May 10, 2024 - Economy

⚡️ What AI operators can learn from Bitcoin

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Illustration: Tiffany Herring/Axios

AI's demand for computing power is expected to consume ever-growing amounts of electricity, with new servers coming online over the next three years alone set to eat up more power than a small country.

The big picture: Bitcoin miners have already had to get creative about finding sources of energy and using it efficiently. We already told you about demand response.

  • But we spoke to three different bitcoin miners, Riot, Terawulf and Iren, whose staff illuminated some other lessons Bitcoiners have learned that could serve AI.

Geographical flexibility

The big companies of tech are accustomed to acting like 800-lb. gorillas (they sit down wherever they want to). Terawulf's Nazar Khan, chief operating officer and a co-founder, told Axios that that is increasingly not going to be an option.

  • Favorite places for data centers, such as Northern Virginia, he said, are hitting capacity. On the other hand, many parts of the country have data-center-ready infrastructure now, areas that haven't previously, he said.

Advanced facilities

Chasing abundant (therefore, cheap) power often means operating in out-of-the-way places, Iren Energy's (formerly: Iris) Lincoln Tan tells Axios.

  • "Beyond the hardware, the most important thing is actually having really good facilities that can withstand the heat, the cold and the dust of operating in remote environments," he said.
  • Unplanned downtime comes from broken machines, usually due to environmental conditions. Data centers that manage the environment lower downtime.

Operators can take that a step further and consider fundamentally changing the architecture of computing, as miners already have, by cooling computers with liquid rather than air.

  • Riot Platforms' Pierre Rochard, its head of research, explained to Axios that traditional data centers are far less energy intensive than bitcoin miners, commanding less than 20% of the power demand per square foot of facility.
  • AI facilities, however, will probably be somewhere in the middle of traditional and bitcoin mining, density-wise. That could be dense enough to try liquid cooling, as more and more miners do.

Zoom in: "There is great cooling technology out there, and they should not limit their ambitions based on the energy consumption of the system," Rochard said.

Reality check: For all the criticism Bitcoin has gotten for energy use, it's clear that AI is going to soon blow it away in terms of global demand.

What's next: AI is developing much more quickly than the facilities to serve it can possibly get built. New data facilities take years.

  • Miners are working on deals for new power capacity long before the public hears about new sites.
  • "Good things take time. You've got to always have a look at the timeline," Tan said.

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