Making an image with generative AI uses as much energy as charging your phone

This article was authored by Melissa Heikkilä for MIT Technology Review.

Each time you use AI to generate an image, write an email, or ask a chatbot a question, it comes at a cost to the planet.

In fact, generating an image using a powerful AI model takes as much energy as fully charging your smartphone, according to a new study by researchers at the AI startup Hugging Face and Carnegie Mellon University. However, they found that using an AI model to generate text is significantly less energy-intensive. Creating text 1,000 times only uses as much energy as 16% of a full smartphone charge. 

Their work, which is yet to be peer reviewed, shows that while training massive AI models is incredibly energy intensive, it’s only one part of the puzzle. Most of their carbon footprint comes from their actual use.  

The study is the first time researchers have calculated the carbon emissions caused by using an AI model for different tasks, says Sasha Luccioni, an AI researcher at Hugging Face who led the work. She hopes understanding these emissions could help us make informed decisions about how to use AI in a more planet-friendly way. 

Luccioni and her team looked at the emissions associated with 10 popular AI tasks on the Hugging Face platform, such as question answering, text generation, image classification, captioning, and image generation. They ran the experiments on 88 different models. For each of the tasks, such as text generation, Luccioni ran 1,000 prompts, and measured the energy used with a tool she developed called Code Carbon. Code Carbon makes these calculations by looking at the energy the computer consumes while running the model. The team also calculated the emissions generated by doing these tasks using eight generative models, which were trained to do different tasks. 

Generating images was by far the most energy- and carbon-intensive AI-based task. Generating 1,000 images with a powerful AI model, such as Stable Diffusion XL, is responsible for roughly as much carbon dioxide as driving the equivalent of 4.1 miles in an average gasoline-powered car. In contrast, the least carbon-intensive text generation model they examined was responsible for as much CO2 as driving 0.0006 miles in a similar vehicle. Stability AI, the company behind Stable Diffusion XL, did not respond to a request for comment.

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Image credit: Image by on Freepik

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