I’m not big into computer games, and it’s been forever since I bought a computer. So, I was surprised to learn that a new regulation on computers in Colorado, as well as in several other Western, Democratically controlled states, has put an upper limit on computer power in order to conserve energy.
As a result, computer giant Dell won’t ship certain powerful gaming-computer models to Colorado, California, and some other states.
As it mentions in a 2015 report, in order to meet demand for faster processors, the main design trend for computer chips since their inception has been toward more power. Taking the analogy of a car, in order to make it go faster, we’ve not worried so far about making them lighter, more streamlined, or more efficient. We’ve only been working on beefing up the engine; we’ve dumped more input energy into the system to get more performance.
As more and more people demand devices that run faster, and demand internet access and server space, we will approach a point where our hungry chips’ demand for power is going to outstrip our ability to supply it.
How will we meet this challenge?
If it’s a mismatch of supply and demand, it strikes me as pretty simple in principle. If demand for computing power maintains its current rate of increase, we have to figure out a way to wring the same performance out of less energy, increase our supply of energy, decrease our use of energy in other sectors of our economy. We could also decrease our demand for computing, or some combination of any and all. Each of these solutions are viable and reasonable ways to meet the challenge.
What our state has chosen to do, is, in my opinion, not the best way. In the grand tradition of those that see the government as the solution to every problem, they’ve used government power to step in and tell you what you can and can’t buy; they’ve told dealerships that they can stock all the Geo Metros they want, but they better not have any Dodge Vipers on the floor!
How many government regulations were needed to keep people from having multiple muscle cars with 450 engines and hemis getting 1 mpg? Hardly any by my measure. The price of gasoline mostly made that decision.
I don't see chips differently. As the demand for power goes up, the price will go up. When that happens, people will get clever and find a way to make computing use less power. Maybe they might even convince policy makers to allow more power plants to be built so we have more power at a lower price.
As long as we’re dreaming, I think we might even have to admit that it’s possible that, even without government intervention telling them what to do, high prices will make people figure out that they didn't need to demand as much computing as they have; I mean, do we really need Wi-Fi-enabled refrigerators?
We should be putting our time, money, and attention into incentivizing research, not using the cudgel of government to hit people over the head and tell them what they can and can't buy. Having all the Western progressive states band together to do that won't solve the problem we face. It just makes our lives harder and lets other states and countries capitalize on the innovation they spur.
Cory Gaines is a physics instructor at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling. He runs the Colorado Accountability Project on Facebook and lives for what Richard P. Feynman called “the pleasure of finding things out.”