What an ancient lake in Nevada reveals about the future of tech

I’m driving by the desert valley on a summer season afternoon to see the workings of this newest mining increase. I ask my cellphone to direct me to the perimeter of the lithium ponds, and it replies from its awkward perch on the dashboard, tethered by a white USB cable. Silver Peak, Nevada’s giant, dry lake mattress, was shaped tens of millions of years in the past throughout the late Tertiary Interval. It’s surrounded by crusted stratifications pushing up into ridgelines containing darkish limestones, inexperienced quartzites, and grey and crimson slate.

Lithium was found right here after the space was scoped for strategic minerals like potash throughout World Conflict II. This comfortable, silvery metallic was mined in solely modest portions for the subsequent 50 years, till it turned extremely beneficial materials for the know-how sector.

In 2014, Rockwood Holdings, a lithium mining operation, was acquired by the chemical manufacturing firm Albemarle Corp. for $6.2 billion. It’s the solely working lithium mine in the United States. This makes Silver Peak a website of intense curiosity to Elon Musk and the many different tech tycoons for one purpose: rechargeable batteries. Lithium is an important ingredient for his or her manufacturing.

Smartphone batteries, for instance, often comprise about three-tenths of an ounce of it. Every Tesla Mannequin S electrical automotive wants about 138 kilos of lithium for its battery pack. These sorts of batteries had been by no means meant to provide a machine as energy hungry as a automotive, however lithium batteries are at the moment the solely mass-market possibility out there. All of these batteries have a restricted life span; as soon as degraded, they’re discarded as waste.


About 200 miles north of Silver Peak is the Tesla Gigafactory. That is the world’s largest lithium battery plant. Tesla is the number-one lithium-ion battery client in the world, buying them in excessive volumes from Panasonic and Samsung and repackaging them in its automobiles and residential chargers.

Tesla is estimated to make use of greater than 28,000 tons of lithium hydroxide yearly—half of the planet’s complete consumption. In reality, Tesla might extra precisely be described as a battery enterprise than a automotive firm. The approaching scarcity of such crucial minerals as nickel, copper, and lithium poses a threat for the firm, making the lithium lake at Silver Peak extremely fascinating. Securing management of the mine would imply controlling the U.S. home provide.

[Photo: Flickr user Doc Searls]

As many have proven, the electrical automotive is way from an ideal answer to carbon dioxide emissions. The mining, smelting, export, assemblage, and transport of the battery provide chain has a big destructive affect on the surroundings and, in flip, on the communities affected by its degradation. A small quantity of house photo voltaic methods produce their very own power.

However for the majority of circumstances, charging an electrical automotive necessitates taking energy from the grid, the place at the moment lower than a fifth of all electrical energy in the U.S. comes from renewable power sources. Thus far none of this has dampened the willpower of auto producers to compete with Tesla, placing rising strain on the battery market and accelerating the elimination of diminishing shops of the essential minerals.

World computation and commerce depend on batteries. The time period synthetic intelligence might invoke concepts of algorithms, information, and cloud architectures, however none of that may operate with out the minerals and sources that construct computing’s core parts. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are important for cellular gadgets and laptops, in-home digital assistants, and information heart backup energy. They undergird the web and each commerce platform that runs on it, from banking to retail to inventory market trades.

Many facets of fashionable life have been moved to “the cloud” with little consideration of these materials prices. Our work and private lives, our medical histories, our leisure time, our leisure, our political pursuits—all of this takes place in the world of networked computing architectures that we faucet into from gadgets we maintain in one hand, with lithium at their core.

Tesla Gigafactory, Nevada [Photo: Tesla]

The mining that makes AI is each literal and metaphorical. The brand new extractivism of information mining additionally encompasses and propels the previous extractivism of conventional mining. The stack required to energy synthetic intelligence methods goes effectively past the multilayered technical stack of information modeling, {hardware}, servers, and networks.


The total-stack provide chain of AI reaches into capital, labor, and Earth’s sources—and from every, it calls for an monumental quantity. The cloud is the spine of the AI trade, and it’s made of rocks and lithium brine and crude oil.

In his e book A Geology of Media, theorist Jussi Parikka suggests we expect of media not from Marshall McLuhan’s level of view—in which media are extensions of the human senses—however moderately as extensions of Earth. Computational media now take part in geological (and climatological) processes, from the transformation of the Earth’s supplies into infrastructures and gadgets to the powering of these new methods with oil and fuel reserves.

Reflecting on media and know-how as geological processes allows us to think about the radical depletion of nonrenewable sources required to drive the applied sciences of the current second. Every object in the prolonged community of an AI system, from community routers to batteries to information facilities, is constructed utilizing components that required billions of years to type inside the Earth.

[Image: Yale University Press]

From the perspective of deep time, we’re extracting Earth’s geological historical past to serve a cut up second of modern technological time, constructing gadgets like the Amazon Echo and the iPhone which can be usually designed to final for just a few years.

The Client Expertise Affiliation notes that the common smartphone life span is a mere 4.7 years. This obsolescence cycle fuels the buy of extra gadgets, drives up income, and will increase incentives for the use of unsustainable extraction practices. After a gradual course of of improvement, these minerals, components, and supplies then undergo an terribly fast interval of excavation, processing, mixing, smelting, and logistical transport—crossing 1000’s of miles in their transformation.

What begins as ore faraway from the floor, after the spoil and the tailings are discarded, is then made into gadgets which can be used and discarded. They in the end find yourself buried in e-waste dumping grounds in locations like Ghana and Pakistan. The life cycle of an AI system from start to dying has many fractal provide chains: kinds of exploitation of human labor and pure sources and big concentrations of company and geopolitical energy. And all alongside the chain, a continuous, large-scale consumption of power retains the cycle going.

The extractivism on which San Francisco was constructed is echoed in the practices of the tech sector primarily based there right this moment. The large ecosystem of AI depends on many sorts of extraction: from harvesting the information comprised of our every day actions and expressions to depleting pure sources and exploiting labor round the globe in order that this huge planetary community will be constructed and maintained. And AI extracts much more from us and the planet than is extensively recognized.

Kate Crawford is a number one scholar of the social and political implications of synthetic intelligence. She is a analysis professor at the USC Annenberg College for Communication and Journalism, a senior principal researcher at Microsoft Analysis, and the inaugural chair of AI and Justice at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. This text was tailored with permission from Atlas of AI (Yale College Press, 2021). Purchase a replica here