Increasing the lifespan of electronic devices

Tuesday, 21 November, 2023

Increasing the lifespan of electronic devices

To address the waste of electrical and electronic equipment, researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Pittsburgh have received $600,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation Design for Environmental Sustainability in Computing (DESC) program. The funding will enable the researchers to develop technological innovation and environmental sustainability in computer systems.

While retrofitting devices can be a challenge, researchers see promise in novel learning-enabled cyber-physical systems (LE-CPSs) to build flexibility into hardware and thereby increase lifespan, reduce e-waste and improve sustainability. Qi Zhu, principal investigator at Northwestern University, said that retrofitting technology could have tremendous benefits to society. Zhu, along with co-investigator Jingtong Hu, noted that retrofitting could be quite challenging, especially for emerging LE-CPSs such as autonomous vehicles, medical devices and robots, which often operate within a constantly changing physical environment, have limited resources and stringent timing requirements, and employ complex and resource-consuming machine learning techniques.

“When Alan Moore, the co-founder of Intel, first postulated in 1965 that the number of transistors on computer chips would double every two years, he thought it would remain constant for at least a decade. Here we are almost 60 years later, and this trend continues while devices become more powerful and energy-efficient. And yet, if we look back over those six decades, we see that it has been easier and cheaper to throw technology away or recycle what components we can, even though the overall device is still in good shape. From phones and computers to other technology, we can no longer economically or environmentally afford to cut short their realistic lifespans,” Zhu said.

Hu added that swapping out parts for a retrofit is not always economical; however, if flexibility is designed into the software and hardware architecture, a more adaptive device can be created with a longer lifespan. “This is where FLEX comes into play — ‘futureproofing’ a device by using a cross-layer framework that on the one hand makes the existing architecture more accommodating to changes and on the other hand makes their functionality more adaptive with respect to resource limitations and environment changes,” Hu said.

The funding will also enable the researchers to explore multiple designs of neural networks to provide a more adaptive system and to develop on-device continual learning algorithms that allow a system to accommodate changes without physically swapping out hardware.

“Although recycling programs for technology have improved over the past few years, there is still so much hardware that is illegally junked, incinerated or dumped in third-world countries without the infrastructure to safely process it. If we can integrate flexible adaptivity into our devices, we can reduce this waste and make our technology more sustainable,” Zhu said.

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