Hi-tech could change the planet as much as it has affected personal life
Andy Hopper, an iconic figure in UK computer history, talks about the next big role hi-tech needs to take on.
Computing has already changed the way all of us live our lives, so it is reasonable to predict that computing will also play a major role in delivering a long-term future for society and our planet.
But first we have to overcome a major disconnection between computing and sustainability. Some people claim that technology has a net negative effect on the environment, and view turning off TVs and PCs at night as simply a token gesture.
We need to embrace a far bigger picture. After all, less than 20 years ago we had not heard of the world wide web, and Google has only been around for 10 years.
it is now time for computer technologists to work closely with other scientific and business disciplines to help ensure the long term future of the planet
If these milestones can have such a radical impact on our day-to-day lives in such as short space of time, we can surely harness technology and our expanding knowledge to address the international environmental challenges we are facing.
So how can we justify the claim that computing will make possible higher standards of living in a way that does not cause major problems for the planet? There are four areas where we believe computing can have a major impact:
Sensing and optimising
Knowledge is power, and sourcing vast amounts of real-time, accurate data will be invaluable in discovering the impact of human activities on the environment, as well as for optimising energy consumption and other natural resources. The challenge is to harness these data efficiently and effectively using an abundance of sensors.
Social networking has already demonstrated our willingness to share information, so this could be extended to accumulate relevant qualitative and quantitative data, from environmental observations to specific energy use.
Many believe turning a PC off at night is a token gesture
Maybe we will all carry a Personal Energy Meter (PEM), which records and apportions our individual total energy consumption. Future generations of mobile phones could contain a PEM, and social networking sites provide an ideal forum for users to share this information, along with new algorithms to make complex consumption calculations for everyday activities.
Harnessing this information will allow us to create a real-time data map to observe different layers - from transportation that shows congestion on roads to the wasted heat through the roofs of buildings - a sort of infrared version of Google Earth.
This wide-scale sensing and data collection highlights one of many dilemmas of providing functionality whilst preserving privacy. Out of necessity, a suitable, safe, and enticing compromise must be found.
Predicting and reacting
Ever more sophisticated algorithms are being used to study global warming and to produce forecasts of the behaviour of natural systems. But how can we be sure that the software used to generate these models is correct?
By using computer science to develop and apply new techniques for building accurate and verifiable implementations of complex simulations, we can feel more assured that the results are correct. The models and implementations have to produce results in a timely fashion and be able to incorporate data incrementally.
Based on this we can make the right policy decisions on issues from travel planning and energy use to climate change and the spread of disease.
Chasing the energy
Historically, we have thrown power and processing at problems to solve them; but now things are different. Data centres play a vital role in the modern information infrastructure, but require ever-increasing amounts of energy to keep them running.
Prof Hopper co-founded Acorn which developed the BBC Micro
However, constructing server farms close to large-scale renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines, replaces long high-capacity power connections with low power high-bandwidth data connections.
This can be extended by sending computing tasks round the globe to follow the peaks and troughs of renewable power generation as it happens, or even to the placement of server farms in locations from which the transmission - but not generation - of energy would be uneconomical.
Furthermore the shift to "thinner" end point devices and displays will also move much of the energy burden to these centralised, yet "virtualised", server farms.
Computing provides a huge potential for shifting more of our physical activities to digital alternatives. We already work from home, read news make purchases, and download music online, use e-billing, and conduct many aspects of our lives in cyberspace.
This is starting to encompass everyone on the planet, as developing countries are also quickly building digital infrastructures.
Mobile devices now give us virtually zero cost computing power that is with us all the time, with unprecedented communications capabilities and access to a mine of information.
This ubiquitous digital infrastructure will allow us to make intelligent choices about which activities we move to a digital world, enabling us to run our lives and create wealth without a negative impact on the environment.
Making a difference
While technological innovation may not have prioritised solutions to the environmental problems we face today; it is now time for computer technologists to work closely with other scientific and business disciplines to help ensure the long term future of the planet. And there may be another new positive force at work.
While Europe has been at the forefront of early progress in this area, there is growing recognition worldwide - including the major players in America and Far East - that the time has come to work together to address climate change and energy issues.
This will make standardisation easier and where appropriate lead to a reduction in the conventional legal and commercial barriers to collaboration. If this can be done the world is our oyster.