Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Google Asks ‘How Green Is the Internet?’ 

<p>With nearly 2 billion people connected to the Internet these days, there are those who question the effects that this usage has on the environment. </p>

More than 2 billion people use the Internet as of 2013 and that number is rapidly increasing. Given the infrastructure required to support ballooning adoption, there are those who question the effects that this usage has on the environment.

At the third Google Energy Summit held last week in Mountain View, Calif., leading experts met to explore this important topic. About 100 people, including former Vice President Al Gore and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, were in attendance at the How Green Is the Internet? event.

One of main negative effects that the Internet has on the environment is the amount of energy that it consumes. The Internet is essentially a collection of datacenters filled with computing gear, networks that reach across different continents, and battery powered devices. All of this equipment requires energy to operate and as time goes on this energy consumption is only going to increase.

However, there is the idea that the Internet can make processes and systems much more energy efficient. Research has shown that something as simple as buying music online is much more energy efficient than driving to the store to buy a CD. This idea that the Web sharing economy is indirectly making the use of goods more efficient is starting to become a trend.

One problem that researchers face is getting access to detailed industry data. Since this has only recently become an issue for the leaders of the Internet industry, they are still a little hesitant to give out their energy data to third party researchers. For example, Google revealed its total electricity use just a year and a half ago.

While there are two sides to this debate, some researchers are leaning toward the idea that the Internet has a net positive effect on the environment. Jonathan Koomey, a datacenter energy guru and researcher at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance and Stanford University who spoke after Gore said the preoccupation with the electricity use of the Internet is misplaced. He thinks that the overall system effects are more important than the direct electricity use. He stated, "Moving bits, not atoms, can have a major effect on efficiency."

Vlad Coroama, from the Center for Industrial Ecology at the University of Coimbra in Portugal shared the same viewpoint. "Sending bits is usually much more efficient than sending atoms," said Coroama.

However, it's very difficult to calculate real numbers because the Internet as a system is so complex, and the way that it affects people's behaviors is equally so. A GigaOM article noted that the process of driving to the store to buy a physical book is not as energy efficient as buying that book on a Kindle. But, you have to take into account questions like the embodied energy of making that Kindle. Since it has become so easy and efficient, that same person may buy and download more e-books. These factors make it hard to judge which is more energy efficient.

The main issue now is that as the Internet grows and more datacenters are built, how do we make sure that the Internet doesn't start to negatively effect the environment more so than positively?

Videos of the sessions are available here.

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