Power Hungry Magic

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, Arthur C. Clarke already knew, and it is part of the magic of new technologies that their downsides are systematically concealed. This is also the case with the energy consumption of large language models (LLMs): As with the schnitzel that ends up on consumers’ plates and makes them forget the relation to the realities of factory farming, so it is with the marvels of artificial intelligence. Information about the computing power required to create products such as ChatGPT and the big data used is not provided, either to avoid making data protection and copyright issues too obvious or to avoid having to quantify the energy consumption and CO2 emissions involved in training and operating these models. The reputable newspaper Die Zeit estimated in March 2023: “For the operation of ChatGPT, […] costs of 100,000 to 700,000 dollars a day are currently incurred” and noted “1,287 gigawatt hours of electricity” or “emissions of an estimated 502 tonnes of CO2” for the training of GPT-3 (Art. “Hidden energy”, in: Die Zeit No. 14, 30.03.2023, p.52). Against this backdrop, it comes as no surprise that, according to the International Energy Authority, the electricity consumption of the big tech companies Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Meta doubled to 72 TWh between 2017 and 2021; these four companies are also the world’s largest providers of commercially available cloud computing capacity.

Recently, Sasha Luccioni, Yacine Jernite and Emma Strubell presented the first systematic study on the energy consumption and CO2 emissions of various machine learning models during the inference phase. Inference here means the operation of the models, i.e. the period of deployment after training and fine-tuning the models. Inference accounts for around 80 to 90 percent of the costs of machine learning, on a cloud computing platform such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) around 90 per cent according to the operator. The study by Luccioni et al. emphasises the differences between various machine learning applications: The power and CO2 intensity is massively lower for text-based applications than for image-based tasks; similarly, it is massively lower for discriminative tasks than for generative ones, including generative pretrained transformers (GPTs). The differences between the various models are considerable: “For comparison, charging the average smartphone requires 0.012 kWh of energy which means that the most efficient text generation model uses as much energy as 16% of a full smartphone charge for 1,000 inferences, whereas the least efficient image generation model uses as much energy as 950 smartphone charges (11.49 kWh), or nearly 1 charge per image generation.” The larger the model, the faster the same amount of electricity is consumed or CO2 emitted during the inference phase as during the training phase.

Since ‘general purpose applications’ for the same task consume more energy than models that have been trained for a specific purpose, Luccioni et al. point out several trade-offs: Firstly, the trade-off between model size vs. power consumption, as the benefits of multi-purpose models must be weighed against their power costs and CO2 emissions. Secondly, the trade-off between accuracy/efficiency and electricity consumption across different models, because the higher the accuracy or the higher the efficiency of a model, the lower the power consumption of specific models, whereas multi-purpose models can fulfil many different tasks, but have a lower accuracy and higher electricity consumption. According to the authors, these empirically proven findings call into question, for example, whether it is really necessary to operate multi-purpose models such as Bard and Bing, i.e. they “do not see convincing evidence for the necessity of their deployment in contexts where tasks are well-defined, for instance web search and navigation, given these models’ energy requirements.”

The hunger for power of large general purpose models does not bring the “limits to growth” to the attention of leading entrepreneurs and investors of Western big tech companies, like the famous Club of Rome report more than 50 years ago. On the contrary, CEOs such as Jeff Bezos, whose empire also includes the largest cloud computing platform AWS, fear stagnation: “We will have to stop growing, which I think is a very bad future.” Visions such as the Metaverse are extremely costly in terms of resource consumption and emissions, and it is fair to ask whether AI applications will really be available to all of humanity in the future or only to those companies or individuals who can afford them. Nothing of all of this is even remotely sustainable. Given the growing power consumption of Western big tech companies and the fact that the core infrastructure for the development of AI products is already centralised by those few players, it remains unclear where the development of ‘magical’ AI applications will lead. Scientist Kate Crawford has given her own answer to this in her book “Atlas of AI“: Into space, because that’s where the resources are that these corporations need.

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