Only IT can save the world

Only IT can save the world

Summary: Among all the hype and noise of green IT, one fact deserves our faith. There are no limits to how good we can be

TOPICS: Tech Industry

Once upon a time, I was a member of the Green Party. I went as far as standing for a local council seat in East London, in a part of town where the only green thing was the meat in the dodgier kebab shops. My experience of polling day was surprisingly similar to eating one of those kebabs — it taught me a lot about expectation and reality, and the consequences of trusting appearance without questioning content.

I get much the same visceral reaction when I read many of the press releases that pollute my inbox. Companies big and small are only too happy to cloak themselves in earth-friendly camouflage, for all sorts of reasons. None of it's worth a single sheet of recyclable toilet paper without evidence that they've understood and bought into the real philosophy of environmental thinking — so expect a lot more scepticism from this website.

The real irony is that IT has the potential to transform itself into the most environmentally sound industry on the planet. More than in any other area of human activity, the science that lies behind our technology is capable of driving revolutionary changes in the way we work, without impacting on the effectiveness of what we do. The creation, distribution and consumption of material goods will be forever in thrall to Newton's laws of matter and energy: information, however, is different.

It may seem a given that computers, like any electrical gizmos, will consume power. We've come a long way from ENIAC's 160 kilowatts for 5000 calculations a second in 1945 to a Core Duo running at around 20 billion calculations a second for around sixty watts — ten billion times more efficiently in sixty years. But according to some readings of information theory, that's not even scratching the surface.

For a long time, information scientists considered that it was impossible to do useful processing without losing energy as heat. Every time information was destroyed — a bit erased, say, or two numbers combined — a tiny amount of heat had to be generated. The limits for that are very small, set by an equation called the von Neumann-Landauer Limit, but inescapable. There is a way out, though: reversible computing. This is a theoretical yet widely studied idea that says if you don't destroy information but maintain it in a state where it can be reconstituted, you can get away with virtually no energy lost at all. Like travelling at the speed of light, this may be unachievable in practice, but as the semiconductor industry has shown, once you have a target you can get an awfully long way even if you never quite get there.

And everything else in IT has similarly astonishing potential. At 3GSM, the first portable devices using e-ink were on show. Electronic ink uses power only when the display changes; when it's static, it takes as little energy as a gravestone. Communication is also defined by friendly physics: if you send a bit of information by throwing a photon down a fibre, then the energy you get out at the end when the photon excites an electron is the same as you put in when the photon was spat out. The rest is practicalities.

Of course, this ignores the way that IT lives in material goods that have to be created, distributed and consumed like everything else. Well, not quite like everything else: once again, the fundamentals of information theory offer an enticing vision. This time, Alan Turing is the eco-warrior of choice. He invented the Turing Machine, the basic genie of data processing that's at the theoretical heart of everything we use to compute. One of its intriguing attributes is that any Turing Machine can emulate any other. Get one that's big and fast enough, and you can innovate to your heart's content within it. Combine that with efficient communications, and you end up with a planetary matrix of superb hardware where innovation exists purely as software — and one day, further mathematics predicts, there'll be nowhere else to go. In 2000, MIT professor Seth Lloyd combined a number of fundamental physical ideas in a paper in Nature to show that you'll never be able to do more than around 1 x 10 to the 50 calculations per second per kilogram of matter.

There's a long way to go before even Intel hits that particular limit to Moore's Law (in around 600 years, says Lloyd, we'll be able to simulate the entire universe), but its entirely conceivable that with good enough networking, advances in hardware can be made in very efficient factories and then just hooked up in situ for software innovations to use, with no transportation required and raw materials recycled from the previous generation.

The picture I've painted above may seem like science fiction. To some extent, it is. But in every case, even when the ultimate zero-energy, zero-impact machine is doomed to remain a theoretical creature of the imagination, there is a great deal to be won just by knowing what could be done and deciding to aim for it. And vision is the key component to any worthwhile change — vision, backed with a sense of the possible. IT is the only technology that can dare to think like this: bear that in mind next time you wince at some heavy-handed greenish propaganda, and believe.

Topic: Tech Industry

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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  • Would we prefer to save the world, or sell it for a reasonable margin?

    As an ex-mathematician/technologist now working as an IT management consultant, I have to say that two great points stand out a mile for me from this article.

    First and foremost, its fantastic to see someone waving the flag for technological developments so well. It's an excellent pick & mix across the raft of R&D activities whose efforts are beginning to bear significantly promising fruits. Above all I hope, just as we have come to realise that strangling our physical environment has sigificant knock-on effects on our long term commercial framework, that private and governmental investors recognise the same applies with our intellectual environment. Perhaps we need an economist to point out the obvious here too though!

    The other point is related but a little more fundamental. As much as I agree completely that technological developments will not only represent an avenue to resolve the problems our short term thinking have caused - infact I can't see how we resolve them without this - I have to say that lack of technical solutions/opportunities is rarely the core issue to resolving problems. The real problems lie in the vision, ambitions and general breadth of competence in the people involved.

    Look at how our career values and cultures have evolved over recent decades and we see a continued future of social and political dynamics, promoting fashionability and superficial short term benefits (as reflected in the reaction to polling day described above). We must get back to recognising the critical value with our true problem solvers - at least as much the engineers, scientists and innovators as the (now over-populated) MBAs, accountants and management analysts.
  • Well said Brian

    see the core reasons for the IT industry loosing its way in realising the possibility of assisting in the movement towards a greener future is the contempt held for scientists and technical innovators by [largely incompetent] management, who are obsessed with style over substance and somehow believe marketing to be a more valuable asset to the business than providing core function.

    Microsoft, what they have become over the years, exemplify this malaise as they obsess over wiping out the competition and protecting copyright rather than concentrate on providing core functionality reliably in their flagship products. They have worked hard to realise a software monoculture in which innovation is slowly dying.