like ChatGPT are extremely thirsty. Each 20 questions you ask these chatbots requires almost half a litre of water to give you answers. And that mostly goes into cooling the data centres where the data is stored.
More than that, these models rely on data centres that are extremely carbon heavy on the environment. According to the estimates from the World Economic Forum, generative AI has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by 4% by 2030. But on the other hand, it was also predicted in 2017 that these data centres and information technology sector as a whole, will contribute to a huge 14% of the carbon emissions globally by 2040.
In an exclusive interview with AIM at the Microsoft’s Future Ready Sustainability Summit, Alok Lall, sustainability lead of Microsoft India, explained about the changing dynamics of the companies to address the problems by making greener software from the ground up.
“When we look at reducing emissions, it is very easy to look at infrastructure and get more efficient hardware like servers, heating, ventilation, and cooling systems,” said Lall. “But how I look at it is we do not understand the main ingredient of what the application does — code.”
How do we make the code light?
Making data centres efficient is a good way to go forward with sustainability, but that is if we look at the code before being deployed. “Our eventual goal is to not have developers apply green software principles after they’ve written the code,” said Lall.
A step for this was taken by Microsoft when they partnered with Accenture, GitHub, and Thoughtworks to create Green Software Foundation in 2021. Announced at Microsoft Build 2021, the goal of the foundation is to create a trusted ecosystem of people and for people for best practices in software development.
Currently, the Green Software Foundation is working on a software carbon intensity score and a Carbon Aware SDK that developers can start using upfront.
Microsoft has partnered with Cast Software, a technology corporation based in New York, to build on more green products and work on software intelligence. One such product was presented at the conference that scans your code as you write them on your software before it is deployed, and rates them from how green it is to how carbon intensive it is. Still under development, the tool tells you how you can fix the code to be greener by requiring less computation.
Lall also explains how sustainability cannot be an afterthought, but has to be a design principle. Speaking about low code platforms like Copilot, Lall said that these softwares have been designed with the same principles in mind. These capabilities are inherently provided by the cloud.” This means that the code generated by these platforms is already designed to be as green as possible.
The only point that remains is that even for the generation of codes through the server, the server needs to run and emit energy, thus emitting more carbon into the environment, and thirsting for more water.
Making AI less water-intensive
There is a solution for that as well. Everybody knows that AI is computation intensive. “We solved the design of the model part by using green software. For the second part, to make the infrastructure greener, we have made data centres to run at a PUE (power usage effectiveness) 0f 1.12.” explained Lall.
Microsoft wants to make sure that it does not use water to cool its data centres anymore. For that, the company relied on air cooling, and is now shifted to adiabatic cooling, which involves condensing the same water that evaporated while cooling the motherboard by keeping it dipped in a liquid. Microsoft made the claim that the company would be carbon negative, produce zero waste, and water positive by 2030. There is a possibility that this prediction did not account for the current generative AI and large language model technology.
To answer this, Lall said that integrating OpenAI and GPT technology into our systems was all part of the large corpus. “We know that it will go up and we are increasingly investing in areas that will help us be carbon negative by 2030, and achieve our goals.”
Energy at its core, literally
According to the 2022 Sustainability Report of Microsoft, the company has brought down its own emissions by 22% and by 0.5% from their suppliers and customers. To achieve the 2030 carbon negative goal, Lall said that the company has the target of becoming 100% renewable energy reliant by 2025.
Recently, Microsoft also made a huge investment in Helion Energy, a nuclear energy-based startup. It is clear that the company is taking many steps to stay ahead of the competition, while also keeping sustainability at its core. “We will continue to identify and find innovative ways to power our data centres,” said Lall, “to get to the goal we have set for ourselves for 2030″.
Apart from generative AI, Microsoft has also been making other areas of their software and hardware as green as possible. The recent Windows 11 22H2 update is carbon aware, and will only update when the emissions in the day are lower. At Microsoft Hyderabad, they have been working on a project to absorb moisture from the atmosphere and convert it into 2,000 litres of water per day and also created a digital twin of the campus to track carbon emissions in real-time.