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Why Ultra-Low Power Computing Will Change Everything

November 1, 2012 By: Tori Wieldt

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!)

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