How Much Coal Is Your Computer Burning As You Read This Article?

Artists and technologists are grappling with the seemingly invisible carbon footprints of their favorite digital pursuits. From VR, blockchain, to AI, today's most exciting technologies are hungry for dirty energy.

"Lamps in games use real electricity." This sudden realization came to one Reddit user while daydreaming in the shower. Minds were blown, memes were drafted. With how ubiquitous and ingrained computer-usage is in our daily lives, it's easy to forget that every ethereal digital experience we have is made possible by real-world resource consumption. For the most part, that means burning coal, gas, or oil. Around 80% of global energy is still produced from fossil fuels, with the internet consuming a noticeable percentage of that: demand is skyrocketing as our devices become more and more advanced and omnipresent, asked to do more and more complex computing tasks.

The MIT Technology Review reported last June that training a single AI model in a datacenter can release more than 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from the electricity used. As they put it, that's the equivalent CO2 output of the entire lifecycle of five cars. Other intensive computing domains like blockchain and graphics rendering are no exception.

So is it time to take off the VR headset, and spin down the extra RGB fans on the old gaming hog? Do you need wheels for your Mac Pro? Just how much polar icecap are you melting with your number crunching, exactly?

Artist Kyle McDonald has an app for that. Well, a command-line wrapper for nvidia-smi, at least. Utilizing a library for mapping geolocations to energy use, McDonald's code piece shows you how much your processing tasks are contributing to global warming in real time. If icebergs aren't your style, there are also modes for mapping equivalent amounts of beef eaten per hour as well as some other fun-but-frightening CO2 comparisons. Artworks like this can't solve the issues of global climate change on their own, but at least while you're beholding the glow of a lamp in MothSimulator HD, you'll remember that light came from somewhere.

Read more on Github.