How is Microsoft Making AI More Sustainable?

The company’s CSO shares Microsoft’s aims to improve the energy efficiency of AI, cloud services and data centre – and create global sustainability markets

Global tech giant Microsoft has shared its three-point plan to address the “resource intensity” of artificial intelligence and make it more sustainable.

In her latest blog post, Melanie Nakagawa, Chief Sustainability Officer at Microsoft, says AI is a “massive platform shift, akin to the printing press” and flags up the need to confront the environmental impact “from every angle”.

Melanie, CSO since the beginning of 2023, outlines three areas of focus:

  • Optimising data centre energy and water efficiency
  • Advancing low-carbon materials
  • Improving the energy efficiency of AI and cloud services.

Incredible promise – and resource intensity

Melanie said: “During the past year, the pace of AI adoption has accelerated significantly, ushering in groundbreaking advances, discoveries and solutions with the potential to help address humanity’s biggest problems.

“Alongside the incredible promise and benefits of AI, we recognise the resource intensity of these applications and the need to address the environmental impact from every angle.”

Data centre energy management

She said that Microsoft is working to reduce peak power, safely harvest unused power, increase server density in existing data centres through “intelligent utilisation and power-aware virtual machine allocation” and drive efficiency “all the way to our chips and code”.

Melanie pointed out Microsoft’s more than 135 renewables projects in its power purchase agreement portfolio, adding: “We’re also working on solutions that enable data centres to provide energy back to the grid to contribute to local energy supply during times of high demand.”

Work to reduce data centre water consumption includes using direct air instead of water for cooling, harvesting rainwater and procuring reclaimed water from utilities.

Microsoft

Advancing low-carbon materials

Melanie said: “With our US$1bn Climate Innovation Fund, we’re investing to hasten the development and deployment of new climate innovations, especially for underfunded sectors and supply-constrained markets like lower-carbon building materials.”

She added: “For example, we are investing in solutions such as H2 Green Steel to expand market supply of near-zero carbon steel, which can deliver up to 95% lower CO2 emissions than conventional steel. We are also evaluating use of near-zero carbon steel in our own building materials and equipment supply chains.”

Melanie said Microsoft is also working to broaden the availability of low-carbon concrete and other construction materials.

The work includes, in Washington state, a pilot program that “utilises concrete alternatives like biogenic limestone and fly ash and slag” to reduce the embodied carbon in concrete by more than 50%. compared to traditional concrete mixes.

Improving energy efficiency of AI and cloud services

Melanie said this is a “critical component of the solution”, adding: “We’re working to support developers and IT professionals with tools to optimise models and code, exploring ways to reduce the energy requirements of AI and harnessing the power of these advanced technologies to drive energy breakthroughs.”

She said Microsoft is empowering developers to build and optimise AI models that can get the same results with fewer resources.

“Over the past few months, we’ve released a suite of small language models (SLMs) called Phi that achieve remarkable performance on a variety of benchmarks, matching or outperforming models up to 25x larger.”

Melanie added: “Our ambitious 2030 targets to become carbon negative, water positive, zero waste and to protect biodiversity require continued innovation across every aspect of our operations, and we’re committed to sharing what we learn along the way.”

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