AI can't be at the expense of sustainability
Big Interview

AI can't be at the expense of sustainability

NoelleWalsh-Elwell1_2019 (1).png

Noelle Walsh, CVP, cloud operations and innovation at Microsoft on why progress shouldn't be at the expense of the planet

In the age of rapid technological advancement, the marriage between sustainability and innovation has become imperative and Microsoft is among those pioneering the charge.

Microsoft is expanding its next-generation cloud and AI infrastructure at an increased pace having deployed AI in most urban centres globally.

The company announced recently that Japan, Australia, Canada, the UK, Germany, and Spain will all benefit from substantial investment to increase its hyperscale cloud computing and AI infrastructure.

Additionally, Microsoft have committed to expanding its digital skilling programs with the goal of providing AI skilling in each country.

Keynote speaker at Datacloud Global Congress 2024, Noelle Walsh who manages cloud operations + innovation (CO+I) at Microsoft believes we are witnessing a moment in time.

The data centre industry is at the forefront of the AI revolution. Walsh notes that Microsoft was already experiencing strong growth as many companies transitioned to the cloud. The onset of COVID-19 then led to another significant surge, which was soon followed by the advent of AI, resulting in phenomenal growth.

“Facebook took four years to grow substantially, whilst ChatGPT got to 100 million users in just a matter of months,” Walsh told Datacloud magazine.

Walsh believes that AI is poised to transform both our personal and professional lives.

She says, "I think it'll enable us in many ways. As with any kind of progress, once you start, you can’t go back. It is a moment in time, but it must be managed."

According to Walsh, data hubs are the backbone of the digital world. However, their energy-intensive nature has raised concerns about their environmental impact.

As the world grapples with pressing environmental challenges, the tech industry finds itself under increasing scrutiny for its energy consumption and carbon footprint. Data centres, essential for storing and processing vast amounts of digital information, are notorious energy guzzlers.

In 2012, Microsoft set an ambitious goal to become carbon-negative by 2030, aiming to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits.

A key aspect of this endeavour is the transformation of its data centres into sustainable hubs powered by renewable energy and advanced technologies, whilst also supporting the local community and economy.

Walsh explains: “The demand is enormous. And it's having to rethink scale and pace. We’ve got strong sustainability goals and my team were heavily engaged in setting out these goals.

“We're big believers in renewables and doing it the right way. We are committed to 100% by 2025.”

Transitioning to renewable energy sources is fundamental to achieving sustainability goals. Microsoft is committed to powering its data centres with 100% renewable energy and has made substantial investments in solar, wind, and hydroelectric projects worldwide.

“Global connectivity cannot be at the expense of the planet. It's got to be sustainable,” Walsh says.

“So we'll go to the power source and then ideally move to renewable power. If you look at the Nordics we use hydro, nuclear and wind, for example."

A recent sustainability report highlighted that Microsoft has increased its water usage by over 80% since 2020, however, to offset the usage Microsoft have introduced several environmental initiatives to replenish supplies. Walsh comments.

“With AI, there is more high-performance compute, which means more heat is emitted, so we are now deploying loop chillers which means a lot less water. So, (in those scenarios) we will use a lot less water.

“It's got to be green energy that we work towards that by 2030 – ideally zero to little water and then we will replenish water into parts of the world it's needed to balance that.” Walsh comments.

“The carbon footprint and the steel and concrete, that's my biggest worry. So, then you need green steel and recyclable concrete and working with our suppliers, which means they all need to go green.”

Despite being at the forefront of exponential growth Walsh highlights that her focus is on delivering safe, reliable data centres.

“Everybody wants to work on the growth and the innovation. It's really shiny, but I can’t ever take my eye off the fleet I have and the customers we have. I can't take that for granted for a minute.

"That's the focus – people, safety and reliability whilst meeting the growth expectations and doing it safely and sustainably.

"Because you can't advance society at the expense of the planet and climate change.”

Gift this article