“Solar Protocol is a great opportunity for us to foreground issues of climate change and how technology is driving it.”
Internet usage comes with a giant carbon footprint because of all the energy needed to power servers, systems, computers and other devices. Worse: as we come to rely increasingly on the Internet in our lives, that carbon footprint is going to grow.
Enter Solar Protocol, a new project that offers a solution to how to limit carbon emissions while using the Internet.
Developed by researchers at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, the project runs a web platform that is hosted on a dozen volunteer-run and solar-powered servers worldwide from the Caribbean to Africa to Australia.
“Besides being a workable system with implications for future servers, it constitutes a global installation that spotlights the politics of the web and different ways to track web traffic,” its creators explain.
Unlike high-volume web services that automatically direct network traffic to a server that responds to a request in the fastest way, Solar Protocol’s system relies on the sun’s interaction with the Earth as its guiding operational method.
Because the solar-powered servers are located in different time zones with different seasons, different levels of sun exposure and different weather systems, the system directs Internet traffic to servers where the sun is shining at any one time. As a result, when a user of the Solar Protocol website accesses it, it is always the server in the network that is generating the most energy from solar power that responds.
“Solar Protocol is a great opportunity for us to foreground issues of climate change and how technology is driving it,” says Tega Brain, a professor of Technology Culture and Society who was one of the project’s developers.
“The project has catalyzed conversations about AI and automation, since in-network user traffic is decided 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 of planetary limits as intelligence? After all, they will shape the future of life on earth whether we like it or not,” Brain elucidates.
Although the project is still in its initial phase, it could serve as a model for other environmentally conscious Internet projects, its developers say.
“This is in no way an alternative to the internet, so the goal here is not to scale it up,” says Benedetta Piantella, who works at the NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress. “But we are publishing the system as an open standard, which means, theoretically, anyone could launch a similar network — say, a network of art museums.”