Plenty of prognostications, including this one from the World Economic Forum, tout the integral role artificial intelligence could play in “saving the planet.” Indeed, AI is integral to all manner of technologies, ranging from autonomous vehicles to more informed disaster response systems to smart buildings and data collection networks monitoring everything from energy consumption to deforestation. The flip side to this rosy view is that there are plenty of ethical concerns to consider. What’s more, the climate impact of AI — both in terms of power consumption and all the electronic waste that gadgets create — is a legitimate, growing concern.

Research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst suggests the process of “training” neural networks to make decisions or searching them to find answers uses five times the lifetime emissions of the average U.S. car. Not an insignificant amount. What does that mean if things continue on their current trajectory? Right now, data centers use about 2 percent of the world’s electricity. At the current rate of AI adoption — with no changes in the underlying computer server hardware and software — the data centers needed to run those applications could claim 15 percent of that power load, semiconductor firm Applied Materials CEO Gary Dickerson predicted in August 2019 . Although progress is being made, he reiterated that warning last week.

“Customized design will be critical,” he told attendees of a longstanding industry conference, SemiconWest . “New system architectures, new application-specific chip designs, new ways to connect memory and logic, new memories and in-memory compute can all drive significant improvements in compute performance […]