Digital technologies have had an undeniable influence on humanity’s well-being, transforming all aspects of our lives. Underpinned by advances in process technology, computer architecture, software engineering, and artificial intelligence (AI), the rapid technological development of the past five decades has altered the way we learn, work, commute, shop, socialize, eat, relax, and even sleep, both directly and indirectly. Technology has also aided under-privileged and vulnerable groups in surprising ways, from providing assistive technology to the physically impaired to drones delivering life-saving medical supplies in rescues. The most recent example is the pandemic where digital technologies empowered society to stay connected, function effectively, and provide productive disease tracking and drug discovery to limit the spread of the disease.
Advancements in digital technologies have a bootstrapping effect. The past fifty years of technological innovations from the computer architecture community have brought innovations and orders-of-magnitude efficiency improvements that engender use cases that were not previously possible — stimulating novel application domains and increasing uses and deployments at an ever-faster pace. Consequently, computing technologies have fueled significant economic growth, creating education opportunities, enabling access to a wider and more diverse spectrum of information, and, at the same time, connecting people of differing needs in the world together.
The focus on marketability, efficiency, and disruptive innovation has also resulted in many challenging, and sometimes unexpected, societal issues. Examples include widening disparity and inequity of access to digital technologies, spread of disinformation and misinformation in online platforms, privacy and security violations at both the personal and political level, and propagation of human bias into AI training and use cases at-scale. In addition, the information and computing technology sectors consume a significant amount of global electricity, water, and natural resources, leading to paramount carbon and environmental footprint. As the field matures and as the world faces dire challenges from climate change to societal and political upheavals, a deliberate approach is required to technology and innovation that centers on a positive societal impact while thriving in a market economy.
Predicting future innovations is a difficult if not impossible task. However, what is possible to foretell are the following:
(1) Pervasive Connectivity: the internet and the technology enabling it will become even more pervasive and fundamental to everyday life. The IT infrastructure, just like other critical tele-communication and power delivery infrastructures, must be secure and resilient. Strong security and privacy measures must be in place from the top of the software stack to the underlying hardware running the code to guard many aspects of our lives that are increasingly accessible on the internet.
IT infrastructure resiliency will also move to the design forefront given the increasingly frequent climate duress, diverse geographical requirements, and distinct power and networking infrastructures around the world. Large data centers that require many megawatts to operate may not be viable during a blackout with limited power or in geographical locations without extensive power infrastructure. Smaller data centers have to be more resilient either with backup generators or using a local microgrid to run operations when the main grid is down. In addition, services running in the data centers during power emergencies must be tiered to determine which provide critical operations and which can be reduced in scope or eliminated to save power. Services have to be more tolerant of outages by making applications more resilient by design and be more amenable to migration to a non-impacted data center during emergencies.
(2) Sustainability: Environmental pollution, resource depletion and climate change will dominate how products are designed, produced, consumed, and recycled. All major technology companies (Facebook; Apple; Microsoft; Google; Amazon) have pledged to reduce or eliminate their carbon footprint in the next decade by reducing the environmental impact associated with manufacturing and using their products. Systems must be manufactured with less planetary impact, use less energy while in operation, and produce less e-waste at the end of life. Existing practices such as the move to hyperscale data centers have already reduced IT’s carbon footprint by consolidating and sharing computing resources, and operating those resources more efficiently. However, more can be done – to achieve an environmentally sustainable computing future, we must build a circular economy for computing that supports the design principle of reduce, reuse, repair, and recycle (Just to name a few). These and other potential solutions likely require a complete redesign of the software and hardware stacks both at the edge, within the cloud, and in the edge-cloud collaborative execution environment, in order to provide resilient, long lasting, innovative solutions.
Making technology more sustainable is only one part of the technical challenge. There is another side to the story — there are significant sustainability benefits resulting from computing technology, such as FarmBeats and OpenCatalyst. Information technology can improve efficiencies in practically every sector, from manufacturing to food production to transportation to controlling the climate in our homes and offices. Although there is a carbon cost associated with manufacturing and operating the IT ecosystem, this cost must be evaluated holistically in light of the benefits such an ecosystem can provide in other domains.
(3) Demographic Inclusion: Massive demographic upheavals resulting in an aging and declining population in most of the world and rising population centers in Sub-Saharan Africa will influence what products are created and for whom, and where technology is designed and deployed in the future. In order for technology to be truly inclusive in a fully-connected world, it must be available and usable for everyone – regardless of physical capabilities, geographic and cultural diversity or economic constraints.
In order to meet the upcoming needs of the world, technological growth and resources must focus on currently under-served populations. Assistive technology for an aging population will be crucial to retain a viable workforce as populations age and decline. This can vary from improvements in self-driving technology to virtual reality solutions that address physical, visual, and/or auditory limitations. Adaptable IT infrastructure will be required for developing nations, where there may not be a resilient network or power infrastructure. Tied to this infrastructure will be edge devices that must be operable under adverse conditions where the local network or power may not be available 24/7 or varies based on external conditions. Along with the adaptable IT infrastructure must come adaptable AI algorithms that reflect the societal, cultural, geographic, and economic diversity of the region
Finally, any IT technology must be economically-accessible to most of the world’s population — from client devices to low-latency network connectivity and the cloud. Without reasonable device and application availability for the poorest communities, reaching the goal of pervasive connectivity will be difficult if not impossible and the digital divide will continue to widen for communities of differing social-economical status.
Looking forward, the political, societal, and environmental challenges the world faces are clear, and technology can play a significant role in helping societies adapt and thrive. The problems and solutions in the three domains of pervasive connectivity, sustainability, and inclusion are interconnected and must be addressed holistically. For instance, adapting the IT infrastructure to climate change must not in turn make climate change worse. Making innovative devices and software to address the needs of an aging population does not mean that poorer populations in other regions can be ignored. And population decline does not fully address sustainability concerns — as standard of living improves with the help of technology, the per-capita environmental footprint of the population also increases.
Technology must be offered that is inclusive of the world’s physical, cultural, and economic diversity, and which is manufactured, used, and recycled with environmental sustainability at the forefront. We hope to inspire our architecture community to take broader and more holistic approaches when developing technologies:
- Build resilient, secure infrastructures — software, hardware, and everything in-between — for the computing spectrum of systems at all sizes and scales.
- Design for the entire system life cycle from manufacturing to end-of-life and for the entire software development cycle from experimentation to deployment. Build environmentally-sustainable systems, software, and algorithms — beyond energy efficiency.
- Broaden the scope of technologies to minimize the environmental footprint of human beings and to serve people from different parts of the world and with differing needs by enabling equitable access to rich economic and education opportunities.
For the next decades to come, we envision significant cross-disciplinary efforts to build a circular development cycle by placing pervasive connectivity, sustainability, and demographic inclusion at the design forefront in order to sustain and expand the benefits of a technologically rich society.
Link to the full paper on Socio-Technological Challenges and Opportunities: Paths Forward.
About the Authors:
Srilatha (Bobbie) Manne has worked in the computer industry for over two decades with her latest passion being the development of a more sustainable computational ecosystem from client devices to data centers.
Carole-Jean Wu is currently a technical lead at Facebook AI Research, pathfinding and tackling system challenges to enable efficient, responsible AI computing.
Parthasarathy (Partha) Ranganathan is currently a VP, technical Fellow at Google where he is the technical lead for hardware and datacenters, designing systems at scale.
Sarah Bird leads the responsible and ethical development of the Azure AI Cognitive Services at Microsoft.
Shane Greenstein is the Martin Marshall Professor at the Harvard Business School where his research encompasses a wide array of questions about computing, communication, and Internet markets.
Disclaimer: These posts are written by individual contributors to share their thoughts on the Computer Architecture Today blog for the benefit of the community. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal, belong solely to the blog author and do not represent those of ACM SIGARCH or its parent organization, ACM.