2011 – A look back (part 2)

Computers & the Internet

2011 saw chipmaker Intel unveil its latest generation of microprocessor technology, codenamed Ivy Bridge. These chips – due for retail launch in April 2012 – will be the first to use a 22nm manufacturing process, packing transistors even more densely than the previous 32nm system. For comparison, the width of an average human hair is about 90,000nm.

Later in the year, the company showed off a new accelerator chip running at speeds of 1 teraflop (a trillion calculations per second). This device, dubbed Knights Corner, combined 50 individual processor cores onto a single chip.

British chipmaker ARM – whose designs are used in 95% of the world’s smartphones – revealed a new processor and graphics card, paving the way for cheaper, faster mobiles. The company believes that smartphones could be produced for under £60 ($100) by 2013 or 2014.

In the world of supercomputers, Japan achieved first place on the Top 500 list, ending China’s reign at the top after just six months. Capable of operating at 8.16 petaflops, the K computer was more powerful than the next five systems combined. It later received an upgrade and became the first computer to exceed 10 petaflops.

In Germany, a new physical phenomenon was found that could yield transistors with greatly enhanced capacitance — a measure of the voltage required to move a charge. This may lead to a revival of clock speed as the measure of a computer’s power.

Meanwhile, the first graphene integrated circuit was developed by scientists at IBM. If commercialised, this should continue the exponential trend of Moore’s Law for decades to come.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researchers designed a computer chip that mimics the way a human brain’s neurons adapt in response to new information.

At the University of Illinois, engineers developed self-healing electronics that restore conductivity to damaged circuits.

The first millimetre-scale computing system was developed in 2011 – in the form of a prototype, implantable eye pressure monitor for glaucoma patients. This ultra-compact device packs a microprocessor, pressure sensor, memory, solar cell, thin-film battery and wireless radio into just over a cubic millimetre. It is expected to be commercially available several years from now.

2011 saw breakthroughs in quantum computing. These included the successful controlled entanglement of 14 quantum bits (qubits) – the largest quantum register yet produced. A single chip holding a total of nine quantum devices was also developed.

D-Wave systems claimed to have developed a 128-qubit machine, which they labelled “the world’s first commercially available quantum computer”. However, this claim was disputed by others and received heavy criticism from a number of scientists.

The number of Internet users worldwide reached 2 billion in 2011, with mobile phone users reaching 5 billion. Most of this growth came from emerging economies such as China. The UN declared that Internet access should be a human right.

Facebook, Twitter and other social media continued to grow in popularity and reach. They played a significant role in the organisation and broadcast of protests, riots and other unrest – especially in the Middle East.

The tablet market surged in 2011, with almost 73 million units shipped globally, a staggering 256 percent increase over 2010. Tablets now account for 25.2 percent of the mobile PC market, with market share dominated by the iPad.

The tech world also mourned the loss of Apple pioneer Steve Jobs.

The first complete millimetre-scale computing system. Credit: Gyouho Kim

Energy & the Environment

Climate change received surprisingly little coverage in the mainstream media last year. This was despite the United States facing the most billion-dollar climate disasters ever, with at least 12 distinct disasters costing $52 billion to the economy. Texas, Arizona and New Mexico all experienced the biggest wildfires in recorded history, with Texas being ravaged by an “off the charts” drought and extreme heat.

2011 was an exceptionally destructive and deadly year for tornadoes with 522 fatalities in the US alone – the second highest figure on record. The worst affected city was Joplin, Missouri, which was devastated by winds peaking at 250 mph (402 km/h).

Meanwhile, torrential flooding along the Mississippi River resulted in many counties being declared federal disaster zones. Army Corps were forced to blow up a levee, sacrificing 130,000 acres of farmland to save a small town.

Hurricane Irene left extensive flood and wind damage along its path through the Caribbean, the US East Coast and as far north as Atlantic Canada.

In Africa, extreme drought caused a severe food crisis across Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya – affecting 13 million people. The UN described it as “the worst humanitarian disaster in the world”.

Europe’s second largest river, the Danube, was reduced to a trickle in places, with shrinking water levels exposing bombs and debris from the Second World War. The UK had its second warmest year on record, parts of Norway in November were 5.3°C (9.5°F) above normal, and much of northern Europe had the driest end to a year since records began in 1881.

In Australia, there were record floods, with freak weather causing six inches of rain to fall in just 30 minutes in places.

Thailand suffered major floods – with 12.8 million people affected and nearly 800 fatalities. Thailand is the 2nd largest producer of computer disk drives, accounting for 25% of global production; the resulting disruption to industry led to a worldwide supply shortage and rocketing prices.

In the Philippines, Tropical Storm Washi caused 1,257 fatalities and left over 300,000 homeless.

In the Arctic, sea ice reached its second-lowest extent on record – both for the daily minimum extent and the monthly average. Arctic ice may be thinning up to four times faster than the IPCC’s earlier predictions, according to a new study by MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmosphere, and Planetary Sciences.

Global CO2 emissions jumped by a record amount, more than in the worst-case scenario outlined by climate experts. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 now stand at 392 parts per million, or about 40% higher than pre-industrial levels.

2011 also brought worrying news from Siberia, where scientists reported seeing vast plumes of methane bubbling upward.

The Earth’s surface is undeniably warming – according to a detailed new analysis called the Berkeley Earth Project (which was, ironically, funded by the Koch brothers).

Furthermore, new research suggests that at least three-quarters of the rise in average global temperatures since the 1950s is due to human industrial activity.

According to an American Physical Society report, technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are unlikely to offer an economically feasible way to slow human-driven climate change for several decades.

2011 was also notable for continuing high food prices, though they declined slightly towards the end of the year.

Aside from climate change, 2011 was also an exceptional year for earthquakes. By far the most damaging was the 9.0 magnitude quake in Japan, triggering a tsunami which caused the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. 15,844 were confirmed dead, with 125,000 buildings damaged or destroyed, around 4.4 million households left without electricity and 1.5 million without water. The World Bank put the economic cost at $235 billion, making it the most expensive natural disaster in world history.

All in all, 2011 was an extremely bad year for the environment. There were reasons to be positive, however, as global deployment of solar PV continued to grow exponentially. In fact, solar is now the fastest growing industry in America. One prominent futurist, Ray Kurzweil, has even gone so far as to claim that solar will continue on this exponential path and could solve all our energy and environmental needs by 2028. Whether this bold and almost utopian prediction has any merit remains to be seen.

2 Responses to “2011 – A look back (part 2)”

  1. Trey Says:

    I love this site. Thank you for posting the “A look back” articles. It’s very interesting and it is an awakening. The environmental changes are scary.

  2. jV Says:

    thank you for this site, love it!

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