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Dune and AI: Parallels in Water Conservation Challenges

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In Frank Herbert’s inspiring science fiction novel “Dune,” water is a precious commodity that symbolizes life on multiple levels. From individual survival to the well-being and spiritual faith of the Fremen communities, water is the key to unlocking the potential of their home, the seemingly arid desert planet Arrakis.

A man’s flesh is his own; the water belongs to the tribe.

Herbert, Book II

The Fremen’s resourcefulness in managing water extends beyond the use of their native plants. They employ deathstills, devices that extract water from the bodies of the deceased, to reclaim every drop of moisture. Even sandtrout, the larval form of the giant sandworms that roam the deserts of Arrakis, are placed into deathstills to extract their water highlighting the Fremen’s deep understanding of their planet’s ecosystem and their commitment to conserving water.

The Rising Water Footprint of AI Development

Fast forward to In-Real-Life (IRL), we find ourselves grappling with a new kind of water crisis that stems from the rapid growth of artificial intelligence (AI). As AI models become more complex and labor-intensive to train, their environmental impact, particularly their water footprint, should come into sharper focus. Creating large language models in IRL requires analyzing patterns across a massive amount of human-written text. This process consumes significant amounts of electricity and generates substantial heat. To maintain optimal temperatures, especially on hot days, data centers need to circulate water, often using cooling towers located outside their large buildings as in Des Moines.  Microsoft’s recent environmental report revealed that their global water consumption increased by 34% from 2021 to 2022, reaching nearly 1.7 billion gallons – equivalent to more than 2,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools. This sharp rise, which researchers attribute to the company’s ongoing AI research, represents a significant departure from the water usage trends seen in previous years. This trend shows that as AI models become more sophisticated and resource-intensive, it is crucial to consider the environmental impact of their development. The article Making AI Less “Thirsty”: Uncovering and Addressing the Secret Water Footprint of AI states that a simple conversation with ChatGPT consisting of 20 to 50 questions can cost up to a 500ml bottle of fresh water. According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s The World Factbook “Global water withdrawal of Google, Microsoft, and Meta reached an estimated of 2.2 billion cubic meters in 2022, equivalent to the total annual water withdrawal (including municipal, industrial, and agricultural usage) of two Denmarks.”

Recognizing the Consequences of AI’s Water Consumption

Just as water represents life on several levels in “Dune,” from individual survival to universal prosperity, the water footprint of AI has far-reaching implications for our planet. “The thing the ecologically illiterate don’t realize about an ecosystem,” Kynes said in Dune, “is that it’s a system. A system! (…) The highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences.” As AI advances and becomes more integrated into our daily lives, we must address its environmental impact, particularly water consumption. According to Forbes, “Using public data sources, they estimate that “training GPT-3 in Microsoft’s state-of-the-art US data centers can directly consume 700,000 liters of clean freshwater,” which they calculate could be used to produce 370 BMW cars or 320 Tesla electric vehicles.” (Guerrini 2023)

Learning from Dune: Collective Responsibility in Managing Water

In Dune, the Fremen’s disciplined water use, and collection practices are driven by a mixture of political and spiritual customs, highlighting the importance of a collective effort in managing their precious resource. Similarly, reducing the water footprint of AI requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders, including AI developers, data center operators, and policymakers. As we navigate the challenges posed by the growth of AI, we can draw inspiration from the lessons of Dune. By recognizing the value of water as a shared resource and working together to manage its use responsibly, we can ensure that the benefits of AI are not overshadowed by its environmental costs. We must go beyond statements such as “Fresh, clean water is one of the most precious resources on Earth … Now we’re taking urgent action to support water security and healthy ecosystems.” Google’s Water Commitment 2023 and focus on embodied approaches to creating more sustainable water use safeguarding our collective well-being.

The Fremen’s reverence for water is so deeply ingrained in their culture that it permeates their language and social interactions. In one scene, a character commands another to “Give me the water,” to which the reply is, “The glass can’t hear you. Command me.” This exchange highlights the Fremen’s understanding that water is not just a resource to be consumed but a sacred element that demands respect and careful management. As we confront the growing water footprint of AI, we must adopt a similar mindset. We cannot simply command the technology to give us water; instead, we must take responsibility for managing our precious resources wisely.

References:

Guerrini, F. (2023, April 14). AI’s unsustainable water use: How tech giants contribute to global water shortages. Forbes.

This article has been produced by Dr. Jasmin (Bey) Cowin, Associate Professor and U.S. Department of State English Language Specialist (2024) As a Columnist for Stankevicius she writes on Nicomachean Ethics – Insights at the Intersection of AI and Education.

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Dr. Jasmin Cowin
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