[iDC] The 50-Year Computer

Andreas Schiffler aschiffler at ferzkopp.net
Mon Sep 29 14:46:57 UTC 2008

I see two parts to such a sustainability equation, the physical and the 
cultural with the former being the basis for the latter (one has to have 
the functioning device for it to have any social impact for example). 
One could see the physical sustainability as a problem that can be 
solved by divide-and-conquer techniques (=I am an engineer and this 
comes natural to me).

Take for example energy. Todays connected digital computers are in the 
most general terms "filtering" devices with a "distributed memory". Two 
processes require energy to operate: the actual filtering (i.e. "a 
program runs") and and the process of information distribution (i.e. 
"connect to the net" and "view the screen").

A sustainable power supply is available for the foreseeable future in 
solar conversion of light from the sun. In most places on earth a total 
Insolation of 100W/square_meter is available 
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Insolation.png). Assuming a device 
size of 1sqm and a conversion efficiency of 5%, our device should make 
due with about 5W for both the filtering/processing and the data 
distribution/networking/IO part. This is merely a design limitation that 
needs to be implemented in a device. And we have them today: portable 
mediaplayers and smartphones.

I doubt however that the resulting devices - were we to make them and 
hand them out to people - would see a cultural uptake for a variety of 
reasons, but mostly due to their perceived limitations. Any device which 
is limited, will require us to adapt to it for it to become useful. Take 
the abacus as an example: very energy efficient calculator - but who on 
this list has spend the time to learn how to use it effectively so it 
can replace a calculator? Let me guess (and be honest): Nobody. So I 
think the real problem for the makers of such sustainable computing is 
the question on how to frame the device in a social context so that its 
physical limitations do not preclude the short or long term usability.

As we can see, it is technically possible and generally speaking we even 
still have the required energy to create such devices in the first place 
(I bring this up, since it takes a large amount of energy to create an 
energy independent device and we need to have that capability to get the 
50-year computing bootstrapped.). But let's assume this can be resolved 
also in a sustainable manner by scaling the production, then another 
issue needs to be solved: the fact that the production of computing 
machinery (which includes both hardware and software) is very capital 
intensive. So right here the question of sustainable computing loops 
back to questions of how to make economics sustainable, because 
computing is 100% dependent on a physical artifact which seems 
impossible to produce without our current economic system.


Patrick Lichty wrote:
> The 50-year Computer
> Manifestos for Computational Sustainability

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