Could the internet be driven by climate-friendly ‘natural intelligence’? Global Network of Solar Powered Servers Shows How – YubaNet


The power demands of the internet and the devices and systems they use and the servers they support are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those of the global airline industry, and this carbon cost is rapidly increasing with the expansion of blockchain-powered transactions: the carbon footprint of a single Ethereum transaction is equivalent to nearly 329,000 credit card transactions.

A new project, Solar Protocol, developed by a team of researchers at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, aims to shed light on how this worldwide trade of data via the Web is a major consumer of energy and a driver of climate change, and present a potential solution.

Map of 24 hour sun exposure in each solar powered grid server from Solar Protocol. Credit: Tega Brain, Benedetta Piantella

On Tuesday, March 15, 2022, the project, initially supported by the Eyebeam Rapid Response Program for a Better Digital Future, and the Digital Infrastructure Incubator Code for Science & Society, received Mozilla Creative Media Award From Mozilla, which supports the health of the Internet by developing open source technologies in areas such as online privacy, inclusion, and decentralization. Mozilla presents the award to people and projects that demonstrate how to reimagine data in a way that moves power away from large technology platforms and toward individuals and communities.

It was developed by NYU Tandon Professors of Technology, Culture, and Society Teja Brin, who is also an Assistant Professor of Integrated Digital Media Industry, and Benedita Pintella, a member of the Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP); and Associate Professor Alex Nathanson, Solar Protocol consists of a web platform hosted across a network of solar-powered servers set up in locations around the world. Besides being a practical system with implications for future servers, it constitutes a global installation that highlights web policies and different ways of tracking web traffic.

In stark contrast to large-scale, high-volume web services that computationally route network traffic to whichever server gives the fastest response time, usually the closest geographic time, the Solar Protocol, with about ten server nodes run by volunteers around the world, uses Sun interaction With earth as the cornerstone. How the sun shapes daily behaviors, seasonal activities, and decision-making for nearly all life becomes the ‘logic’ used to automate decisions in the digital network.

“The Solar Protocol is a great opportunity for us as artists to highlight climate change issues and how technology is driving this,” Brin said. “The project has stimulated conversations about artificial intelligence and automation, since user movement within the grid is determined by solar energy, so we are using intelligence from natural and dynamic versus a data-driven machine learning model; it’s an alternative proposition. Why not think about planetary boundaries? as intelligence? After all, they will shape the future of life on Earth whether we like it or not”

The network takes into account the fact that servers, each powered by photovoltaic cells, are located in different time zones and seasons, with exposure to different sunlight and weather systems, and direct internet traffic to wherever the sun shines. When a browser requests to see a Solar Protocol website, it is sent to which server in the network is generating the most power.

“This is by no means an alternative to the Internet, so the goal here is not to scale it up. But we are deploying the system as an open standard, which means, in theory, anyone could launch a similar network — say, a network of art museums,” Piantella said.

Brin noted that the project also addresses the language of the Internet, and how we talk about it in terms that suggest it has nothing to do with the concrete reality of our physical environment.

“We talk about the internet as the cloud, for example, and we tend to use the language of magic to describe it, and it has nothing to do with how abundant the resources really are,” she said. “So the people who are involved in the project as server maintainers, they become intimately connected with its physical reality, and what it takes to set up a sun-powered server. You start making different design decisions; you think about planetary boundaries and you rethink internet policies.”

Kofi Yeboah, Creative Media Awards Program Officer at Mozilla, added, “In our connected world, conversations about power, about inclusion and exclusion, and about ownership often boil down to one thing: data. The way data is collected, managed, and trained on AI systems impacts the lives of billions of people. .but that impact is often invisible.Creative media awards like Solar Protocol make the invisible visible and reveal how data can affect everything from the environment to personal safety.The Creative Media Awards also offer a way forward, modeling ways in which the management of data better to empower people and societies.”

There is an educational component of the project through the VIP (Vertical Integrated Projects) initiative at NYU Tandon, allowing students to participate in the analysis of the network’s functional cycle.

Solar Protocol includes many collaborators from a range of societies, including faculty in Chile, the arts, and cultural and community organizations in multiple regions and indigenous territories in the Caribbean, Australia and Kenya.

The history of the NYU Tandon School of Engineering dates back to 1854, the founding date of both the NYU School of Civil Engineering and Architecture and the Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute. The January 2014 merger created a comprehensive school of education and research in engineering and applied sciences as part of a global university, with close links to engineering programs at NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU Shanghai. NYU Tandon is rooted in a vibrant tradition of entrepreneurship, intellectual curiosity, and innovative solutions to humanity’s most pressing global challenges. Research at Tandon focuses on the critical intersections between communications/IT, cybersecurity, data science/artificial intelligence systems/robots and tools and critical areas of society that they affect, including emerging media, health, sustainability, and urban living. We believe diversity is integral to excellence, and creates a vibrant, inclusive and equitable environment for all of our students, faculty, and staff. For more information visit Engineering.nyu.edu.