NSF Grant to Develop Carbon ‘Nutrition Labels’ for a Sustainable Internet of Things

Josiah Hester sits at a desk in an electronics lab at Georgia Tech with an array of prototype projects and test equipment in front of him.

Edge devices, such as wearables, cameras, smartphones, and smart home devices, have become the foundation of our daily interactions with technology. But the exponential growth in the number of these devices comes at a significant environmental cost, currently accounting for more than a third of the 4% of global carbon emissions attributed to information and communication technologies. This ecological impact is projected to worsen as the number of edge devices surges into trillions over the next few decades.

Josiah Hester, associate professor in the College of Computing, along with researchers from Cornell and Harvard Universities, has received a $2 million grant from the newly established Design for Environmental Sustainability in Computing program at the National Science Foundation. The investigators aim to study and mitigate the environmental impact of edge computing devices. Their winning project will make carbon and sustainability a first-order design parameter for future edge computing devices that range from tiny, energy-harvesting Internet of Things devices — often found in manufacturing lines, cars, agriculture, and cities — to higher performance consumer electronics like tablets and smartphones.

As part of the research, investigators will capture a first-of-its-kind dataset on actual emissions and resource usage of complex fabrication processes, build and validate tools for carbon-aware design, and establish an Electronic Sustainability Record for edge devices, similar to nutrition labels for food, or a digital health record, that allows consumers and manufacturers to understand the carbon costs of computing devices and use that in decision-making. The grant proposal was catalyzed through the Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems Initiative Leads program, with additional funds from the Institute for Data Engineering and Science.

“Right now, hardware designers, programmers, and consumers have only a vague idea of the actual carbon cost of the phone, wearable, or smart device they are working with. With rising e-waste and technology’s increasing contributions to climate change, we have to figure out how to do better. This project will lay the foundations for edge devices that can last for decades, or at least have a lifetime commensurate with the carbon cost, potentially reducing e-waste, emissions, and environmental footprint,” said Hester. “Our design tools, new datasets, and carbon models will consider factors like energy, e-waste, and water usage from the manufacturing of computational devices, as well as operational carbon footprint from factors like machine learning and software lifecycles.”

With the grant money, Hester’s team will develop an end-to-end framework that prioritizes environmental impact, while considering user experience, performance, and efficiency when designing edge devices. The framework, which they are calling Delphi, will enable sustainable technological growth by laying out a path for the design of environmentally conscious edge devices with substantially longer lifecycles.
“Eventually, this research could lead to a kind of ‘nutrition label’ for computing devices, like your phone, to empower consumers with data to make more sustainability-friendly purchasing and use decisions,” Hester said. “This could incentivize and enable hardware companies to build lower carbon devices meant to last for many years, versus trading up after a contract renewal. We have a long way to go before this is reality, but this project will lay foundational steps in data collection, model building, and design tools — a sustainable vision of edge computing.”

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Brent Verrill, Research Communications Program Manager, BBISS