Last week I mentioned how strange it is that some self-declared environmentalists need to be convinced that science and technology offer some of the best hope for lessening our impact on the “natural world”. This should not be a controversial subject since humans are known as the “tool-maker” species on the planet. We have always used our brains and creative talent to improve our lot in life and to clean up some of the messes we have left behind. There is a danger in our technology getting to powerful and out of control, but it is a chance we should take, in my opinion, because the benefits are also quite great.
Currently, one of the least controversial technologies is computing. Everyone uses it. It makes our lives better. The impact on the environment is probably less than many other “things” we use, although it is not negligible because computing and moving data does take some energy. It should be a no-brainer to turn computation loose on some of our most pressing environmental concerns and the National Research Council agrees – stating that computing advances are vital. Entrepreneur Bill Gross also agrees, pointing to how the decreasing cost of computing will assist in the adoption of more expensive alternative energy.
One would think that even bigger computational power at our disposal would in the near future would be even better, and it would be, but we cannot forget the power-usage aspect of computers and data. That is the point from a recent Intel conference on super computing. They are projecting that an exascale super computer will be built by the year 2018. The main impediment to such a development is power consumption. If current computer technology was used to create an exascale super-computer, they would have to build a nuclear power plant right next to it in order to make sure it had enough power. The challenge is to keep the power requirement under 20 MW (yes, that is megawatts!). This is still a lot of energy, but it would be manageable.
Thusly, it is a good thing that computer components such as chips and transistors ontinue to see gradual improvement in power and performace metrics. One potential dramatic breakthrough could come from emitter-coupled spin-transistor logic which has the potential to be 1 million times more power efficient at high computing speeds than traditional computer circuitry.
One company that you would think to be well positioned to leverage computing power toward alternative energy solutions would be Google. After all, they do have their campus in Mountain View littered with solar panels. The idea of transforming the energy landscape was not lost on Google and they tried their best to create their own alternative energy division/project but unfortunately it didn’t quite pan out. I am still heartened to read that they spend around a billion dollars a year on alternative energy for their operations. I hate to say it, but that is a lot better than Apple, a company that has plenty of money to spare for alternative energy.
Have a fine Friday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.