Towards sustainable ethical computing

June 2018

Wind turbines on hillsideAlex Bardell, Richard Lanyon-Hogg, Denise Oram and Bob Crooks from the BCS Green IT Specialist Group explain how technology can make our lives better, but only if we make IT that’s kinder to the planet.

As the representatives of the technology industry, do we have a moral principle to ensure that our industry is ethically sustainable? Technology has the ability to be a key factor in the development of a clean and sustainable world, but with 50 million tonnes of electronic waste being produced annually - and no clear single approach on how to effectively deal with the waste - we need to get our house in order.

Computer equipment can be expensive and difficult to manufacture. An ethics-based set of standards relating to the manufacture, ongoing use and disposal of these components, can shift valuable resources away from waste and back into the supply chain.

Development of circular economy principles relating to the reuse of components, rather than disposal once their current use is no longer required, will result in it being economically viable to return components and raw materials back into the supply chain.

The main reason why components find themselves dumped or shipped to countries with very low labour costs and environmental standards is the high cost of extracting the reusable elements. This is the only way the inputs of the production process can be recycled profitably.

If we were able to reduce the cost of reuse by simplifying recycling, then we’d stop these valuable resources ending up in land fill or polluting areas when the components are extracted.

An issue of power

Technology is fast becoming one of the largest consumers of electricity. As energy efficiency is one of the key cornerstones in the approach of reducing carbon emissions, there is an ethical obligation for technology to play its role in climate change mitigation.

Hardware manufacturers are already able to certify against the Energy Star standards relating to the manufacture of energy efficient components and improved processor instruction sets. We also see suppliers starting to reduce the overall energy consumption.

In a reversal to the previous trends, it is expected that 5G networks will consume less energy. Computer energy efficiency is also trying to deliver improvements against a global growth in demand.

The technology industry is exploring how to contribute to the delivery of climate change mitigation. The GeSI (Global e-Sustainability Initiative) SMARTer2030 report ICT can enable a 20 per cent reduction of global CO2 emissions by 2030, holding emissions at 2015 levels.

This means we can potentially avoid the trade-off between economic prosperity and environmental protection. Although the report outlines how technically this is possible, the implementation requires society to adopt the recommendations.

The ethical question is whether we are morally obliged to implement solutions which deliver against a sustainable objective rather than a purely economic one.

The next plastic disaster…?

There is an accelerated realisation that plastic pollution is causing catastrophic damage to many of our oceans and seas, with plastic in our oceans expected to treble by 2025. Plastic waste residues have now entered our food, water supply and our bodies as micro-plastic particles.

Efforts are now underway to tackle the enormous environmental disaster that is unfolding before us. However, there is a parallel problem that’s being largely ignored.

Every second, across the planet, it is estimated that 126 devices are being connected to the internet. This equates to approximately 328 million a month. These devices range from smartphones, personal computers, cameras, even fridges; but that pales into insignificance with the volume of electronic devices that are being manufactured and assembled with sensors to form the building blocks of the internet of things (IoT).

It is difficult to comprehend the IoT’s scale. The major players in the global semiconductor industry turned over nearly $1.5 trillion in 2017, and if you consider the cost of manufacturing a sensor component is a few cents, that’s an awful lot of stuff being made. Furthermore, from 2012 to 2017, the global electronics industry grew at a compound annual growth rate of 3.2 per cent.

And this growth will continue thanks to autonomous self-driving cars, robots and other devices that exploit the potential of AI. However, consider this: various agencies have suggested that, as consumers, we either discard, throw away or replace over 90 per cent of our electronic purchases within six months.

As consumers, do we see the electronics industry actively engaged in a ‘design for disassembly’ ethos? Is there clear evidence that we’re ‘reshoring our rubbish’? Are we, therefore, creating an additional toxic strain on our environment and ourselves? We may well be.

Driving toward smarted cities

Technologies such as the IoT and internet of everything (IoE) - technologies that facilitate the development of smart cities - are paradigms where connected devices can create new global service opportunities, based on real time physical world data.

Smart cities offer us all these opportunities and more, but do we consider ethics issues such as privacy and ownership? We will be living in a society totally dependent on a technological infrastructure.

The IoE enables objects to recognise events and to react autonomously without human intervention. This provokes many challenges for us to face as a society, not least to evaluate the effectiveness, and perceived benefits of these technologies.

By the very nature of these technologies within smart cities we should take measures and impose standards from the inception of these developments. The measures should anticipate any possible future social and ethical considerations.

In smart cities there will be vast amounts of real time data generated by these new services. This will be distributed over global networks where there will, undoubtedly, be day-to-day problems of ownership security and control. Securing the individual’s privacy, ownership and choice should be of paramount importance.

Evaluating the performance of these networks is a major challenge, with issues of routing metrics, end-to-end delay and reliability, energy consumption and router congestions. Many new issues and concerns will also arise with protecting the privacy of personal information and possible lack of control with human machine symbiosis. There is, therefore, a need to provide relevant governance, network standards, policies, procedures and enforcement.

Smart cities will have a major revolutionary effect on our lives and we need to ensure this is a positive effect. Early recognition of ethical and related issues can save time and money, support user acceptance and promote beneficial aspects of the technology.

Smart cities can provide us with a brighter and more sustainable future. To achieve these benefits we do, however, need to solve thorny problems with areas such as: control, division of responsibilities, accountability, ownership, privacy and governance.

We find ourselves, again, at a tipping point - a place where the pathway we take dictates our future scenarios. Delivery of technology, which can be reused and recycled, along with continuously striving to improve the energy efficiency of electric components have clear social and economic benefits.

The scarce natural resources we are consuming can be reused and lower energy devices will reduce the demand on the inputs needed to deliver our electricity. The internet of things opens up a myriad of opportunities to deliver a more sustainable and healthy living environment, but only if we are able to sustainably manage the connected devices we are creating within our digital world.

So, what we can we do about that as members of the BCS and users of the data and devices in the IoT at our work and at home?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Promote use of recyclable and bio-degradable plastics in IoT devices.
  • Engage with manufacturers.
  • Lobby your MP at a constituency meeting.
  • Recognise the footprint of devices and maximise the use of such devices and the data they provide in our daily lives to reduce our own footprint on the world’s resources.
  • Ensure that the devices we throw away are re-used, recycled or broken for material reclamation and do not end up as land-fill.
  • If it ain’t broke don’t fix it and, most importantly, don’t refresh it unless sustainability impacts are significantly reduced in so doing.
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Image: gettyimages/bihaibo