Artificial intelligence will be more of a help than a hindrance to hitting climate targets, says Bill Gates

Bill Gates has claimed that artificial intelligence will be more of a help than a hindrance in achieving climate goals, despite growing concern that a surge in new data centers could deplete green energy supplies.

The philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder told reporters that AI would enable countries to use less energy, even as they require more data centers, by making technology and power grids more efficient.

Gates downplayed fears over AI’s impact on the climate amid growing concerns that technological progress could lead to an increase in energy demand and require more fossil fuels as a result.

“Let’s not overdo it,” Gates said. “Data centers are, in the most extreme case, an additional 6%. [in energy demand] but maybe only 2% to 2.5%. The question is, will AI accelerate a decline of more than 6%? And the answer is: of course.”

According to Goldman Sachs estimates, a query directed through the AI ​​chatbot tool ChatGPT needs nearly 10 times more electricity to process than a Google search, which could mean that carbon emissions from data centers more than double in the decade between 2022 and 2030.

Some expert estimates have claimed that an increase in the number of AI data centers could cause electricity demand to increase by up to 10% in developed countries, after years of declining energy due to greater efficiency.

Gates told reporters at a conference in London hosted by his venture fund Breakthrough Energy that the additional demand created by AI data centers was more likely to be matched by new investments in green energy because technology companies were “seriously willing” to pay extra to use clean sources of electricity. in order to “say they are using green energy”.

“Technology companies are [ones] willing to pay a premium and help increase green energy capacity,” he added.

Breakthrough Energy has invested in more than 100 companies involved in the energy transition. Gates is also a major investor in AI through the Gates Foundation, which invests around a third of its $77bn (£61bn) fortune in Microsoft. In turn, Microsoft is the largest outside investor in ChatGPT creator OpenAI, and has built a suite of AI tools into its Windows operating system under the Copilot brand.

But his belief that AI can ultimately cut carbon is not unusual. In February, a peer-reviewed paper in Nature Scientific Reports argued that generative AI produced between 130 and 2,900 times less CO2 to do simple writing and illustration tasks than if a human had done them for them.

AI technology has more directly affected emissions as well. In 2016, just a few years after acquiring British AI lab DeepMind, Google announced that it had been able to use the lab’s nascent deep learning technology to cut the cooling bill by 40% in its data centers . In one stroke, Google said, its data centers had to use 15% less electricity spread across all non-IT tasks as a result.

But a data center’s energy use is only part of the concern about AI’s carbon impact. In Microsoft’s own emissions reporting, the company says its “third sphere” or indirect emissions have been in the wrong direction, in part because of the impact of building new data centers around the world — a a task that cannot yet be done using renewable electricity sources.

The rise of “in-device” artificial intelligence, demonstrated by Microsoft through its new Copilot+ computers and Apple with the rise of “Apple Intelligence” in Syria, also muddies the water: large companies may be able to commit to buying all their electricity from renewable sources. , but they can’t make the same promise to their customers, whose new devices are significantly more power-hungry than they otherwise would be.

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Gates warned that despite advances in AI and green electricity technology, the world is likely to miss its 2050 climate targets by 15 years because the amount of green electricity needed to phase out fossil fuels is not it came out pretty quickly.

He said a delay in the transition to green energy could hinder the decarbonisation of polluting sectors, including heavy industry, making it harder to achieve the 2050 target of achieving net zero emissions.

“I worry, in general, that the amount of green electricity we need for the transition is not going to appear nearly as quickly as we need it to,” Gates said.

“If you try to define and say, ‘Let’s get to zero by 2050, you’re going to say, ‘Another 10 or 15 years might be more realistic.’ It is very difficult to see. We won’t get to zero until 2050, I don’t think,” he added.

Gates’ warning came a week after a global report found that, despite a record increase in renewable energy in 2023, consumption of fossil fuels also climbed to a new record as a result of continued rising demand.

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