“We must start thinking about IT from a sustainability point of view”

27 maj 2021

Earth seen from space covered by a cyber network

Information technology for a sustainable and secure society is the focus of a new research initiative at Uppsala University.

Hi there Carolina Wählby, professor at the Department of Information Technology, where a new research initiative focused on sustainability and security is now starting, with the appointment of five post-docs.

Why are you investing in research into security and sustainability in IT? 

Professor Carolina Wählby at the De-
partment of Information Technology.
Photo: Private

“They’re important areas, as we live in a society in which we’re becoming increasingly dependent on well-functioning IT systems. You only need to think about how restricted you feel when the Internet is down or your phone has run out of battery. IT security plays a hugely important role in everything from social infrastructure to self-driving cars, and here both ill-intentioned people and unexpected events can have catastrophic effects. And we must also start thinking about IT from a sustainability point of view; video streaming alone represents three per cent of the world’s total energy consumption, and it’s growing rapidly.”

After all, we’re spending many more of our waking hours in front of screens of various kinds – is there anything we can do individually as regards using energy-hungry technology more sustainably?

“We’d save some energy if we simply switched off our video cameras and just used the sound function during video meetings. But we are social beings after all. And there’s a lot to consider when it comes to sustainability. We might think electricity is environment-friendly, but our needs are constantly increasing. We’re currently really careless with electricity. Every computer update means more complex software which can raise PC energy consumption, and also tends to generate more Internet traffic. Another thing to think about is all the batteries and the numerous items of equipment for handling and storing electricity – where do the materials come from?

But above all we must see the situation from a systems perspective, and consider how we can compress data and make smart energy savings in the actual data processing. To a large extent, it’s about optimisation, and that's where mathematics and data come in. Can we use IT to optimise solar panels and various types of wind turbines?  Can we use energy directly instead of via batteries? Using batteries always entails losing a certain amount of energy. We can instead be smart and direct the energy to where it’s required on the grid, so that we don’t need to store it. We have an industry that demands a lot of energy, but maybe not all processes need constant energy. One could instead distribute usage over the course of the day, e.g. by carrying out more energy-hungry tasks when people aren’t cooking their dinner.”

These sound like big challenges. From a research standpoint, what would you say is the key to addressing these systemic problems and finding solutions that make a difference?

“As with much of this kind of broad research, you need to combine a host of skills. It does not usually suffice to excel in just one field – you also need to be able to communicate with other experts. Even though we’re talking about research in the field of information technology, this involves broad areas ranging from human–computer interaction to environmental aspects and security issues for different computer systems. For several years we’ve also been running a series of seminars and a forum at which researchers from many different areas have been working together in addressing cybersecurity. We’ve been strong on research in this field for quite some time. One successful research project is Don’t hack my body, which concerns security in relation to medical sensors in the human body. Some of our other researchers are looking into how we can use artificial intelligence to monitor large scale computer systems and identify behaviour patterns that deviate from what is expected.”

You’re seeking five post-docs as part of your new programme. What will they be doing?

“It’s actually pretty broad. If you take a look at the advertisement you’ll see there’s something for everyone who’s curious about the field and has the right background. You need a PhD related to the area as a whole, but we’re otherwise open to many different aspects and perspectives – the greater the diversity, the stronger the research environment and the greater the overall responsibility. We’re hoping to attract a pretty varied team of new researchers – a group that we’re hoping will enjoy and benefit from working together, and will be able to take the research field forward.”