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April 30, 2012

Bits Are Cheaper Than Atoms

Robert Gelber

With the world’s population now above the 7 billion mark, there are concerns that planetary resources are running scarce, possibly leading to devastating results.

While this data points to serious challenges, entrepreneur Bill Gross carries a different mindset.  Last week, he wrote an article in Technology Review pointing to compute power as the best resource to support not only the current population, but also the expected 9 billion humans in 2050.

To back his argument, Gross refers to the rising cost of resources, including oil, water, aluminum, wood, and so on. However, while costs continue to rise for these commodities, the cost of compute resources is declining. He believes this will eventually lead people to choose compute power over physical resources.  Writes Gross:

This will happen as people ask: To achieve my purpose (in designing whatever device or system), can I use more ‘atoms’ or more ‘bits’ (computation power)? The choice will have to be bits, because atoms are going up in price while bits are going down.

One example he gives is the use of computational fluid dynamics for vehicle design. Instead of building physical prototypes of cars and testing their aerodynamics in a wind tunnel, manufacturers can simulate the cars and their behavior in a computer in order to refine their designs before fabrication.  That approach saves both power and material costs.

Gross is hopeful the dropping price of compute power will also lead to the replacement of fossil fuels. He points out the irony that most energy costs are the result of transporting fuel from its source location. Through the use of information technology, sustainable energy sources can be developed that are cheap enough to compete with non-renewable energy.  


As the price of essential non-renewable commodities and energy increases, computational power can provide a counterweight to reduce our dependency on those resources, and at a fraction of the power costs. Even though the IT industry has become sensitive to its own growing demand for power, with the right applications, computers can be used to lower energy consumption across the economy in aggregate. Green computing by any other name.

Full story at Technology Review