How AI kills us: energy use
Hey, listen, I get that we're all excited about AI and the rush to humanity-destroying artificial general intelligence. But learn your lessons from The Matrix, children. It's the energy that kills ya.
Remember this iconic scene in The Matrix?
Switch calls Neo “coppertop.” As in, the battery. It’s explained later on that in the war between man and machine, humans “scorched the sky,” presumably with nuclear weapons, hoping that the solar-powered AI murderbots of the future would run out of energy and die. Instead, in the movie, the machines figure out how to harvest, grow, and use human bodies and “some combination of fusion” as an endless supply of power. Basically, meat batteries.
And listen, the science is plenty fuzzy, but the fundamental point is pretty damn prescient. The age of machines requires a lot of energy. And since the vast majority of energy on this planet is still generated by burning fossil fuels, the more energy the machines consume, the more carbon we emit into the atmosphere, and the more we warm the planet. It really is that simple, actually.
“I think another thing the market’s missing is that the more we do in the cloud, the more energy demand is needed, because technology is such a massive eater of energy.” - Cole Smead, Smead Capital Management
In fact, this column was inspired by watching this interview on CNBC, with Cole Smead of Smead Capital Management, as he gave his rationale for buying every stock under the sun related to oil. The replay is subscriber-only, but I’ll summarize—I tuned in sharply when I heard Cole blandly declare, “it’s a great time to make money in the energy business.” At this, I muttered something along the lines of “you climate criminal” at the TV.
Smead went on to about constrained oil supply from OPEC cuts, he said the primary concern is that we won’t have enough oil in three years, my muttering continued.
But then he said this: “I think another thing the market’s missing is that the more we do in the cloud, the more energy demand is needed because technology is such a massive eater of energy.”
Host Sara Eisen asked him how that squares with, y’know, sustainability, and Smead said people are just operating under a complete energy fallacy:
“If you go back and look at the history of technology, what you’ll find is every way we enhance our technology, we demand more energy, so … the idea that we’re going to be more efficient in our use because of technology, [that it will] cause lower consumption of energy in total, it’s called the Jevons Paradox. People have never used less energy when technology gets better. They always consume more.
So, for example, an iPhone in 1980 would have required a Manhattan-sized building of energy, if we had an iPhone in 1980. Now it’s way more efficient, so we have billions of iPhones instead, using way more total energy. And that’s where people are really wrong, Sara, is the idea that we’re going to be using more renewables to meet this. We will use more renewables, but we’ll use way more total energy, and we can’t meet that via just renewables.”
Here, a whole different level of muttering ensued.
See, here’s the thing. Cole’s kind of a climate criminal (like, he could find other ways to make money, is all I’m saying), but he’s also not wrong about how we’re barreling toward ever more energy consumption, and AI is smack in the center of it.
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