Are You Ready for Atomic-Scale Efficiency?

June 14, 2012
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If you’re interested in green technology and haven’t see this video of Stanford’s Jon Koomey at a recent Verge conference earlier this year, watch it now—or at least read this summary.

At some point in the future—it may be sooner rather than later—Koomey says we are going to have to rethink how we engineer computing, which is at the center of everything that’s happening today in energy efficiency and energy management. And not just for IT!

You’ve heard of Moore’s Law, in which computing power doubles every 18 to 24 months? (Actually Moore predicted the number of transistors on a silicon chip would double.) Koomey reminds us that the efficiency of computers has doubled every year and a half as well, resulting in about a hundred-fold increase every decade.

Our smartphones, tablets and laptops are largely the result of those gains in efficiency—and such efficiency going forward can halve the need for battery power every year and a half. The result will be a profusion of sensors and nanosensors that scavenge energy from motion, heat, you name it, deliver finer streams of nanodata, precisely balance energy supply with need—and yes, likely make your Siri virtual assistant way, way smarter than you.

We’re already seeing energy-harvesting sensors, and it’s exciting. But that isn’t Koomey’s central point.

Atomic Computing

Given the exponential rate of efficiency, in 1985 the physicist Richard Feynman theorized that a transistor made of only three atoms would require efficiency gains by a factor of 100 billion. Even today that seems far off, but Koomey says we’ve already improved computer efficiency by about 40,000 since 1985, and we’d need about three more decades to get to Feynman’s three-atom limit.

However, Koomey reminds us that researchers from the University of New South Wales, with some help from Purdue University, have recently engineered a reliable transistor from one atom.

Think of this in regards to the advent of IPv6 and the “Internet of Things,” which can give billions of unique IP addresses to each person—and our perspective on the whole world changes.

I’m no expert in quantum computing, but I do know that computers are at the center of the energy efficiency revolution, because we can use their processing power to monitor, control and automate our energy use to maximum efficiency. As computing gets ever more efficient, efficiencies and automation can be built into virtually everything—potentially at the atomic level. (IBM has also reportedly developed magnetic memory in 12 atoms.)

Koomey challenges us to think of ways to use this technology and change the world. Are you up for it?

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