«Our digital life has unquestionable energy and infrastructure needs»

20 October, 2022
Image courtesy of Cristina Cano and Hug March

Interviewing Cristina Cano (from Wireless Networks Research group) and Hug March (from TURBA Lab)

In today’s rapidly digitizing world, hyperconnectivity has become almost necessary across all facets of life, both inside and outside the workplace. Mobile devices, automation and the Internet of Things are the most evident examples of this trend, which is bound to intensify over time. However, we must be wary of hyperconnectivity, as it also poses countless challenges, especially considering what it means for society, the environment and energy consumption. 

Cristina Cano Bastidas, researcher from the IN3’s research group Wireless Networks (WINE) and Hug March Corbella, from the IN3’s research group Urban Transformation & Global Change Laboratory (TURBA Lab). The former at the Faculty of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications and the latter at the Faculty of Economics and Business. Currently, they are studying the possible environmental impact of hyperconnectivity and the future imaginaries surrounding it. 

Where is connectivity today and how is it evolving towards hyperconnectivity?

For years now we’ve been growing more and more connected. Looking back, and not so many years ago, the idea of watching a video in the underground was unthinkable. If we jump back a little further, it was even unthinkable to have a mobile device on us at all times. The connectivity offered by mobile communications and other technologies, such as Wi-Fi and the Internet of Things, has become much stronger, enabling uses that were unimaginable just a few decades ago. 

Recent technological developments, such as 5G and 6G, are designed to increase this connectivity even further, seamlessly integrating the physical and virtual worlds. Some of the uses proposed are scenarios in which humans interact on a daily basis in virtual environments such as the metaverse. Another proposed innovation that this hyperconnectivity aims to allow is the massive use of digital twins, which are detailed virtual copies of our environment. These can be used to simulate future scenarios and to interact with the real world to make adjustments to them. Examples of these applications already exist, but it is projected for them to be used globally and interconnectedly. 

What social and environmental benefits will hyperconnectivity offer? 

 Hyperconnectivity has many potential benefits. For one thing, it can bring people closer together. The more realistic our digital interaction is, the closer we may feel to each other even if we’re far away. For example, one of the advances being worked on is a way to effectively transmit the sense of touch. This could have benefits not only in a relationship sense, but could also enable levels of telemedicine that were unthinkable until now.

 With respect to the environment, hyperconnectivity drives digitization, which in turn can reshape certain production and consumption processes, including aspects such as changes in mobility (e.g. working from home, less commuting, fewer business trips). In this way, it could lead to greater resource efficiency across a number of sectors and production processes, or it may provide insights into how certain resources are consumed (water, energy, etc.) and promote better demand management. 

Even so, all these potential benefits (only a fraction of them are described here) are the topic of considerable debate, as the pairing of hyperconnectivity/digitization and reduced environmental impacts can lead to unexpected outcomes. For example, there may be environmental trade-offs, where one environmental dimension improves at the expense of another; it could trigger rebound effects, whereby greater efficiency can lead to higher aggregate consumption of the resource in question; or more generally, it could change the social and environmental relations of production and consumption with an unforeseen consequence on the environment.

Meanwhile, the aim of digital twins is to interact with the physical world to make it more efficient and prevent unnecessary resource consumption. There is even talk of leveraging hyperconnectivity to better track material supply chains and agricultural and food production. 

In short, there are many potential social and environmental benefits, and they are wide-ranging, but as mentioned, there is uncertainty as to how these benefits will take shape. 

What about the risks?

The biggest risk is to unreflexibly embrace overly techno-optimistic views. Assuming that digitization is the solution to the climate emergency and all our environmental crises is too reductionist a perspective and one that doesn’t take into account possible undesired effects. 

Likewise, it’s important to consider not only how technology can help us socially and environmentally (although there is no consensus on this), but also what problems the technology raises.

When it comes to hyperconnectivity, we are neglecting the energy and material costs of putting in place the infrastructure needed to provide all these services. The manufacture of a base station accounts for 10% to 36% of its lifetime energy consumption and requires rare minerals and other materials whose extraction and processing raise significant geopolitical issues. 

Plus, the more services and the more demand, the greater the need for data centres and energy infrastructure. To give you an idea of the material implications, Bitcoin, for example, uses as much energy as most small countries in the world. Our digital life seems completely immaterial, but it has unquestionable energy and infrastructure needs. 

Has the environmental cost of developing hyperconnectivity been quantified?

The environmental cost is difficult to quantify, as it includes multiple dimensions and operates at a different times and geographical scales. Some of these costs are quantified, such as the energy cost of manufacturing a base station as mentioned above. However, there are many aspects to consider and different ways of measuring these costs, which is why we often get very wide ranges. Note that, as we mentioned before, the estimated energy consumption of manufacturing a base station is between 10% and 36% of its lifetime energy consumption, so there’s a significant margin of error. 

Moreover, some environmental costs are difficult to quantify accurately because their impacts have multiple dimensions that can not be translated into a single dimension. For example, extracting material and energy resources to make these technological assemblages possible can have impacts on local communities with different valuation languages (cultural values related to the landscape, productive values of subsistence, etc.). Plus, these impacts can affect future generations (climate change is a clear example of this). 

Photography by Camilo Jimenez on Unsplash.com
Photography by Camilo Jimenez on Unsplash.com

What solutions are being put forward by the technology sector to avoid these risks? In your opinion, are they enough or is more research needed?

The technology sector’s focus is on reducing the consumption of the operating network. In other words, if more data demand is expected, the network’s consumption will increase unless mechanisms to reduce this consumption are put in place. The sector is working on these mechanisms to reduce consumption. In recent years, it has done a very good job in this regard, ensuring that consumption doesn’t increase despite the increased traffic demand that these networks are serving. However, we can not be sure that this trend will continue, especially considering the increase in connectivity that’s being encouraged. 

The sector acknowledges other issues, especially those associated with the material needs of hyperconnectivity, but little work is being done to address them in the actual design of future applications and scenarios; or in the technological solutions themselves. 

For example, in order to achieve higher data rates and therefore enable demanding applications such as virtual reality, the use of higher frequencies is being considered. These allow faster data rates, but propagate less well and therefore require a higher number of base stations per area. Other solutions are not being explored and no one is questioning whether the focus should even be on continually increasing the data rate. 

Should hyperconnectivity be left to the market and the technology sector alone, or should society – through policies and/or social organizations – play a part in developing it from a more social angle?

This is a crucial point, but we do not have a clear answer. What we do believe is vital is that there should be greater citizen control over issues that are central to the future of society. Naturally, this implies having institutions that understand these benefits and risks and, at the same time, take a democratic stand on the most desirable courses of technological development. Obviously, this does not mean that the market and private innovation should not play a key role, but our position is that there have to be specific frameworks of operation and this, as in other core dimensions of social reproduction, has to emerge from democratic debate and be subject to public scrutiny.

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