Science Interviews


Tue, 14th Oct 2014

Combating climate change with computers

Dominic Vergine, ARM

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Will climate change cost the Earth?

Powering computers and the Internet account for between 2 and 6 % of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Thatís equivalent to the CO2 output of the entire airline industry. A five-minute video viewed on Youtube also consumes - on aggregate - as much energy as boiling an electric kettle. And, as we become increasingly reliant on computers, for instance as the phenomenon known as the Internet of Things develops and will see 26 billion devices, including even fridges, cars and cookers, coupled up by 2020, what can we do to keep a cap on the associated carbon cost? Dominic Vergine is from microchip makers ARM, who specialise in energy-efficient processing. He explained to Chris Smith what the company is doing to achieve the best processing bang for our energy bucks...

Chris -   How many aspects of our lives are ARM involved in?

Dominic -   Well, the vast majority really, although itís a company that many people haven't heard of.  So, you think you have things like Blu-ray players, digital cameras, 95% of mobile phones, but also things like the majority of air bags, car breaking systems, even things like pacemakers, smart meters, credit cards all have our technology within them.

Chris -   And this is because it has the capacity to save energy in some way.

Dominic -   Thatís not initially the reason why people are using ARM, but of course, the fact that we are very, very energy efficient is becoming more and more a driver for our business.  So, initially, it was because mobile phones have batteries.  Batteries have to last a long time.  But now, weíre creating products like the Cortex-M0 Plus which is smaller than the width of a human hair and can run for 10 years on a single watch battery.  And this kind of technology is going to revolutionise our sensing systems.  And of course, itís sensing systems that can then provide more data and using that data, we can then run everything much more efficiently.

Chris -   This also presumably means that you could put sensors into remote places and just mop up free energy, I say Ďfreeí in inverted commas, but basically waste thatís either vibrations on the wind or some heat thatís just latently in a piece of building fabric or something to run things.

Dominic -   Well, energy harvesting is part of it.  But really, if you're looking at how we can create a much more efficient world. So computer chips are accredited with achieving about 23% improvement in our energy efficiency that we run everything over the past 30 years.  In essence, that was a by-product, that wasnít deliberate, that just happens to happen.  If you look over the next 30 years, itís becoming much more of a key focus for all the designers of technology.  And so, if we make it a key focus, itís predicted that we might even save as much as 60% of energy between now and 2050.

Chris -   Itís a big spend, isnít it?  I mean, if you look at the interview with the guy who currently is in charge of GCHQ, their super computer in the basement of GCHQ burns off more electricity than the nearby town.  You must be a breath of fresh air for them.

Dominic -   So, ARM has just started to design chips to go into servers.  At the moment, a data centre tends to Ė its carbon emission, itís energy consumption tends to go 50% to the servers themselves and 50% to cooling.  Recent tests on some of our early ARM prototypes have suggested they might run on 1/10th  of the power and require far less cooling.  But certainly, data centres are a big issue.  They're expected to triple between now and 2020. 

Chris -   Why are these chips so inefficient? 

Dominic -   The focus for a very, very long time has been to create a technology that is as powerful as it can be.  So, itís been focused on power rather than on energy efficiency.  But weíre getting to a point now where itís arguable whether we really need chips to be more powerful.  They can do the data analysis, they can run social media, they can do the things we want them to do.  So, itís becoming much, much more important that they use less and less energy and thatís where ARM comes in.

Chris -   Now, what about the third world. The population estimates were revised a couple of weeks ago by researchers in Canada that we may be looking at a 2050 world population of upwards of 10 billion maybe even 12 billion.  Most of that growth is countries like Africa.  There, you're going to see a very big embracing of this sort of technology and at the moment, in countries like Africa, people would rather go without their lunch, than go without a charge for their mobile phones.  So, you must regard this as a huge opportunity in a massive market.

Dominic -   Itís certainly is a huge opportunity.  I mean that in a very good way because I think itís a great opportunity for people in those countries as well.  So, a lot of the discussion earlier in the programme suggests the great damage and the risk thatís created by climate change in these countries.  And of course, that means that things like water and food, agriculture, will have to be managed much, much better.  The internet of things isnít just about smart cities and first world problems.  Itís also about managing water, agriculture and the growth of food in developing countries.  So, one of the projects weíre supporting at the moment with the charity and alongside UNICEF, is a very simple sort of mp3 player that can run on for a year on a local Ghanaian battery and itís filled with local content in the local language, and given to illiterate farmers and illiterate communities to help grow their crops more efficiently.  Initial trials show a 50% improvement in crop yield.  So, very significant.  So, we can use technology to help mitigate some of the issues around climate change Ė use all our resources more efficiently, manage a global population of 9 or 10 billion people.  And all the forecast suggests that whilst obviously, IT does absorb power, it needs power, itís going to emit carbon.  If used effectively, it can actually Ė the amount of power used, the amount of carbon emitted - will be significantly less and the savings it can create.

Chris -   Dominic Vergine from ARM, thank you very much indeed. 


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