Perpetual Computing Is Coming, And It Will Impact Self-Driving Cars

Dr. Lance Eliot, AI Insider

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[Ed. Note: For reader’s interested in Dr. Eliot’s ongoing business analyses about the advent of self-driving cars, see his online Forbes column:]

Perpetual computing.

It’s a new and upcoming area that we’ll be all thinking about in the next several years.

Imagine a computer that could run perpetually.

In fact, when you consider the matter, what is it that usually would stop a computer from running perpetually?

Other than the notion that it might breakdown from wear-and-tear or exhaustion, the other factor would most likely be electrical power. A computer that runs all of the time will need electrical power all of the time. Electrical power is typically a scarce and costly resource.

I’m betting that if you have a desktop computer, it is plugged into an electrical socket and thus you rarely consider how much electrical power it needs (when it is plugged in, your computer is considered “tethered” since it is physically connected with the electrical socket).

If you have a laptop, I’d wager that you do pay attention to electrical power and have found yourself scrambling to find a place to plug-in your laptop before it runs out of power. For your smartphone, you certainly have experienced the same kind of anxiety about watching how much power is left and clamoring to find a way to recharge the battery that is in the cell phone.

Consider the world once the Internet of Things (IoT) has really taken off.

There are going to be tons and tons of small IoT devices that will be attached to walls, attached to doors, attached to appliances in your home, and all over the place. Some analysts claim that by the year 2020 there will be around 200 billion IoT devices and by the year 2030 a total of perhaps 1 trillion IoT devices. This already vast trillion number could increase to 10 trillion by the year 2040.

Let’s assume that most of those IoT devices are powered by a battery.

Have you ever been annoyed at having to change the batteries in your home smoke alarm?

You usually only have a few of those devices in your home. Pretend that you have dozens, maybe hundreds of small-scale IoT devices in your home, all of which are powered by tiny batteries. How often will you need to be changing those batteries? It could almost become a full-time job of each day walking around your house and changing batteries. Maybe we’ll christen a new job for homes and businesses that provides employment for people that will change the batteries in your IoT devices.

There must be a better way to attend to the power needs of all of these ubiquitous IoT devices.

By the way, having a vast number of IoT devices is often referred to as ubiquitous computing, meaning that it is computer related devices that are all around us and everywhere.

Another way to describe this trend is to call it pervasive computing.

Pervasive in this context means the same thing as ubiquitous.

Don’t confuse though pervasive computing with perpetual computing.

Pervasive just means there are a lot of computing devices, while perpetual computing means that there are some computing devices will be able to run perpetually without stopping.

Though these always-on tiny devices will hopefully be beneficial, it is important to also consider the privacy concerns that they raise, along with the security related apprehensions.

Harvesting Energy To Satisfy Perpetual Computing

How can we provide electrical power to these ubiquitous untethered computer devices and do so without the hassle and logistical nightmare of having to walk around and change their batteries?

We might instead undertake energy harvesting.

If possible, an untethered computing device might try to scavenge energy from its surroundings.

One obvious means is the use of solar energy.

If the computing device is outfitted with a mini-solar panel, this might provide sufficient energy to keep the device going perpetually. You need to always consider the amount of effort required to get the energy and thus make sure that the energy harvesting is “profitable” (if it takes more energy to snatch energy, you end-up with a net negative that does you little good).

There are some promising research efforts that provide a multitude of other ways to harvest energy from the environment in which the computing device resides.

You might be able to use thermal gradients and the differences in air temperature to provide power to a computing device.

You might be able to use magnetic fields to power a computing device.

The WiFi that you are using in your home or office for making electronic communications can become a power source by having computing devices that rake in the RF waves and turn those into electrical power.

It is anticipated that via miniaturization, we’ll see that IoT devices keep getting smaller and smaller in size, and are able to rely entirely on energy harvesting via nearby vibrations, sound waves, chemical reactions, light waves, motion elements, and the like.

Smart Dust Coming Your Way

These tiny and always-on IoT devices will be so small and so prevalent that some say we will refer to them as “smart dust.”

Another consideration involves how much storage capacity the computing device has for the storage of the energy collected.

Does the computing device have enough energy storage capacity to survive during times when there is insufficient energy to be harvested nearby?

If the computing device has essentially no energy storage capacity, it means that it “lives” off the energy harvesting and needs to be harvesting continually and hope that there is energy there to be harvested.

The ambient energy sources might be unpredictable. Here in sunny Southern California, you would assume that any kind of solar powered device would always have plenty of sunshine to draw power from. Unfortunately, I’ve gone on hikes in the woods with some of my hiking gear dependent upon solar power and they’ve gotten depleted during a hike, regrettably due to not enough sun energy striking the solar panels to keep the units powered. I’m sure it’s worse in climates that don’t have the kind of always-on sunshine like we do.

When you first deploy any kind of IoT device, it usually comes pre-charged up.

What you don’t necessarily know is how long will that initial charge last?

There is an initial energy allotment when the device is first deployed and depending on how the computing device functions, it might last a long time on that initial supply or it might run out quickly.

You’ve maybe found out from time-to-time that when you buy a child’s toy that comes with a battery included, sometimes the toy maker will include a super-cheap battery that holds almost no charge at all. This keeps down their costs in terms of what is included into the toy and allows that it will at least work the moment you get home. Pretty soon though, after taking the toy out of the box and having your child play with it, the next thing you know it has run out of power and you need to replace the cheapo batteries with more robust ones.

For some of the IoT makers, they might do the same thing. They might include a low-end super-cheap battery so that the IoT computing device works for a short while, and then it runs out. If the computing device is one that is trying to make use of perpetual computing, it would switch right away into a mode of harvesting energy and not need to dip into the initial charge, or it might be able to recharge the initial charge, doing so on its own while harvesting.

If we don’t find ways to achieve perpetual computing, it implies that you might eventually end-up with IoT devices all around your home and work that are just sitting there and doing nothing at all, because they’ve run out of power and it is too troublesome to try and replace their batteries. That’s likely a sad waste of those devices, and it also creates a clutter.

Some are especially worried that there will become a mindset of simply throwing away IoT devices that run out of power. Consider the millions and billions of IoT devices that might get discarded, fouling up our reclamation capabilities and likely polluting our waters and earth. If the IoT was able to harvest power, presumably people would be more likely to hang onto it and make use of it.

At conferences, I often discuss perpetual computing and some people seem to think that perpetual computing equates with having perpetual motion machines.

Nope, that’s a misnomer.

I don’t think anyone of a reasonable mind would consider a computing device that can run “perpetually” due to harvesting power from its environment is the same as a perpetual motion machine. A perpetual motion machine is one that once set into motion will continue in motion, forever, and does so without adding any additional energy into it. In the case of perpetual computing, we are straight out saying that the device will be adding energy to it, doing so in at times clever ways from its environment, but nonetheless it is not a free ride akin to what a perpetual motion machine promises.

We also need to be practical and consider that eventually these computing devices are going to wear out.

The word “perpetual” needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Assuming that the perpetual computing device can really always glean sufficient energy from its surroundings, one way or another that device is ultimately going to falter or fail due to some kind of mechanical breakdown. The device might last many years, but it won’t last until the end of time (well, unless you are predicting the end of time is coming sooner than I hope it will!).

AI Autonomous Cars And Perpetual Computing

What does this have to do with AI self-driving cars?

At the Cybernetic AI Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI software for self-driving cars. It will be interesting to see how perpetual computing comes to play regarding the advent of AI self-driving cars.

First, it certainly would be tremendous if somehow the self-driving car itself could harvest energy from its surroundings, thus no longer being “tethered” to having to go to a gasoline station for a refill and not needing to be connected to a charger for an EV (Electrical Vehicle).

One means of providing energy consists of solar panels on a self-driving car.

Right now, the energy derived would be insufficient to fully run the self-driving car. You also need to take into account the size of the solar panels and their weight, which then impacts the car design and shape. As per my earlier comments, even if this could be perfected you would then still have the unpredictable nature of the solar energy that might be available and also in some parts of the world you would barely have use for this approach for most of the year.

I am not counting out the solar route and just saying that until there are more breakthroughs in terms of their size, shape, and energy harvesting capability, it is unlikely to do much for self-driving cars other than to act as a mild add-on for potentially providing some limited amount of energy generation.

Another means to gain energy would be via regenerative braking.

Your car brakes can be used to convert kinetic energy into electrical power. In essence, you are recovering energy that would otherwise be tossed away by the brakes as heat. Instead, you take the friction and put it to a more useful purpose, namely helping to power the self-driving car.

Similar to the issue about the solar panels, right now the use of regenerative braking can only supply a rather small amount of electrical power. It is not going to be enough to run the self-driving car. In any case, it is something to be watched and will ultimately likely be a handy contributor to the power needs of the self-driving car.

Akin to the conversion of kinetic energy with the brakes, you can also make tires that are embedded with nanogenerators and have those specialized tires generate electrical power from the roadway friction. Right now, your tires are creating friction as they come in contact with the roadway surface, but your car is just tossing away that potential energy. Harvesting it will help provide some energy to the self-driving car, though again a rather minor amount and be insufficient to truly power-up the self-driving car.

There are lots of other ideas out there about this matter.

Maybe we would have along our roadways various magnetic generator boxes that the self-driving car could grab energy from as it whooshes past the boxes on the highway. Perhaps the self-driving car could make use of temperature gradients to try to harvest energy. And so on.

For now, I’ll say that you cannot hold your breath that any of these approaches will in the near-term arise sufficiently to be able to fully power an AI self-driving car.

They will each be handy supplemental sources of energy, but not “the” source.

Consider The Sensors As Perpetual Computing Devices

We ought to then return to the notion that perpetual computing will likely consist of very small IoT devices that have a built-in energy harvester.

The energy harvest has to be tiny too, since otherwise it would bulk-up the IoT device. The weight of the energy harvester element also has to be relatively low, since it would make the IoT device hefty and heavy.

This could be handy for the sensors of the AI self-driving car.

Right now, we are assuming that the sensory devices on an AI self-driving car will all be powered by the AI self-driving car per se.

Suppose though that some of the sensors could provide their own power?

This would then cause less of a drain on the self-driving car and reduce its need to generate the tremendous amount of power required to run all of the sensory devices (of which there will be many included onto and into a self-driving car).

You might then more readily be able to add more sensors to the AI self-driving car too.

Knowing that they can harvest their own energy means that it relieves the self-driving car of having to do so. Of course, the downside involves the chance that the sensor is not able to harvest energy when needed and the sensor goes blank, such as if the self-driving car is doing 80 miles per hour on the freeway and the sensor is supposed to be providing key readings to the AI system on-board the self-driving car but runs out of power.

One approach would be to tie the perpetual computing devices into the electrical power of the AI self-driving car, and yet only have those devices draw power from the self-driving car when they otherwise are not able to grab sufficient energy from their surroundings on their own. Indeed, you could have a two-way flow, involving the perpetual computing devices not only drawing energy from the self-driving car when needed, but also possibly pouring energy into the AI self-driving car if the device is able to grab more energy than itself needs to function.

Another aspect of self-driving cars will be the number and variety of IoT devices included in the self-driving car by the automaker, along with the numerous IoT devices that passengers will bring with them into an AI self-driving car. These IoT devices might need to tap into the electrical reserves of the self-driving car to be able to run. On the other hand, if they are able to be perpetual computing devices, they might be able to harvest energy on their own and not bother using up the power of the self-driving car (plus, possibly even be able to contribute their “excess” energy to the self-driving car).

V2X Electronic Communications Importance

Some have speculated that perhaps via V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle communications) there will be an opportunity for self-driving cars to not only share electronic communications but also share energy.

While your AI self-driving car is on the highway, it might be immersed in heavy traffic and other self-driving cars nearby are sharing roadway traffic info via V2V with your self-driving car. At the same time, it could be that the V2V allows your self-driving car to grab some of the excess energy generated via the V2V, and the energy can be plowed back into the electrical power reserves of the self-driving car.

This could likewise potentially be the case with V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure communications). V2I consists of the roadway infrastructure sending electronic communications to your AI self-driving car. An upcoming bridge might electronically warn your self-driving car that the bridge is blocked and not usable at this time. A street up ahead might forewarn your self-driving car that there is a big pothole in the road and it should be avoided. In the process of making those V2I communications, energy might be harvested from the excess of those communications.


Perpetual computing can be in the small and in the large.

Currently, the focus is primarily on the small, mainly the IoT devices that we are going to be using in the billions and someday trillions of them. It would be a boon to society if those IoT devices could harvest their own energy and work around the clock, as needed, without having to plug them in (tether them) and nor having to replace their batteries.

Say, excuse me for a moment as I have to go change the batteries in my outdoor portable lights — which I hope soon to be able to never say again, namely, I’d like to eliminate the phrase “go change the batteries.”

Let’s aim for that.

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Copyright © 2019 Dr. Lance B. Eliot

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Dr. Lance B. Eliot is a renowned global expert on AI, Stanford Fellow at Stanford University, was a professor at USC, headed an AI Lab, top exec at a major VC.

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