The Power Of Low Power

What gets lost in the race to turn out a chip is the perspective of what’s changing.

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In the United States, new rules that cars will need to average 54.5 miles per gallon by the year 2025, and 35.5 mpg by 2016, suddenly seem very achievable. In fact, some cars in development are reporting close to an equivalent of nearly 100 mpg, and the numbers are likely to go well into the triple digits.

The same kinds of results are showing up in handheld mobile devices, which now have the compute power of a Pentium 4 with up to 10 hours of constant use per charge. The fact that you can read e-mail, watch a video, play interactive games, search the Internet and still have enough talk time to get business done on a single charge is almost astounding. And with future software becoming more integrated with the hardware, either the numbers will increase or the battery size will decrease.

The same trend is evident in medical devices. Handheld devices now replace those that required a plug and a heavy metal stand. Some pacemakers now use external batteries. And chips are in development that can be ingested, while others can be applied externally as patches. All of these devices are extremely efficient without sacrificing performance.

It’s still questionable whether the proliferation of electronics in aggregate draws less energy from fossil fuels than in the past. There are more devices and more people, and at the moment more devices per person. Moreover, the transition to renewable sources of energy is hard to measure. The addition of residential storage will propel that forward even further, but it will become even more difficult to calculate at that point.

Still, along with all of this attitudes are changing. The impact of wasteful energy policies and practices by governments, organizations, and individuals is now almost universally frowned upon. While environmental organizations and energy lobbyists may debate the effects of global warming, there is at least an awareness that something is changing that will affect future generations if everyone doesn’t do his or her part.

This explains why the slickest car in Silicon Valley these days isn’t a Porsche Carrera. It’s a Tesla. The best TV is one that can provide great resolution with an ENERGY STAR sticker. And solar panels have become a selling point on real estate wherever there is abundant sunshine.

It’s hard to see these changes sometimes. Engineering teams are always understaffed, projects are always due yesterday, and corporate management is always more focused on the quarterly numbers and the competitive threat than the incredible work everyone has done. The grind of design, implement, integrate, verify and then debug and respin can suck the life out of even the most exuberant teams—at least until the next project comes along.

Still, what seems to get lost sometimes is that this is time and effort very well spent. Engineers rarely get the credit, but you’re the ones who have made all of this possible. Nice job. And on behalf of future generations everywhere, thank you.

—Ed Sperling