Decomputerize to decarbonize: A climate debate we can’t avoidJaspreet Bindra
The COP26 conference that concluded last fortnight is one of the last desperate attempts by humankind to save their home. Our home planet is facing a clear existentialist threat with climate change and global warming threatening to make it unliveable in a few short decades. All planets die, as they get consumed by their stars in spectacular galactic explosions creating white dwarfs and black holes, and so will the earth inabout 7.5 billion years from now. However, as a species, we have worked tohasten this demise considerably, by accelerating the warming of the oceans to unprecedented levels. If you read news reports and most scientific literature, a few common factors are blamed for how we have managed this feat: our built environment using vast amounts of concrete and cement, vehicular exhaust and industrial pollution, air travel, cows belching out copious quantities of methane.
However, one huge factor hastening this unwelcome early arrival seems not to be a part of this conversation: unfettered computerisation and technology adoption is helping ruin our planet. Admittedly, this assertionmight be quite unsettlingcoming from apractitioner, and sometimes a proselytiser, of technology. But, it was an article by Ben Tarnoff in the Guardian (https://bit.ly/3HIbgeG) that set me thinking along this path, and an unputdownable reading of Atlas of AI by Kate Crawford that drove this thinking home.
Let’s look at a few facts that Tarnoff, Crawford and others, like Nathan Ensmenger, allude to:A recent UN study revealed that the manufacture of one desktop computer needed 240 kg fossil fuels, 22 kg chemicals, and 1,500 kg water. A University of Massachusetts team calculated that that training one model for natural-language processing – the branch of AI that helps ‘virtual assistants’ like Alexa understand you – emits 626,155 pounds of carbon dioxide, what a 125 New York – Beijing round trips will produce! As the models get more complex, this increases exponentially – OpenAI estimated the amount of compute used to train a single AI model is increasing by a factor of ten every year! And then there is the cloud, that mysterious fluffy place where all the planet-loads of data that computers generate mysteriously wafts up to and gets stored. This ‘cloud’ is actually the hundreds of data centres that Google, Microsoft, and others have dotted our planet with, and they guzzle water and power at alarming rates. Tarnoff reports that data centers currently consume 200 terawatt hours per year – roughly the same amount as South Africa, and is likely to grow 4-5 times by 2030, which would put the cloud on par with Japan, the fourth-biggest energy consumer! “The cloud” says Crawford “is made of rocks and lithium brine and crude oil.” This pales in comparison, however, to what makes the guts of a computer, and what is in enormous, short supply these days – semiconductor chips. A ‘fab’ would take as much as $20bn to build and require between 2 to 4mn gallons of ultrapure water per day, roughly equal to the needs of an American city of 50000 people. In fact, reports Crawford, the carbon footprint of the world’s computational infrastructure has matched that of the aviation industry at its heigh, and it is increasing at a faster rate.
So, to decarbonise, says Tarnoff, we must decomputerise, and I reluctantly agree with him. Before you accuse me of being a Luddite, let me hasten to add that this does not mean getting rid of all computers, but the unnecessary ones. Think about your home, and the number of computers it has: laptops and PCs, mobile phones, voice assistants, smart ‘things’, and whether we really need them all. As consumers, corporations, and governments, we are computerising and digitizing everything: Cisco estimates that there will be 29bn networked devices by 2022, that is next year. Each one requires energy, minerals, and water and each produces data for an ever-expanding cloud.
Therefore, says Tarnoff, we actually “need a Luddite revolution. Digitization doesn’t just pose a risk to people, however. It also poses a risk to the planet. Digitization is a climate disaster: if corporations and governments succeed in making vastly more of our world into data, there will be less of a world left for us to live in.” The original Luddites were the ones who broke textile machinery to ‘stop progress’, there are present day Luddites rising up to protest against more and more data centres, uninhibited connected cameras blanketing our cities, or shying away from non-Green crypto mining.
Thomas Watson, founder of IBM, famously said that “at most, the world [needed] five computers”. While that is not even a Luddite’s dream, perhaps we should go back to what Bill Gates had envisioned, “a computer on every desk”, and stop there? Just a single computer seems laughable now, with computers dotting almost every available square foot of our living spaces. It is time to debate the uninhibited growth of technologies that we consider ‘clean’ but might instead be speeding up the demise of our home planet.