Q&A: Acorn co-founder Andy Hopper

On revolutionising green IT, mixing the business and academic worlds and his Acorn days
Written by Gemma Simpson, Contributor

On revolutionising green IT, mixing the business and academic worlds and his Acorn days

Acorn's co-founder, Andy Hopper was appointed Commander of the British Empire for services to the computer industry in the New Year's honours list.

Hopper started his career in Cambridge with a PhD in the late 1970s for his work on high-speed communications networks.

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He was co-founder of Acorn Computers, set up in Cambridge in 1978 and played a crucial role in the development of the UK computer industry. Acorn produced several microcomputers - including the BBC Micro, which has been credited with kick-starting demand for computers in the UK's homes and schools.

silicon.com: Did you have any idea during your time at Acorn how big the IT industry would become?
Hopper: No, no, no. We thought we were doing great and we thought we were big but we were deluding ourselves. But I did go round in a helicopter even at that time, so it was easy to delude yourself.

We thought we were big-time but there was a much bigger big-time that we could have been part of.

What are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on research at the university, so it allows you to be more speculative. My main interest is how computing will be used in sustainability of the future of the planet and how we might design computer systems to be mostly switching off instead of mostly switched on.

So you're a big advocate of your students turning off their computers and monitors at the university?
Of course but it's more turning off all the servers and all the switches and everything else which is at the other end in the underlying infrastructure. That's much more difficult.

So it's a case of being able to turn IT infrastructures on and off easily?
Easily, frequently, relentlessly, to make sure that every bit of energy that's used by any part of the computing or communications infrastructure is used for a purpose [when] someone wants it rather than it just being on idle.

Do you think businesses will embrace that technology and this idea of green IT or will they stick their heads in the sand?
I think it's a great business proposition to have products in this area for three reasons.

One is there will be a straight shorter-term return on investment: if you use the new stuff then you will spend less on your electricity bill. The second thing, which is to do with carbon tax - whatever form we take on carbon measures and taxation or substitution - that will need to be encompassed. And then [companies] will need to be seen to be green as well, from a marketing point of view.

So all three suggest that this might be a winner. It's rather obvious but it's more difficult to do the technology such that you can actually achieve it.

What have been your highlights during your career?
My other project is my children but Cambridge is a funky old place and I've had the good fortune to take advantage of the funk.

I've done two things in parallel without having to partition my brain. I've done the industrial thing and the academic thing and the context here (in Cambridge) has made that possible and it takes that to be able to achieve impact.

How difficult do you think it is for academics to move into the business world and vice versa?
Well, it's a very complex question. I encourage people to do it and I am glad some of them use me as a role model. But it's not as straight forward as people might imagine and I encourage getting the information about it all.

What I run here is a mutual wealth creation framework, mutual meaning everyone is supposed to get a part. You get an idea of what the role of technology is, what the role of patents is, what the role of capital is, what the different types of capital, and so on and so forth and the details of contracts and all this sort of stuff.

The Cambridge St Johns innovation day showcased some of the new gadgets and innovations the university's boffins have been working on, do you have any predictions about what the major innovations might be in the future?
What I do know is that the worry is that consumers do two things: they take all [these gadgets] for granted, and at the same time there is the issue of Big Brother and the surveillance society. That's full of dilemmas and we're only starting the conversations about those right now.

There will be all sorts of gadgets but what happens to them is interesting. One of the ways of computing for sustainability of the planet is to observe the planet, like where everything is. That is a challenging thing both from a technology point of view and a user acceptance point on view.

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