Sustainability and technology: A phone or the environment?

The people living on the Earth today, in general, have a technology addiction of widely varying degrees. All those that can afford one will have a phone, a laptop or desktop and in many cases more. The software and hardware manufacturers are more than happy to feed this addiction, churning out a few to (a classic example of Samsung)[1] many devices per year to demonstrate class, increase productivity and in general to gain utility. However, the hardware inside our devices, the servers powering our online services and applications and the power stations bringing life to our tech are having a negative effect on our environment. Is our technology sustainable?

Phone manufacturers are a particularly bad example and not entirely due to their actions. In the West, people will often buy new phones every two year or more often. These phones will seldom be manufactured in the country of use (the Motorola Moto X 2013 was a rare example which was manufactured in the US company’s home country, but was closed once it was succeeded)[2][3] and therefore (as with almost all technology) shipping is a frequent affair. Rare earth elements are frequently used in smart devices as features and components need their respective chemistry in order to produce their desired function. However, 16 of the 17 are used in phones and it is questionable whether they are retrieved in recycling and whether manufacturers are making sure to use sustainable sources.[4] Original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs for short, have little economic incentive to be more sustainable other than to not deplete supply of resources which would increase prices in the future.

Surprisingly, phones don’t use as much power as we think they would[5], especially considering the extra productivity we can gain from their use. Furthermore, with the many advanced features of smartphones (such as high-end camera and high-quality audio), we are powering fewer devices that do more things, leading to reduced need for batteries and charging devices that will not be used often. The Internet of Things may reverse this trend as we will be providing energy to a vast array of sensors at all times. On the other hand there is a potential for the data to enable us to be more sustainable and reduce our energy consumption, especially when applied with machine learning and big data. Taking a broader view, phones allow us to keep connected without the travel (it could be questioned whether this counteracts the travel the parts went through to manufacture the devices).

Server farm

Server farms are a different beast all together. Farms are large areas of land covered with processors crunching through masses of data at any one time, sending information between servers locally and globally, and between devices businesses and consumers use. The energy use is incredibly high and as with all computers, heat is produced but in far higher quantities requiring more expensive cooling techniques. We are constantly putting stain on server infrastructure due to accelerating demand for the internet as well as using remote computation to process more complex things (such as in game graphics in co-ordination with local graphics processing, shown recently at Berlin’s gamescon with the game Crackdown 3)[6]. As with any large structure, the environment must be changed to accommodate the servers. Building the server farm uses many resources, require changing the local enviroment which will negatively affect the wildlife and will cause temporary disturbance of the locals, who likely won’t reap much reward as server farms do not require much labour.

While it is important to discuss the drawbacks of servers and server farms, it is easy to forget the reason we use them: computational power, which would require many more (resource inefficient) devices to match. Energy consumption, resource use and issues surrounding sustainability can be managed through “big data” and the computation of data reserved by many sources. An example of this is practice is Google researchers using artificial neural networks in order to reduce server farm energy use, which can be computed using the many servers around the server farm and the servers themselves[7].

These are just two common areas of technology that have an influence on our sustainability. Manufacturing to batteries all tip the scales on our overall environmental impact concerning modern technology. Hopefully, with governments and businesses having greater interest on having a sustainable impact on the world, future generations will have a planet in harmony and we can enjoy the gains of our technological innovations.

[1]: GSMArena, Samsung Phones
[2]: The Verge, Made in America: a look inside Motorola’s Moto X factory
[3]: TechRadar, The Moto X will no longer be made in the USA
[4]: TechRadar, Our smartphone addiction is costing the Earth
[5]: LifeHacker, How Much Energy a Smartphone Uses in a Year (And What it Means for Your Budget)
[6]: Xbox Wire, gamescom 2015: Crackdown 3’s Use of Technology is Jaw-dropping
[7]: Google, Machine Learning Applications for Data Center Optimization

Image credit: sugree on Flickr under CC 2.0

Contributed by Kojo Amoasi Science and Technology Editor

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