By Sharan Mujoo
The word ‘data’ does not spring to mind when one thinks of a tsunami. Giant waves, crashing against the shore are better associated with the word tsunami. However, a Data Tsunami is precisely what is predicted to happen in the near future. For those savvy with technology, a picture might already have started to emerge in the mind.
Eruption of data
There are already more connected devices in the world than there are people. To be precise, according to Gartner, there are 8.4 billion devices in use, currently. By 2020, they estimate this number to rise to 20.4 billion. That’s more than a 100 percent increase within just three years. As technology becomes more accessible and more people come online, even more information will be generated. However, that still does not account for devices that are offline. What this creates is a requirement for more data centres, places where data can be stored as more people and devices get connected to the internet. Huge server farms are required in remote locations near shores where access to sea cables is easy.
What might the consequences of this be? First off, there would be more power requirements. This will account for 20 percent of all the electricity in the world by 2025, all of it required by the Internet of Connected Things industry.
Infact, according to Huawei researcher, Anders Andrae, industry power demands will increase from 200-300 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity per year to 1,200, or even 3,000 TWh, by 2025. “The situation is alarming. We have a tsunami of data approaching. Everything which can be is being digitalised. It is a perfect storm. 5G [the fifth generation of mobile technology] is coming, IP [internet protocol] traffic is much higher than estimated, and all cars and machines, robots and artificial intelligence are being digitalised, producing huge amounts of data which is stored in data centres,” Andre says. Obviously, this has further repercussions in the form of emissions which are estimated to make up 3.5 percent of the global share in the next 10 years and 14 percent by 2040.
Greener data centres
According to Gary Cook, a Greenpeace IT Analyst, only 20 percent of the energy used in the world’s data centres comes from renewable sources. 80 percent is still derived from fossil fuels. However, companies such as Facebook have embraced this concern. Their data center in Sweden’s Lulea, located on the edge of the Arctic circle, uses outside air for cooling rather than air conditioning and runs on hydroelectric power generated on the Lule river nearby .
Greenpeace has been hounding tech giants to adopt greener ways of operating. The likes of Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple have agreed to do so and some of them are already working on building renewable sources of energy generation such as wind farms and hydroelectric stations. Architect David Hughes though, believes this does not really help. Hughes recently challenged Apple’s new data centre in Ireland. He says, “Using renewable energy sounds good but no one else benefits from what will be generated, and it skews national attempts to reduce emissions. Data centres … have eaten into any progress we made to achieving Ireland’s 40% carbon emissions reduction target. They are just adding to demand and reducing our percentage. They are getting a free ride at the Irish citizens’ expense.”
A cause for concern?
Now that a clearer picture is at hand, should we be really concerned yet? Analysts think so. As consumers, it is time now, for us, to reflect upon the consequences of our digital actions. A digital footprint is no longer just digital, it is a carbon footprint as well. Technology is advancing at a tremendous pace and one must reconsider the value that is being provided. It is difficult to view this issue from a single perspective. The internet has become a tool for enabling democracy. Smartphones have made our lives easier, automated systems have increased convenience and data decentralisation has made information more accessible.
While it has enabled millions, the enabling has come at a cost. This is a cost that the environment is paying and will continue to be paid by our future generations. Climate change is very real and the alarming pervasion of technology is a threat to our future, a fact that cannot be doubted. While this increases the responsibility at the consumer end, policy makers and the industry need to be more cognizant of the impact on the environment now, more than ever, given the fact that the risk of this spinning out of control is increasing.
The emergence of this Data Tsunami is concerning. Therefore, it is imperative to adopt a sustainable, balanced approach. Technology should be allowed to make our lives easier, but not at a cost which takes us backward. There are ways and means through which this is possible. One of them is harnessing the solar power present in space. Approximately 60 percent of the solar power does not make it through the earth’s atmosphere. Japan’s space agency, JAXA, revealed in 2015 that they had successfully converted solar energy into electricity using reflectors which deflect the radiation on to solar panels present on satellites. The electricity generated was successfully converted into microwaves again and beamed at a distance of 50 metres, proving the validity of this idea. Other, possibly simpler, means exist, such as using the kinetic energy of humans to power devices. Countries such as Iceland are tapping the power of magma within the earth to generate electricity using steam.
Even though greener methods exist, they to come at a cost. Prudent diligence is required to evaluate the cost-benefit ratio of these methods. In an era where profits matter more than people, the biggest offenders still need to be convinced financially in order to adopt such methods. A Tsunami is coming and we must be ready to swim…or sink.
Featured Image Source: Pixabay
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