David P. Turner / March 1, 2023
When the sheriff character in the original “Jaws” movie first sees the giant shark, he exclaims to the captain “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”.
An analogous statement regarding the energy requirements associated with the coming proliferation of conversational virtual beings (based on Artificial Intelligence) is that the technosphere is going to need a bigger power supply.
By virtual beings I mean all the digital, language-capable, denizens of the emerging metaverse (broadly defined), including chatbots (like ChatGPT), AI-assisted search engines (like Perplexity AI), and AI-based residents of Meta’s visor-enable virtual reality world. Coming down the line are speaking holograms, and holodecks (as in Star Trek).
The process by which these advanced digital creatures learn to speak is based on development of neural networks that are trained with a large body of textural information (like Wikipedia, books, and an array of content available on the Internet). Training means determining statistical relationships between the occurrence of different words in the training text, which the algorithm then uses to formulate a response based on keyword inputs (queries).
Training a large language model such as ChatGPT requires a hefty input of computing power because it involves extensive trial and error testing. Chatbots affiliated with AI-assisted Internet searches use not just a pre-trained language model but also integrate the search output into their responses. This kind of processing will be energy demanding (perhaps 5 times greater than for a standard search), which will add up considering the billions of searches made per day.
If these virtual beings were only going to be used by a minority of people (such as now visit Meta’s colony in the metaverse), the power draw would be minor. But, very likely, their seductive appeal will be so great (albeit with an occasional hint of menace) that they will become a standard feature of ordinary life. Just in the field of education, there is vast potential for inspiring and informing students using dialogic Chatbots.
Efficiency in training and operation of these virtual beings will no doubt increase, but industry specialists see a booming rise in electrical energy demand as their use expands. Note that electrical power demand for electric vehicles, and to power the broader trend towards electrification of heating and industry, will also rise significantly in the coming decades (a good thing!).
The overshoot model argues that global energy consumption should be reduced rather than expanded because of the many negative environmental externalities (unaccounted for damages) caused by energy production ̶ from both fossil fuel and renewable sources.
However, at least for electricity, that seems unlikely given the burgeoning energy demand in the developed world noted here, and the aspiration to raise standards of living in the developing world.
Since 66% of global electricity production is still based on combustion on fossil fuels, any increase in electricity consumption will tend to result in more greenhouse gas emissions and more societal problems with climate change. The obvious conclusion in that new energy demand must be met by nonfossil fuel sources like hydro, wind, solar, geothermal, and nuclear fission. Companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Meta that are building the metaverse will experience huge increases in energy consumption in the near future; they should be held to their commitments to run on carbon neutral power sources.
New energy technologies that could contribute to a clean global power supply in the coming decades include geologic hydrogen and solar energy from space. These sources, however, will require long-term investments in research and development.
The global renewable energy revolution is off to a good start and has a bright future, but it will require steady political pressure to 1) stop building new fossil fuel burning facilities, 2) replace aging fossil-fuel-based infrastructure with renewable sources, and 3) build new renewable energy sources that can accommodate the increasing demand that is surely coming.