A team of scientists at Harvard University is examining the carbon footprint of various aspects of computer manufacturing to find ways to make the production of the devices on which people have come to depend more sustainable.
Researchers at Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) are collaborating with Facebook and Arizona State University to examine the entire lifecycle of computing devices to see how to make the overall process more environmentally friendly, said Udit Gupta, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at SEAS who worked on the research.
“Over the next decade, the demand, number, and types of devices are only going to grow,” he said in a press statement. “We want to know what impact that will have on the environment and how we, as a field, should be thinking about how we adopt more sustainable practices.”
While people know that things we do every day, such as driving or making purchases online to be delivered, contribute to our carbon footprint, people don’t usually think about all the time we spend on devices—which has increased immensely in the last year since the pandemic started—as having an environmental price.
If they do, it’s typically the energy generated by plugging devices into a charge that we worry about, researchers said. However, they found that most of the emissions that come from the computer industry are from hardware manufacturing and infrastructure, not our iPhones or laptops.
This realization led researchers to examine the environmental cost of the performance improvements that technology has gained over the years, said David Brooks, a professor of computer science at SEAS who also worked on the technology.
One of those technologies was computer processors, or chips, which are optimized for size, performance, and battery life. A typical chip is about 100 square millimeters of silicon and can hold billions of transistors.
However, chips are highly inefficient given the material that they use, researchers discovered. This is because, at any given time, only a portion of that silicon on the chip is being used—the rest is what is called “dark silicon,” they said. In fact, if all a chip’s transistors were turned on at the same time, the device would drain its battery and overheat.
While the existence of dark silicon improves a device’s performance and battery life, it could be unnecessarily bolstering the manufacturing process of chips, suggested Gu-Yeon Wei, a professor of engineering and computer science at Harvard who co-collaborated on the work.
“Dark silicon offers a boost in energy efficiency but what’s the cost in terms of manufacturing?” he said in a press statement. “Is there a way to design a smaller and smarter chip that uses all of the silicon available? That is a really intricate, interesting, and exciting problem.”
Big Data, Big Problem
Data centers also have inefficiencies that can be addressed to reduce their emissions, researchers found. Considering how ubiquitous the Internet “cloud” is, data centers today are massive affairs, with some encompassing many millions of square feet. In fact, they currently account for 1 percent of global energy consumption, which will only grow especially now that so much of daily life has gone virtual.
Before just expanding data centers arbitrarily, researchers suggested that data-center administrators need to take a measured approach. As cloud computing grows and the need for more computing power expands with it, they should make conscious decisions about where to run applications—whether on a device or in a data center—based on carbon footprint rather than on performance and battery life, which is the case now, researchers noted.
The manufacturing of devices is also a toxic affair in terms of the chemicals and materials used in the manufacturing process, contributing to environmental impact.
The researchers plan to present a paper on their work at the IEEE International Symposium on High-Performance Computer Architecture.
While scientists can research and make impact assessments all they want, the team knows that it won’t change the industry without proactive participation alongside the influencers and stakeholders in the technology manufacturing supply chain.
To that end, Brooks has partnered with Embedded EthiCS, a Harvard program that embeds philosophers directly into computer science courses to inform students of the ethical and social implications of their work, and how to approach them.
Researchers also hope to partner with faculty from Environmental Science and Engineering at SEAS and the Harvard University Center for the Environment to explore ways to facilitate change in manufacturing practices at the policy level, they said.
“The goal of this paper is to raise awareness of the carbon footprint associated with computing and to challenge the field to add carbon footprint to the list of metrics we consider when designing new processes, new computing systems, new hardware, and new ways to use devices,” Wei said in a press statement. “We need this to be a primary objective in the development of computing overall.”
Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga, and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.