In early February, first Google, then Microsoft, announced major overhauls to their search engines. Both tech giants have spent big on building or buying generative AI tools, which use large language models to understand and respond to complex questions. Now they are trying to integrate them into search, hoping they'll give users a richer, more accurate experience. The Chinese search company Baidu has announced it will follow suit.
But the excitement over these new tools could be concealing a dirty secret. The race to build high-performance, AI-powered search engines is likely to require a dramatic rise in computing power, and with it a massive increase in the amount of energy that tech companies require and the amount of carbon they emit.
"There are already huge resources involved in indexing and searching internet content, but the incorporation of AI requires a different kind of firepower," says Alan Woodward, professor of cybersecurity at the University of Surrey in the UK. "It requires processing power as well as storage and efficient search. Every time we see a step change in online processing, we see significant increases in the power and cooling resources required by large processing centres. I think this could be such a step."
Training large language models (LLMs), such as those that underpin OpenAI's ChatGPT, which will power Microsoft's souped-up Bing search engine, and Google's equivalent, Bard, means parsing and computing linkages within massive volumes of data, which is why they have tended to be developed by companies with sizable resources.
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