Feb 26, 2024 - Technology

There's a power struggle brewing over crypto and AI — literally

Illustration of the Lady Justice statue with pixelated coins for eyes.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

One new lawsuit and one new essay signal intensifying battles over energy demand from artificial intelligence and crypto-currency mining.

Why it matters: Both technologies demand electricity-thirsty computing at a time when the world is already failing to steeply cut emissions.

State of play: A federal judge on Friday granted crypto industry plaintiffs a temporary order blocking new Energy Department collection of the sector's power usage data.

  • Meanwhile, AI ethicist Kate Crawford writes in Nature that "we need pragmatic actions to limit AI's ecological impacts now" — in terms of both power and water usage.
  • She says a good start — but only a start — would be recently proposed Democratic legislation creating standards for assessing AI's impact and setting up a voluntary reporting framework.

Catch up quick: On crypto, the DoE's independent stats arm, with White House blessing, recently began an "emergency" data survey.

  • The Energy Information Administration cited preliminary estimates that showed crypto mining is 0.6% to 2.3% of U.S. power demand, but added more rigorous info is needed.
  • The agency is concerned about strained power grids, electricity prices and CO2 emissions.

The other side: The Texas Blockchain Council and bitcoin miner Riot Platforms filed suit in a Texas federal district court late last week, alleging "contrived" urgency and "invasive government data collection."

The big picture: An International Energy Agency report last month estimates that data centers, crypto and AI accounted for roughly 2% of global power demand in 2022 — and that could double by 2026.

  • But at the same time, AI has numerous potential climate benefits.
  • Think help with improving battery materials, extreme weather forecasts, and managing increasingly complex grids as renewables, storage, EVs and other tech proliferate.

The intrigue: The massive power needs of generative AI are hardly a secret.

  • Bloomberg reports that Google has pioneered a technique that's gaining currency.
  • It's about "using software to hunt for clean electricity in parts of the world with excess sun and wind on the grid, then ramping up data center operations there."

What's next: We're keeping an eye on this crypto court case and federal work to marshal AI benefits while addressing power use.

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