Shades Of Gray

More devices use more energy, but how much and exactly what we’re gaining isn’t clear.

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As more things talk to other things, and as we begin accumulating more devices that can communicate with other devices, one key question will begin surfacing in the power/performance arena—are we really better off than we were before?

This is a deceptively simple, open-ended question with some very complex answers. But it’s also essential that we provide enough answers to satisfy critics so the semiconductor can move forward unimpeded.

There are several angles to this question. One is whether technology makes us more effective at what we do, both personally and professionally, and at what cost? Or are we simply wasting more time in more ways? A big hurdle for the computer industry between the 1960s and the 1980s was whether computer technology truly made workers more efficient and productive. While the rule of thumb was that no one ever got fired for buying IBM, even IBM couldn’t prove definitively that its computers paid for themselves. There was plenty of anecdotal evidence, but hard numbers were non-existent, and most of the people who bought in had to safeguard their jobs from decisions to buy IBM in the first place, which is why their co-workers never got fired for buying IBM.

The personal computer changed all of that, and so did networking and eventually the Internet. Together they democratized computing and computing resources. It’s been a long time since anyone asked whether we are more effective and productive. But there are plenty of questions being asked about whether we are more energy-efficient and what the tradeoff is between effectiveness, productivity and energy consumption. More devices cumulatively use more energy, no matter how efficient they are individually, and there is a growing concern about the rapid rate at which arctic ice is melting and the fresh reminder of Hurricane Sandy and the devastation possible by future storms.

It’s not fair to just say we’re consuming more energy or polluting more, of course. Electronics frequently replace mechanical solutions, which have their own carbon footprints. Gasoline or diesel engines wouldn’t be nearly as efficient as they’re becoming without a massive infusion of electronics. And so-called green technologies such as solar still create pollution through their manufacturing processes. For all the green or brown monikers, there are lots of shades of gray in between.

Still, it would be nice to have a consistent database of information about whether and why technology makes us better off than before, at least so we can show that we are either making progress or plunging further into a hole. This is a complex subject, but it’s one that the semiconductor industry should be looking at seriously—for the sake of its own future.