Hurricane Sandy’s power outages have certainly provided perspective on the progress of consumer electronics. Though lithium-ion batteries are more capacious than ever, the gadgets they power are more voracious, too. It seems we’re hardly better off in a crisis.
In the ideal case, you’d be able to lobotomize your device to dumb or dumber: a plain cellphone with just enough on the ball to handle email. The standard in frugality is set by the humble pager, which needs just 90 and 70 mW to send and receive email, respectively.
Compare that to a smart phone, in which the ravenous display alone sucks around 400 mW. The non-display parts are none too frugal, either. In a 2010 analysis Aaron Carroll and Gernot Heiser of the University of New South Wales, in Australia, found that those parts of a Samsung 2.5-G phone, the Openmoko Neo Freerunner, needed 610 mW to send an email message over the GPRS system—the telephonic one that you must resort to when you haven’t got WiFi. That figure drops to 302.2 mW when sending a text message.
How can phones and laptops be designed with emergency conservation in mind? If you’re into full-survival mode, you might want to prearrange for your phone to turn off its display and be dead to all but the most basic telephonic signals. You might send a single text message to a pre-arranged set of phone numbers saying: “I am alive and can receive text messages, but I will turn on the display to read them only every few hours. If you absolutely, positively must reach me immediately, send the following text to my number, and it will sound an alarm.”
This idea, refined considerably, is the gist of a 2011 proposal by Peter Cole, Suwannit Chareen and Hong Xie of the school of information technology at Murdoch University, in Perth Australia. (Hmm. Why are the Australians so prominent in disaster planning, seeing as they live on the most geologically stable part of the planet?) To allow a phone to save power by going idle, thus deactivating circuits that handle signals from many different systems—4G, 3G, Wi-Fi, and so forth, the engineers suggest what they call a Wireless Interface Notification and Activation system, which would send emergency signals to phones that activated only the relevant wireless interface, which could then a message.
Of course, such a system would have the added advantage of making a charge last longer even when there’s no particular emergency. That means it could attract customers in times of plenty, while protecting them in times of want.
Meanwhile, those living in Sandy’s wake can do a little lobotomization by hand. First off, dim your display, the power hog par excellence. Next, turn off Wifi (probably useless anyway). Then revert to 3G- from your 4-G network, and so on. Just strip away the smarts, much as Dave the astronaut did when he disabled Hal, the insane computer, in “2001: A Space Odyssey”—
“Dave, my mind is going,” pleaded Hal. “I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I'm a... fraid.”
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.