Prof Andy Hopper director of Cambridge University Computer Lab
"If the theme is a good one and starts achieving impact, the business models and start up companies follow almost automatically. However it is important that in this case, very short term commercialisation does not impede progress."
Andy Hopper is Professor of Computer Technology at the University of Cambridge and Head of the Computer Laboratory. His research interests include networking, pervasive and sentient computing, and using computers for assuring the sustainability of the planet. Sustainability research undertaken at the lab ranges from looking at the benefits of co-locating data centres with wind farms to the use of sensors to help optimise our transport network. The research has four main themes: • providing an optimal digital infrastructure that makes the best use of the energy it consumes during manufacture, operation and end-of-life processes; • developing a global data collection network to sense and optimise our consumption of resources and our impact on the environment; • to predict and react to future events in natural systems by developing dependable and trustworthy implementations of the complex models provided by scientists; and • to find digital alternatives to our physical activities, building on the success of e-billing, downloadable music and online shopping. Andy Hopper has pursued academic and industrial careers in parallel. In the academic career he has worked in the Computer Laboratory and the Department of Engineering at Cambridge. In his industrial career he has worked in senior roles for multinational companies and also co-founded a dozen spin-outs and start-ups, two of which floated on stock markets. He is currently chairman of RealVNC, Ubisense and Adventiq.
1). How big an impact can digital technology realistically make on the rather pressing sustainability issues we face as a society?
Our initial work with Computing for the Future of the Planet has been around reducing energy consumption - this is a big issue at the moment due to the production of greenhouse gases from generation. Using today's technology it seems possible to at least halve the energy consumption of computing. However, computing only consumes a few percent of total global power consumption - so it’s important not to get carried away. In the UK, road transportation and heating buildings are each responsible for about 20% of our total energy consumption. We think that computing can have an effect on these areas too - improving accessibility and optimising our use of transportation systems, and providing sophisticated data collection and control for heating and cooling buildings. Even if we had a cheap and clean source of energy, other problems such as food and water shortages, pollution and species extinction would still remain. Population growth is the big factor too. The global population is predicted to increase from 6 to 9 billion people by 2050. Any per capita incremental improvements may be overwhelmed by our increased numbers. I've not seen anyone come up with a solution for this. I don't know whether technology can provide answers but it’s definitely worth a look. 2). Your active involvement in this research area significantly pre-dates its appearance in the mainstream agenda. What originally spurred your interest?
My interest was spurred by being exposed to the civil engineering sustainability agenda by Peter Guthrie from the Department of Engineering in about 2001. It made me think about the role computing might play. My collaborators and I started fleshing out the details and by the time I became Head of the Computer Lab in 2004 - it seemed an obvious general theme. 3). How has the sea-change, in terms of political will on environmental issues, manifested itself in the Computer Lab's activities? Computing for the Future of the Planet is much broader, vaguer and more speculative than a normal academic project and so we would have been unable to get going with this project without access to internal funding. This is a luxury that few people have. However, companies and politicians are increasingly interested in what we have to say and so maybe the next round of resources will be easier to come by. 4). The computing industry itself is a significant carbon producer, yet the solutions to this appear to involve a change in thinking rather than anything more fundamental. What do you see as the barriers to change in the computing industry? Rising costs are providing a huge incentive to reduce energy consumption across the industry. From a technical viewpoint the recent re-emergence of virtualisation has provided the tools with which to make big savings. However, the obstacles are often non-technical. Electricity bills are often not in the budgets of our IT managers and planners and so there is no incentive on the ground for cutting power - concerns such as high availability take precedence. These barriers are not just in computing. For example, for many of us, better insulation of our houses is an economic winner as well as an energy saver but there are no big changes happening. 5). Even if a 'solution' is achievable, this is only a small step on the road to adoption. What steps can you take in your role to ensure that the Lab's work gets a 'platform' at the appropriate level? Making one’s own wave, whether with the public, the government, professional bodies, or capital sources, is important. We have been talking and informing all these constituencies as best as we can. Of late, things have turned about and we are being commissioned to write articles and endlessly visited by interested parties, which is a good sign. 6). The Lab's focus is very much 'here and now' - addressing current challenges. Looking into the future, what day- to- day contributions do you see computing making to issues of sustainability? Our long-term view is that computing will become mandatory for our society and our lives. It will be a basic resource upon which much of our lives depend. In terms of population growth, education and personal wealth are strong drivers for reducing family sizes and computing has a key role to play in delivering these things. Digital information is intrinsically ethereal and so if it can substitute for our physical activities we might manage a significant reduction in our footprint on the planet whilst continuing to improve standards of living around the world. 7). You are recognised as being extremely successful at bridging the gap between the academic and commercial worlds. Is this translated into your work in this particular area? Can we expect to see a spin-out any time soon?
My venturing strategy has always been based on the choice of a theme sufficiently early and that we become the thought leaders in the area. If the theme is a good one and starts achieving impact, the business models and start up companies follow almost automatically. However it is important that in this case, very short term commercialisation does not impede progress. For example it would be unfortunate if hoarding of IPR prevented solutions being used widely. 8). Part of your research focuses on 'digital alternatives to physical activities'. Isn't there a danger that we risk undermining the fabric of our society if too many of our physical activities are moved into cyberspace in an attempt to protect the environment?
Certainly. One modern day example of this is the impact of technology on personal privacy – it’s vital that we deal with these issues in the best way we can. However, attempting to predict the impact of new technology on society is a risky game. Few would have expected that the Internet, for example, would have such an impact on our lives in such a short time period. The fabric of our society is going to be altered hugely by the global pressures of rising living standards and population growth and so we shouldn't be afraid of change. We hope that technology can provide some appealing alternatives to what we do today. 9). Do you see one technology having a bigger effect on halting climate change than any of the others? Computing and communication needs to become a resource, available to all people which we can trust and depend upon. If we can provide this platform without environmental damage and without huge energy costs then there is the possibility for an unbounded upside - we can grow and create wealth in the digital world without physical constraints. 10). How big a role do you see for convergent technologies in the 'future of the planet'? The mobile phone is a great example of convergence. The modern phone combines a conventional telephone, with a camera and an audio player. This has benefits because common facilities such as an interface or a battery are shared between these functions and so there is much less duplicated functionality than with three separate devices which in turn reduces the impact of manufacture. However, the downside is that upgrading one's camera necessitates an upgrade of one’s phone. Some middle ground based around modular functional units in the device might be a good trade-off.