Powering the future in a connected world

Assorted mayors of London, complete with chains of office, paid a visit to the BBC this week expecting a talk from the news website’s editor.

Unfortunately he was unavoidably detained so I was press-ganged to talk about emerging platforms and how I thought the future would unfold.

My spiel about iPTV, mobiles, augmented reality, near-field communication, and the moneyless society seemed to go well, but I have to admit I was a bit flummoxed when one of the worshipful company asked where the power would come from to keep the connected society running.

The question was based, I believe, on this old Sunday Times story which asserts that a couple of Google searches generates as much CO2 as making a cuppa.

The Harvard researcher on whose work the report was based doesn’t accept the Times’ conclusion and the truth is that Google is well along the path of making itself carbon neutral

But in the wider context the questioner had a point – power-hungry devices in the hands of billions of people are bound to have an impact and there’s no ready answer to the question. The carbon footprint of a technology depends on what’s in and what’s out when you assess its impact.

It’s easy to see how making a call or sending a message rather than travelling to a face-to-face meeting might bring a big CO2 saving over existing technologies, and when multiplied across the billions of daily interactions the potential benefit is huge.

The carbon cost of manufacturing and distributing hardware and its ability to be recycled also has to be taken into account, especially with blisteringly fast turnover in device evolution and obsolescence.

Harder to measure is the impact of mobiles in enabling so many more connections and interactions between people then were ever possible in the past. Big thoughts and banalities are just 1s and 0s in the digital world. How do you cost a connected world?

At a pragmatic level, energy consumption and device efficiency is being tackled in multiple ways.

In the macro world memristor’s hold the prospect of chips that run 10 times faster than conventional models using a tenth of the power. There are solar chargers, hydrogen fuel cells and even ways of harvesting kinetic energy to trickle life back into a battery.

This Yoyo charger and this bike dynamo from Nokia show some of the solutions coming to the market, but I bet Harold Wilson never imagined his “white heat of technology” vision needing pedal power to keep the conversation flowing.

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