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Saving the planet, one byte at a time

How can Custom Compute participate in getting greener? Sustainability is a hotter topic than ever and Apple just launched its first carbon neutral products. But how can the semiconductor industry contribute?

The role of the semiconductor industry

We all know something must be done to make our lives, and the products we use, more sustainable, but there is no magic formula to reduce our impact on the planet. It must be done with an accumulation of small innovations and continuous improvement.

Those who lived the personal computer revolution of the 1980s probably remember that 8KB of RAM was sufficient to run a great word processor… Nowadays, you are lucky if you can survive with a computer that has one million times that memory! Our use of resources has increased significantly, and if the semiconductor industry had not progressed at a crazy speed, we would probably all need to have a power station under our desk!

We therefore need to continue improving the capabilities of electronics systems to ensure that we both limit our environmental footprint and even perhaps manage to decrease it.

Unfortunately, we don’t have Moore’s law anymore…

Performance, to get greener

As highlighted in previous blogs, Custom Compute is a great way of spectacularly increasing the performance of a processor and a system, now that we don’t have the “free” gains of process technology scaling, with its regular doubling of performance every 2 years or so. But how does performance relate to sustainability?

When you start digging into the analysis of carbon emissions related to the usage of products, for example looking at Apple’s report for the previous iPhone, you realize that 80% of the emissions come from manufacturing. This means that manufacturing products that are performant enough to be useful for a longer time should be a primary target! As mentioned, this is exactly what can be achieved through Custom Compute.

Another positive impact of Custom Compute is the ability to reach the same level of performance, while using more mature technology nodes. This is often seen as a way to reduce the cost of the product, but we should also be conscious that older manufacturing processes do not use as many refined chemicals and consume less energy. This is all positive for the environment.

Finally, most current devices are connected to the Cloud, and any data sent to be processed by a remote server thousands of miles away has an impact on the planet because of the power required in communications. Having enough performance in a device to do the processing locally, for example by being able to handle AI workloads, is much more efficient. If we multiply these savings by the expected trillion of IoT devices, this ends up saving an enormous lot of resources.

reducing mobile phone carbon footprint
As an example, reducing the carbon footprint of a mobile phone requires designing products differently

Security, to last longer

Who would expect to hear about security in a blog about sustainability?

As cyberattacks continue to put pressure on all our systems, it becomes more and more necessary to make sure that all our systems are built with a strong level of security. If a new attack is detected and existing products are unable to keep our data secure, then the only possible response is to replace them, leading to additional electronics waste, and more resources needed to manufacture more robust products.

Smart engineers have found a solution to this problem, and many products now feature the ability to be upgraded remotely, “over the air”. This requires several security mechanisms to be implemented in the product (that are very efficiently improved with Custom Compute solutions, by the way!), and enough performance and capabilities to handle the update process.

Power savings, to be more sober

As highlighted in the report above, about 20% of a mobile phone’s emissions come from its use, and this has a direct impact on the environment. But there is also an indirect effect: as most products are portable nowadays, if they consume a lot of energy, they will have to have a larger battery and maybe even heat dissipation mechanisms. This will likely cause a device to be larger and heavier, hence increasing environmental cost of transportation and packaging, but also use more materials. Therefore, any gain on power consumption leads to further gains down the chain.

Ultimately, in some cases we can even get rid of the battery altogether! Doing away with a lot of chemicals.

Here again, Custom Compute can contribute to help, and we have seen examples of computation where a small addition to a processor core can lead to dramatic reductions in power consumption. Here is an example case study.

One byte at a time

We will help save the planet thanks to a quantity of small actions: from switching off the light behind us to thinking more about sustainability when we design products. It might not seem much, but when multiplied by billions of people, or billions of units for products, it really makes a significant difference.

We give you the tools to implement Custom Compute… it’s up to you to take advantage of this to create amazing products, improving performance, security and reducing energy consumption.

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