Why Ultra-Low Power Computing Will Change Everything

The ARM TechCon keynote "Why Ultra-Low Power Computing Will Change Everything" was anything but low-powered. The speaker, Dr. Johnathan Koomey, knows his subject: he is a Consulting Professor at Stanford University, worked for more than two decades at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and has been a visiting professor at Stanford University, Yale University, and UC Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group. His current focus is creating a standard (computations per kilowatt hour) and measuring computer energy consumption over time. The trends are impressive: energy consumption has halved every 1.5 years for the last 60 years. Battery life has made roughly a 10x improvement each decade since 1960. It's these improvements that have made laptops and cell phones possible. What does the future hold?

Dr. Koomey said that in the past, the race by chip manufacturers was to create the fastest computer, but the priorities have now changed. New computers are tiny, smart, connected and cheap. "You can't underestimate the importance of a shift in industry focus from raw performance to power efficiency for mobile devices," he said. There is also a confluence of trends in computing, communications, sensors, and controls. The challenge is how to reduce the power requirements for these tiny devices. Alternate sources of power that are being explored are light, heat, motion, and even blood sugar. The University of Michigan has produced a miniature sensor that harnesses solar energy and could last for years without needing to be replaced. Also, the University of Washington has created a sensor that scavenges power from existing radio and TV signals.

Specific devices designed for a purpose are much more efficient than general purpose computers. With all these sensors, instead of big data, developers should focus on nano-data, personalized information that will adjust the lights in a room, a machine, a variable sign, etc.

Dr. Koomey showed some examples:

The Proteus Digital Health Feedback System, an ingestible sensor that transmits when a patient has taken their medicine and is powered by their stomach juices. (Gives "powered by you" a whole new meaning!)

Streetline Parking Systems, that provide real-time data about available parking spaces. The information can be sent to your phone or update parking signs around the city to point to areas with available spaces. Less driving around looking for parking spaces!

The BigBelly trash system that uses solar power, compacts trash, and sends a text message when it is full. This dramatically reduces the number of times a truck has to come to pick up trash, freeing up resources and slashing fuel costs. This is a classic example of the efficiency of moving "bits not atoms."

But researchers are approaching the physical limits of sensors, Dr. Kommey explained. With the current rate of technology improvement, they'll reach the three-atom transistor by 2041. Once they hit that wall, it will force a revolution they way we do computing. But wait, researchers at Purdue University and the University of New South Wales are both working on a reliable one-atom transistors! Other researchers are working on "approximate computing" that will reduce computing requirements drastically. So it's unclear where the wall actually is. In the meantime, as Dr. Koomey promised, ultra-low power computing will change everything.


I am eagerly awaiting for an updated, lower cost version of the great SunSPOT hardware.... something at around $100 with raspberry pi interfacing...

Posted by Fernando Cassia on October 31, 2012 at 09:13 PM PDT #

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