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8 Feb 2023

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How Will Generative AI Search Affect GHG Emissions?

How much do your searches, whether important or pointless, contribute to GHG emissions?

The question arises amidst the background of powerful new generative AI engines being attached to the web search engines we know today. Microsoft is first past the post in this area, announcing that ChatGPT will be part of Bing search. Bing has less than 10% of global search market share, compared to more than 80% for Google Search, so can certainly use a boost from somewhere.

It follows that Google will integrate Bard – or at least make it optional – for Google Search soon enough.

Entering a new era of search comes with questions about whether the trust that's been created with search results will continue with AI extensions that haven't yet proven their reliability.

The question of potentially increased emissions should occur to anyone who tracks them as well. What effect on search workloads will a quantum leap in the complexity of search have?

Modeling the Emissions of a Search
The data is not scary at the present moment. Google estimates that a single search requires 0.0003 of a kilowatt hour (Kwh). IDCA Research has modeled CO2 emissions and carbon credits; the data shows that each search thus emits 300 milligrams of CO2.

Use of a laptop, phone, or pad for, say, 10 seconds adds another 700 milligrams for the laptop or 7 milligrams for recharging the phone or pad. With 60% of search now mobile, devices thus add around another 300 milligrams for each search.

Scaling this result, Google says there are more than 40,000 searches worldwide per second, or close to 1.3 trillion searches per year. This nets out to 780,000 metric tons of CO2 are emitted annually by the use of search engines, or about 0.1% of the emissions of the world's data centers and servers. It may seem inconsequential, but the world is a big place: if search were confined to a single data center, that facility would be pulling a steady-state 40MW from its local grid. It would be a hyperscale facility, in other words.

That said, we can rest easy that more complex, resource-intensive searching spawned by generative AI-driven search engines won't make any sort of considerable impact on digital infrastructure. The research they provide will be invaluable to all of the work they support, though.

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