Digital technologies sit at the beating heart of our modern societies. They are all around us, reaching almost everybody on the planet. Although we now use them every day, it is easy to forget just what a transformative effect they have had on the way we lead our lives.
From a device that fits in our pocket we can do our banking, search for a nearby café and find our way there, connect with people on the opposite side of the world, watch entire movies and listen to hours of music. Digital technologies also keep the cars on our roads running, ensure food reaches the shelves in our supermarkets and underpins the financial systems that feed our economies.
We rely upon computers for almost everything we do. But could they do more? Should we be looking to digital technologies to help us tackle perhaps the greatest challenge facing the planet – climate change?
This sort of question is what the Royal Society’s Digital Technology and the Planet project is seeking answers to.
Certainly, all of the computing power we use has an environmental cost. It takes energy to manufacture and run the computer you are reading this on, and to power the wireless networks we use to access the online world. This energy, in turn, has an impact on the climate in the form of carbon emissions.
Hidden from our view are huge data centres that require still more energy. They provide us with many of the online services we now take for granted, but require electricity to cool their servers and keep them running.
The total amount of energy consumed by information and communication technologies (ICT) accounted for up to 10% of the electricity produced globally in 2017, although estimates vary as the exact amount of energy used by the industry is hard to pin down. It is not a large amount of energy compared to sectors like transport and agriculture, but it is not trivial. It is also growing, which means the environmental footprint of computing is rising too.
The industry, however, is already reducing its carbon footprint. Large data centres are much more efficient than they were 10 years or so ago, with many running on renewable energy. Most electronic devices come with low power modes for when they are not in use.
But more improvements are needed – the United Nation’s International Telecommunications Union has set ambitious targets for the ICT industry to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 45% over the next ten years. It will require even greater efficiency and low carbon energy use. Many servers, for example, have unused capacity, sitting idle rather than doing something useful. If computing becomes more “energy proportional”, then we can get more output for the resources consumed by computers.
It makes sense then, to think about how we use our digital technologies in the future. While they have an impact on the climate, computing technologies have potential to be an even greater part of the solution – helping to reduce the environmental footprint of humankind.
Take an everyday example like going shopping. When each of us makes a trip by car to the supermarket at the weekend, even when just going a mile or so, it has an impact on the environment. But if real-time computer modelling can coordinate deliveries so a single vehicle brings groceries to the front doors of many people in one journey, that impact can be reduced.
This kind of logistics efficiency is just one area where computing technologies can offer the opportunity to greatly reduce our carbon emissions. Moving people and goods in the physical world requires a lot of energy in the form of fuel, and is a substantial source of carbon emissions.
It is possible to build digital twins of physical objects and systems from the real world to discover ways that they can operate better. Emerging technologies such as machine learning, are dramatically improving our ability to replicate our world virtually.
There is a near endless list of areas where machine learning and conventional computing can be deployed to improve efficiency and lessen the impact a process has on the climate. Machine learning in self-driving cars, for example, is promising a future of more efficient journeys as computers replace humans behind the wheel. Combining digital sensors, wireless networks and computer algorithms can help farmers shift to precision agriculture, where the amount of water, fertiliser and energy they need to grow their crops can be improved. Offices and our homes can be better monitored to ensure they are only heated and cooled as needed.
The huge volumes of complex data that modern computing can handle means we can provide more information to individuals too.
Imagine if everybody on the planet had a carbon or an energy meter on their mobile phone that enabled them to see their own contribution to climate change alongside that of everyone else. If this information was considered to be trustworthy and accurate enough, people may soon react to it in positive ways by changing their behaviour.
Of course, using technology in new ways also brings challenges. Data privacy is essential if people and companies are to adopt these technologies. There is a role for technology in helping address some of these issues, but further action is also needed to create an environment of careful stewardship, where the benefits of digital technology are shared across society. What policies need to be in place to ensure they are used for the good of the planet rather than to benefit just a few organisations, governments or individuals?
The discussion needs to not simply focus on what the algorithms and technology can do for the planet, but also how people can be encouraged to use them. They have already learned that algorithms measuring car exhaust fumes, for example, cannot necessarily be trusted following the VW emissions scandal. So how do we get the public to trust the technologies that might benefit the planet? This will require careful governance, openness and consent to achieve, just as the Royal Society set out in its reports on Machine learning and Data management and use.
In this new Royal Society project we will be wrestling with all of these issues, and more. We hope to set out a landscape in which governments, universities, companies, professional bodies and wider society can play a role in deploying digital technologies to make all our lives more sustainable and better for the planet.