Environmental impact of LLMs

A reader asked: what is the environmental impact of large language models (LLMs)? So I read some articles on the subject, and made comparisons to other technologies, such as video games and video streaming. My conclusion is that the environmental footprint is large enough that we shouldn’t ignore it, but I think people are overreacting.


I’m not an expert in assessing environmental impact, but I’ve had a bit of experience assessing computational prices for LLMs. Pricing might be a good proxy for carbon footprint, because it doesn’t just represent energy costs, but also the costs of building and operating a data center. My guess is that across many different kinds of computation tasks, the carbon footprint per dollar spent is roughly similar. And in my experience, LLMs are far from the most significant computational cost in a typical tech company.

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I worked on LLMs

Generative AI sure is the talk of the town these days. Controversial, is it not? It’s with some trepidation that I disclose that I spent the last 6 months becoming an expert in large language models (LLMs). Earlier this year when I moseyed through the foundational LLM paper, that was where it began.

I’d like to start talking about this more, because I’ve been frustrated with the public conversation. Among both anti-AI folks as well as AI enthusiasts, people have weird, impossible expectations from LLMs, while being ignorant of other capabilities. I’d like to provide a reality check, so that readers can be more informed as they argue about it.

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Link Roundup: June 2024

Orientalism: Desert Level Music vs Actual Middle-Eastern Music | Fayra Faraji (video, 1:36 hours) – This video explains how orientalist music has virtually nothing to do with actual music from the Middle East.  The music uses a hodgepodge of different instruments and musical styles that come from vastly different contexts.  They nearly exclusively use the double-harmonic and phrygian mode, not because those are particularly common in Middle-Eastern music, but rather because it’s uncommon in other western music and yet fits within the 12TET system.

As a fan of xenharmonic/microtonal music, I know that many non-western music traditions use different tuning systems–the Maqam traditions are particularly notable.  I appreciate such music as it comes into my awareness, and definitely wish it were more widely distributed.  That said, I’m very aware that I come from a western musical tradition, and the very first thing I hear in microtonal music is a sense of uniqueness relative to my musical context and training.  When I think about non-Western musical traditions, I imagine a whole history and culture where these musical characteristics are just normal, just a medium used to express something else entirely.  That just isn’t my perspective, I cannot hear it that way.

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Origami: Box Head

Box Head

Box Head, designed by Boice

This iconic model is one that we folded at the East Bay Origami Convention back in March.  It takes inspiration from Boice’s Head Empty model, which is a person in a coat and tie, with a cube for a head.  Taking that same idea to the extreme, now we have a little doll with a giant cube for a head.  It’s pretty hard to get a photo of the thing, because from any view from above, the giant head eclipses the rest of the body.  If you could see it from above, you would see that the cube is open on the top and in the back.

Boice has a video tutorial.  It’s easier than it looks, but you may want to start with large paper.  I think it’s a good introduction to the box pleating method.

The tricky part was getting it to stand up.  I chose the fold the feet a bit differently from the instructions, giving it giant duck feet.