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Using technology to reduce the carbon footprint

Interview Cambridge computing professor Andy Hopper
Wed Apr 07 2010, 14:04

A LIFETIME OF RESEARCH in Cambridge left Andy Hopper convinced that given all the changes computing has brought us surely it can also solve our sustainability problem.

Andy Hopper, CBE, is professor of Computer Technology at the University of Cambridge and head of the Computer Laboratory.

Hopper's main research interest at the moment is trying to understand how computing can help reduce the carbon footprint. One of his key ideas is a personal energy meter (PEM) that will observe, record and apportion total energy consumption.

The PEM has three components, Hopper explains. First of all, it will show the amount of energy you're using that's directly attributable to you – the petrol your car burns, the electricity that powers your office. Second, it will show the portion of, for example, the energy needed to power the entire building, that represents your fair share of the whole. Third, it will show your share of more distant but still attributable items such as the national energy expenditure on defence. Exactly how to apportion such community resources requires more research.

"Even if we just do a back-of-the-envelope calculation we need to throw it in," he says. "Because the energy meter has to make sense. It can't have gaps."

If you want to complain that having a device monitor your energy usage sounds privacy-invasive, you'll find that Hopper has lived through that sort of discussion before. Several jobs ago, in the early 1990s at the Olivetti Research Lab (later taken over by Oracle, then AT&T, and finally shut in 2002), a notorious project was the Active Badge. Worn by all staff, the badges' sensors communicated with sensors on the walls and fed into the lab's computer system. If you wanted to talk to a colleague, you could look up that person and see where he was and whether he was available. The press heavily criticised the badges on privacy grounds – ironic, considering their silence as Britain has become the world CCTV capital.

Even more ironically, the system had two key principles ignored by today's surveillance systems. First was reciprocity: everyone could see the list of accesses to their badges, so if you checked up on someone's whereabouts he would always be able to see you had done so. Second, the badges were under the wearer's control: they were easily defeated by a cup of tea.

"The reason we ended up with those principles is that we lived them," says Hopper. "We loved the technology and we were geeks, but we had lived sufficiently long and were humans so we had to end up in some kind of operational compromise." With newer systems, he says, "I guess it's hard for others designing systems to live with them directly as a consequence. So they go out and everyone starts using them and the principles get forgotten or have to be learned again."

Hopper sees a lot of opportunities, particularly surrounding the mobile phone platform, in developing countries with less legacy infrastructure than we have. In Uganda, for example, he is involved in a collaboration in which a group of computer science students with GPS units are creating an open street map of Kampala that could be used to optimise transport so that a taxi waiting until it's full to leave can be found by prospective passengers.

"It's more economic, but also more green," he says. In a place with poor roads, there's no point in following the Western model.

Hopper got to the PEM idea from Active Badges via his first full chair appointment at Cambridge University; it was in the engineering department rather than computer science. He spent six or seven years in engineering before coming back to head the computer lab, joining a long line of distinguished scientists such as Maurice Wilkes and Roger Needham.

In engineering, he says, "I met a different type of person." These were engineers of all kinds – civil, mechanical – who had worked construction in the developing world. "That's where I was introduced to the sustainability issue, all off the very physical world." If you drain a lake to build a road, what does that mean for sustainability? How can this be done in a better way?

"That's all interesting," he says. And it led to the key question: what role does computing have? Surely it must have one.

"So when I came back to the computer lab I was already thinking about this." Over time, he says, the framework he laid out is coming to pass. Plus, he had a bit of luck: in the US, this was all happening during the George W Bush years, when the US was more focused on the military than on green issues.

"I thought there was an opportunity here. If it turns out that I'm right, not only is it a good line, but we'll actually have a year or two lead on our major competition in North America that for structural reasons we don't normally have." And so it proved: Obama has of course changed the US's focus, but in the meantime Cambridge nudged ahead.

For the PEM idea, privacy and security remain on Hopper's mind as issues. "The engineering underneath has to be flexible." µ


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