Green computing. For an ecological and sustainable IT
Institutional Communication Service
14 March 2022
The theme of ecology is becoming increasingly important to many. For this reason, several companies started producing and selling more environmentally friendly products. At least this is the goal of projects such as the search engine Ecosia, of Pelacase, which makes recyclable cell phone covers, or of the mobile phone company Fairphone, which is ecological and respectful of human rights. All this is part of green computing or, more commonly, green IT: environmentally sustainable computing. The subject thus deals with the study and development of the best techniques for designing and implementing computers and similar devices that are efficient and have a more or less limited environmental impact (but not completely "null"). The goal is to have an economic return and good technological performance, while respecting social, environmental and ethical responsibilities. In this interview with Antonio Carzaniga, former Dean of USI Faculty of Informatics, we delve into the state of green computing.
Professor Carzaniga, what does it mean today to talk about green computing?
As with many technologies and sectors, computing and the digital world, in general, have a specific impact on the environment. This applies to IT and communication systems energy consumption, production processes, and the whole life cycle of devices. The term green computing involves the design, the technology and the policies for the use of computer systems that tend to minimise environmental impact.
I believe that the term green computing should also apply to informatics as a tool for optimising the use of valuable environmental resources in other areas of technology and beyond. For example, informatics can play a crucial role in reducing energy consumption in industrial processes, housing (homes and offices) and transportation.
What are the steps to be "green" in terms of computer design or use?
Let me preface this by saying that I do not see any magic formula, and perhaps not even principles that are easy to enunciate. However, I can state the obvious by saying that an essential step is to reduce or even altogether avoid using systems that consume a lot of energy and other resources. In more technical terms, it is important to design systems that can automatically lower their energy consumption almost to the point of shutting down completely when their use drops. Another general idea is to exploit the so-called economies of scale, i.e., share computing resources so that the combined use is stable and therefore well optimised in terms of consumption. It is what the large data hubs at the root of the so-called cloud systems do. But I would say that even here, one must carefully consider all the costs, including the various telecommunications systems that connect users to the processing centres.
What about waste disposal?
Good question. I am not trying to get around it, but I think that, at the moment, the solution is more political than technological. Disposal costs exist, and they need to be accounted for and managed responsibly.
Sure, we could envisage devices that do not bear such costs like biodegradable and easily regenerated systems that perhaps consume very little. One of these is literally in our heads. The human brain is by some measures a powerful computational system that consumes only about 20 watts -- like a small light bulb -- and runs for decades and decades. But for now, I think this is much more science fiction than real technology.
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