AI writing, illustration emits hundreds of times less carbon than humans, study finds (2024)

With the evolution of artificial intelligence comes discussion of the technology's environmental impact. A new study has found that for the tasks of writing and illustrating, AI emits hundreds of times less carbon than humans performing the same tasks. That does not mean, however, that AI can or should replace human writers and illustrators, the study's authors argue.

Andrew Torrance, Paul E. Wilson Distinguished Professor of Law at KU, is co-author of a study that compared established systems such as ChatGPT, Bloom AI, DALL-E2 and others completing writing and illustrating to that of humans.

Like cryptocurrency, AI has been subject to debate about the amount of energy it uses and its contributions to climate change. Human emissions and environmental impact have long been studied, but comparisons between the two have been scant. The authors conducted a comparison and found that AI systems emit between 130 and 1,500 times less CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per page of text generated than human writers and illustration systems between 310 and 2,900 times less CO2e per image than humans.

"I like to think of myself as driven by data, not just what I feel is true. We've had discussions about something that appears to be true in terms of AI emissions, but we wanted to look at the data and see if it truly is more efficient," Torrance said. "When we did it, the results were kind of astonishing. Even by conservative estimates, AI is extremely less wasteful."

The study, co-written with Bill Tomlinson, Rebecca Black and Donald Patterson of the University of California-Irvine, was published in the journal Nature.

To calculate the carbon footprint of a person writing, the researchers consulted the Energy Budget, a measure that considers the amount of energy used in certain tasks for a set period of time. For example, it is well established how much energy a computer with word processing software uses per hour. When multiplied by the average time it takes a person to write a page of text, on average, 250 words, an estimate can be arrived at. Using the same amount of energy used by the CPUs that operate AI such as ChatGPT, which can produce text much faster, produces an estimate for AI.

Researchers also considered per capita emissions of individuals in the United States and India. Residents of the former have approximate annual emissions of 15 metric tons CO2e per year, while the latter is an average of 1.9 metric tons. The two nations were chosen as they have the highest and lowest respective per capita environmental impact of countries with population higher than 300 million, and to provide a look at different levels of emissions in different parts of the world in comparison to AI.

Results showed that Bloom is 1,400 times less impactful than a U.S. resident writing a page of text and 180 times less impactful than a resident of India.

In terms of illustration, results showed that DALL-E2 emits approximately 2,500 times less CO2e than a human artist and 310 times less than an India-based artist. Figures for Midjourney were 2,900 times less for the former and 370 times less for the latter.

As technologies improve and societies evolve, those figures are almost certain to change as well, Torrance said.

The authors wrote that carbon emissions are only one factor to consider when comparing AI production to human output. As the technologies exist now, they are often not capable of producing the quality of writing or art that a human can. As they improve, they hold the potential to both eliminate existing jobs and create new ones. Loss of employment has potential for substantial economic, societal and other forms of destabilization. For those and other reasons, the authors wrote, the best path forward is likely a collaboration between AI and human efforts, or a system in which people can use AI to be more efficient in their work and retain control of final products.

Legal issues such as the use of copyrighted material in training sets for AI must be considered, the authors wrote, as does the potential for an increase in artificially produced material to result in an increase in the energy it uses and resulting emissions. Collaboration between the two is the most beneficial use of both AI and human labor, the authors wrote.

"We don't say AI is inherently good or that it is empirically better, just that when we looked at it in these instances, it was less energy consumptive," Torrance said.

The research was conducted to improve understanding of AI and its environmental impact and to address the United Nation Sustainable Development Goals of ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns and taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts, the researchers wrote.

For their part, the authors have begun to use AI as an aid in producing drafts for some of their writing, but they also agree on the necessity of carefully editing, and adding to, such drafts manually.

"This is not a curse, it's a boon," Torrance said of AI. "I think this will help make good writers great, mediocre writers good and democratize writing. It can make people more productive and can be an empowerment of human potential. I'm hugely optimistic that technology is getting better in most respects and lightening the effects we have on the Earth. We hope this is just the beginning and that people continue to dig into this issue further."

AI writing, illustration emits hundreds of times less carbon than humans, study finds (2024)


AI writing, illustration emits hundreds of times less carbon than humans, study finds? ›

Summary: A group of scholars calculated the amount of energy used by AI tools for the tasks of writing and illustrating and compared it to the average amount of energy humans use for the same processes. Their results showed artificial intelligence results in hundreds of times less carbon emissions than humans.

How much carbon does AI emit? ›

Research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst suggesting that training a single AI model can emit over 284 tonnes of CO2, equivalent to the lifetime emissions of five average American cars, paints a concerning picture of AI's environmental impact.

Does AI write better than humans? ›

In conclusion, human writers have the upper hand in terms of wordplay and puns because they can make connections between words and create relevant and original ideas. While AI can analyze words and provide suggestions, it cannot match the level of creativity that comes naturally to humans.

How bad is AI for the environment? ›

Negative impacts

Use vast amounts of water. Develop biases against nature and animals. Enable less sustainable transport choices. Boost fossil fuel production.

What the AI can help us to reduce the carbon emissions? ›

Predictive AI can forecast future carbon emissions based on current data on carbon footprint. By providing detailed insight into every aspect of carbon emission, AI tools and data optimization techniques can improve efficiency in production, transportation, etc.

Is AI a bigger threat than climate change? ›

Artificial intelligence poses greater threat than climate change, says former Google scientist.

Is AI good or bad for the climate? ›

Despite their operation in a virtual space, AI and the cloud have considerable tangible effects. They will intensify greenhouse gas emissions, consume increasing amounts of energy, and require larger quantities of natural resources. This emerges, in one form, through rising energy demands.

Is using AI to write wrong? ›

Doing academic work requires that the work you turn in is your own. A paper that is written by AI is not considered your own original work. It doesn't matter which AI program/software you use. Using any of these to write your papers is considered a form of plagiarism.

Is AI a threat to writers? ›

NEW YORK (AP) — For a vast number of book writers, artificial intelligence is a threat to their livelihood and the very idea of creativity.

Is using AI to write essays bad? ›

Colleges Can Detect A.I.

come out formulaic and poorly written, the use of A.I. in college essays can easily be detected. And if an admissions officer detects the use of A.I., it's not like that applicant is going to get a second look — their candidacy is finished.

Why can AI be a bad thing? ›

Real-life AI risks

There are a myriad of risks to do with AI that we deal with in our lives today. Not every AI risk is as big and worrisome as killer robots or sentient AI. Some of the biggest risks today include things like consumer privacy, biased programming, danger to humans, and unclear legal regulation.

Is AI a danger to humanity? ›

Can AI cause human extinction? If AI algorithms are biased or used in a malicious manner — such as in the form of deliberate disinformation campaigns or autonomous lethal weapons — they could cause significant harm toward humans. Though as of right now, it is unknown whether AI is capable of causing human extinction.

How is AI bad for the economy? ›

For the other half, AI applications may execute key tasks currently performed by humans, which could lower labor demand, leading to lower wages and reduced hiring. In the most extreme cases, some of these jobs may disappear.

Can AI reverse climate change? ›

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) can contribute to the fight against climate change. Existing AI systems include tools that predict weather, track icebergs and identify pollution. AI can also be used to improve agriculture and reduce its environmental impact, the World Economic Forum says.

How does AI emit carbon? ›

In addition to the electricity consumed and CO2 generated while developing or using an algorithm, the processes used to extract the raw materials from the Earth that are used in the hardware and data-centers on which AI algorithms run; the manufacturing processes used to build, assemble, transport, and install this ...

What technology can reduce CO2? ›

Together, electrification, renewables, nuclear, CCUS and hydrogen could deliver over 70% of the emissions reductions needed to bring the global energy system to net zero by 2050, according to the IEA.

Does AI produce carbon emissions? ›

This figure compares the CO2e emissions of AI and humans engaged in the task of creating one image. AI image creation (via DALL-E2 or Midjourney) produces 310–2900 times less CO2e per image than human creators. AI produces many times less CO2e than computer usage to support humans making images.

Does AI increase carbon footprint? ›

The emissions come from the infrastructure associated with AI, such as building and running the data centres that handle the large amounts of information required to sustain these systems. But different technological approaches to how we build AI systems could help reduce its carbon footprint.

What is the CO2 footprint of ChatGPT? ›

With the help of a CO2 emissions calculator, each message you send to ChatGPT produces approximately 4.32 grams of CO2.

How does AI increase carbon emissions? ›

AI takes lots of computers — and energy

As the AI models run, they need electricity. If that electricity comes from a grid that uses fossil fuels, it is contributing to emissions. At the same time, the computers in those data centres generate a lot of heat and need to be cooled — often requiring even more electricity.

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