Training a single AI model can emit as much carbon as five cars in their lifetimes - MIT Technology Review
In a new paper, researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, performed a life cycle assessment for training several common large AI models. They found that the process can emit more than 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent—nearly five times the lifetime emissions of the average American car (and that includes manufacture of the car itself).
It’s a jarring quantification of something AI researchers have suspected for a long time. “While probably many of us have thought of this in an abstract, vague level, the figures really show the magnitude of the problem,” says Carlos Gómez-Rodríguez, a computer scientist at the University of A Coruña in Spain, who was not involved in the research. “Neither I nor other researchers I’ve discussed them with thought the environmental impact was that substantial.”
They found that the computational and environmental costs of training grew proportionally to model size and then exploded when additional tuning steps were used to increase the model’s final accuracy. In particular, they found that a tuning process known as neural architecture search, which tries to optimize a model by incrementally tweaking a neural network’s design through exhaustive trial and error, had extraordinarily high associated costs for little performance benefit. Without it, the most costly model, BERT, had a carbon footprint of roughly 1,400 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent, close to a round-trip trans-American flight.
What’s more, the researchers note that the figures should only be considered as baselines. “Training a single model is the minimum amount of work you can do,” says Emma Strubell, a PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the lead author of the paper. In practice, it’s much more likely that AI researchers would develop a new model from scratch or adapt an existing model to a new data set, either of which can require many more rounds of training and tuning.
The significance of those figures is colossal—especially when considering the current trends in AI research. “In general, much of the latest research in AI neglects efficiency, as very large neural networks have been found to be useful for a variety of tasks, and companies and institutions that have abundant access to computational resources can leverage this to obtain a competitive advantage,” Gómez-Rodríguez says. “This kind of analysis needed to be done to raise awareness about the resources being spent [...] and will spark a debate.”
“What probably many of us did not comprehend is the scale of it until we saw these comparisons,” echoed Siva Reddy, a postdoc at Stanford University who was not involved in the research.
The privatization of AI research
The results underscore another growing problem in AI, too: the sheer intensity of resources now required to produce paper-worthy results has made it increasingly challenging for people working in academia to continue contributing to research.
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