Computing for the Future of the Planet


BBC Technology Page Essay



Computing (computers, communications, applications) will make a major and crucial contribution to ensuring a sustainable future for society and the planet. Computing is an important tool that will enable developing societies to improve their standard of living without undue impact on the environment. At the same time, it will enhance the ability of developed societies to maintain their economic success while reducing their use of natural resources. The greater wealth generated using computing may reduce population growth and its problematic impact on the physical world.

There are four levels at which I foresee innovation-driven developments in computing being effective:

1 Simulation and modelling are important tools which will help predict global warming and its effects. Much more powerful computers, interconnection systems, and algorithms are required to make the predictions better, more accurate, and relevant. This is a traditional role for computing.

2 The amount of infrastructure making up the digital world is continuing to grow rapidly and starting to consume significant energy resources. In future this infrastructure has to be absolutely dependable and implemented in very energy efficient ways.  It should also be operational only when delivering a service for some real end-use. Otherwise it should be switched off; and off means off. New architectures which monitor the use of energy precisely and can turn systems on and off rapidly are required.

3 Computing will play a key part in optimising use of resources in the physical world. This can be achieved by actively sensing the environment and using new algorithms to optimise cost functions which reflect natural resources in sectors such as transport or water management. New approaches to global-scale monitoring, generation of information, and interpretation are needed, together with technological and legislative frameworks governing the use of such data.

4 We are experiencing a shift to the digital world in our daily lives as witnessed by the wide scale adoption of the world wide web. In future there may be an even greater change so that the primary way we operate for the purposes of wealth creation and entertainment is in cyberspace. This will reduce the impact of our activities on the physical world while allowing societies to grow sustainably. New tools, environments, and infrastructures need to be conceived which will make an accelerated shift to a digital world enticing for us all.

To help generate momentum and achieve these goals, it is important that a co-ordinated set of challenging international projects are instigated. An example of a project would be the creation of a "personal energy meter". This would measure and present an individuals use of energy (both direct and indirect) at all times. The implementation method for such projects requires the reduction (or removal) of the conventional legal barriers to collaboration.

Andy Hopper

17 May 2007


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