This piece is a reprint from the distant past: 2003. Its prescience equals a second look as readers are signing up for this blog at an average of four per day, which is humbling, and much appreciated.
As an aging baby boomer, my dissolving memory is often re-composed by the likes of Thesaurus.com, Dictionay.com, Refdesk.com, and other repositories of “facts” that can be instantly consulted. Reflecting on the implications of the reliance on this digital crutch, I sought out and read articles based on the future of networks, and found that the societal implications for what-is-to-come is not only fascinating, but frightening.
And perhaps I am already damaged by relying on a network outside the one that connects my own brain cells:
[Studies now indicate that] current technology such as PDAs are causing some deterioration in the memories of those who rely upon them to track important dates, phone numbers, addresses, and events rather than storing at least some of that information internally (“Omnipresent and Omnipotent,” 2002).
My original idea and title for this exposition was Will Hard Drives Be Replaced by Networks? But after researching the topic, that question became moot as it is just a matter of time before optical networks offer applications and services that will supersede our need for localized storage.
“You ought to have worldwide storage,” says Culler (David Culler, a Berkeley computer science professor and an expert on computer architectures and networking).
“The idea of having your disk and backup and remembering where your files are that’s baloney. In the future, you’ve got one great big ocean: All the data is out there” (Johnson, 2000).
We have already seen a trend where computers are physically getting smaller. Eventually, this will cause a decline in the “desktop” as we know it, and applications will move off the hard drive and onto networks.
Regarding the decline of the desktop, we might see an increase in wearable computers and a decrease in OS-based desktops. This follows from a move to networked systems, where PCs could be simple, stripped-down network computers that rely upon network operating systems and network software to run. PCs may no longer be filled to the brim with various software applications, but may be specific, toolkit-oriented machines that serve a few functions, hence the movement towards smaller computers.
This is seen with Microsoft’s recent introduction of its .Net software, which automatically determines what software you need and downloads it from a server on the Internet and/or from your hard drive. There would be no need for stand-alone software, and having a full-blown desktop would not be necessary (Purola, 2000).
Reading topical articles led me to explore this expansive view of future networks, one that includes the concept of the Internet “disappearing” altogether from the standpoint of its total integration into our daily lives, when “computation and connectivity become so pervasive that you forget they are there” (“Omnipresent and Omnipotent,” 2002).
The focus of this exposition will be to give an overview of what future networks are predicted to be like and their ramifications not only on the future of computing, but on our individual and collective lives in a society interwoven with networked technology.
The ocean metaphor with plankton serving as a minute basis for the entire food chain encompasses how future networks may actually be modeled. Computer scientists envision an evolutionary world of computing, where systems begin at the microscopic (or even the atomic) level and change by the minute, constantly reconstructing and reforming connections as new information and growing databases feed the entire network structure new information.
This “biological” or as some call it a “DNA” like network will be amorphous, constantly evolving, and part of all we do in our everyday lives.
An ongoing project at Berkeley named Endeavor (after Captain Cook’s first ship) touts the ocean comparison in their public relations material:
“The sea is a particularly poignant metaphor, as it interconnects much of the world. We envision fluid information systems that are everywhere and always there, with components that flow through the infrastructure, shape themselves to adapt to their usage, and cooperate on the task at hand'” (Johnson, 2000).
Furthermore, basing the invention and application of new machines on animal or human processes has precedent.
Although I have never seen it written down anywhere, it seems to me that the computer is based on the Atkinson/Shiffrin Memory Model, with the sensory registers corresponding to input devices (keyboards, mice, and microphones), the short-term store being analogous to random access memory, and the long term store equaling the hard drive.
In fact, when explaining how computers work, I have found that the memory model analogy is easily comprehended by people with scant knowledge of how a computer actually functions. And to extend the Atkinson/Shiffron example, these future networks will also be based on qualities of the human brain.
“People can take a bullet through the brain and still have the ability to have thought processes,” Katz says. “The super complex system of the future has to be able to organize itself so it can be more robust in its behavior, deal with failure, and then pick up the pieces and move on.”
So the Net will be like an ocean, the air, a biological system (Johnson, 2000).
Now that Michael Crichton’s new book Prey has been released, the news magazines are running stories on nanotechnology (technology based on the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules to build structures to complex, atomic specifications), which will be the “plankton” piece of this network, evolving in the new sea of atomic-level technology that will eventually become a part of our lives, though it is my feeling that the speed of the process will be determined by consumer demand.
Telephones, for example, were around for a long time before they became an integral part of human activity.
Telephones have made a huge difference in our lives, but the change didn’t happen all at once. The advent of the first telephone in your home town might have made front page news in the local newspaper, but didn’t significantly change the way you conducted business or lived your life. But now that the telephones are essentially ubiquitous, they’ve become part of the way we work and live. The point is that it’s the density, not the number of connections, that makes a real difference. The same is true of computer networks (Poor, 1997).
This statement leads me to ask: what is the level of computer “density” at this stage of technological history? It is my belief that they are much more prevalent that the average person realizes. For example, if I asked the question “how many computers do you own?” most people would count the PCs or Macs in their possession. A few would count their PDAs if they owned any. But in actuality, we probably own dozens. Computers now regulate the fuel and electrical currents that power our automobiles.
They run our kids’ gaming machines, supplement our thermostats and heating/air-conditioning units, power our digital watches (some of which have wireless connections to radio waves that update them with regularity to atomic clocks), run our microwave ovens, and even power “singing” greeting cards.
One thing that is hampering their dramatic growth at the moment is the fact that we are still relying on wires. But when wireless technology becomes as practical and “dense” as telephones, we will literally be covered up in computers:
Well, a wireless world does foreshadow the next prediction that computers will be everywhere in the future. Since with wireless you can communicate from any place (and thus, take computers everywhere), computers will be miniaturized and possibly used for specialized functions, including; personal identification chips, heart rate monitors, networked appliances, and miniature pagers and cell phones connected to an ear piece that plays voice messages or an eyepiece that displays text (Purola, 2000).
And once again, like the memory model comparison to computer functionality, the concept of “networking” itself relates directly to human physiology and social activity. As far as the former is concerned, we are from brain to nervous system to the skeleton a network.
“Our human bodies are the most efficient, mobile wireless network of all” (Purola, 2000). Although we are not plugged into an outlet, the fact that our brains run on electro-chemical energy and our synapses are powered by the same belies the “wireless” statement, but I understand Purolas contention.
John Guares play Six Degrees of Separation pointed out our social networking scheme by showing how each of us is connected to every other human being on the planet by no fewer than six mutual acquaintances. “Networking marketing” and getting business or jobs through “networking” are so commonly used they are passé.
Therefore, it is “natural” that networks will begin to follow a biological direction as we tend to build things resembling or selves or our theories. For example, the Bible says that God created man in His image, but perhaps like ancient Greeks (Judeo-Christians) created God in our image, lacking the ability and imagination to create being incomprehensible to us.
What will this “biological network” look like? Walter van de Velde, in a piece entitled “A Tail [sic] of Parallel Worlds and Parrots” (1997) likens it to an electronic jungle:
“Imagine a world parallel to this one and populated by numerous digital creatures. It is a society much like ours – a virtual one, yes – but as large, dynamic and varied as this one.”
Some of these creatures are your friends, some others you may like or not, many of them you don’t even know. You couldn’t care less if only there was not this one annoying thing: they want you to listen to them as the clever ones spit out their information – useful or not – offer you some service – need it or not -want to ask you something, or tell you the story of their daytime.
You’re imagining the future of computer networks: a huge collection of active software agents, each of them pushing to do their thing with you. How to deal with this? After all you don’t need everything and your attention is limited.
He goes on to imagine a new species of (digital, I assume) “parrot” that rides on your shoulder and whispers into your ear the things you need to know to get through your busy day. Connected to other parrots and networked beings in this digital jungle, your mascot is constantly being updated with facts and information as it learns your “personal context” and gives you “leads” that are “useful to you at the moment” because it not only shares your reality, it is a “personal lens into the virtual world.”
Software agents, otherwise known as “intelligent agents” scan your habits, likes, dislikes, attitudes, purchasing decisions, ad infinitum, and help you make decisions.
If you’ve read Phillip K. Dick’s short story “Minority Report” or have seen the Spielberg movie of the same name, then you are already familiar with intelligent agents. As the main character walks into a mall of the future, a loudspeaker pipes up: “Mr. Anderton, would you like to buy a pair of pants like you purchased the last time you visited the Gap?”
My imagination of this networked world does not include parrots, but something like a pair of stylish glasses with a transparent monitor for lenses that you can scan with your eye and, at the rudimentary stages say five years from now you can either whisper, blink, or think “open browser, go to half.com, scan trouser sales, size forty waist, herringbone, cotton and poly mix 60:40, compare prices, output store name and nearest directions, I don’t like to buy clothes without trying them on” and the computer built into the eyeglass frame flashes out the information while you are driving to the daycare to pick up your child and so you stop at the store on the way home and make your purchase after the nanny-bot bounces your kid on its fake-flesh-covered knee while you are zipping up in the dressing room.
Later, when your brain is implanted with a wireless receiver, you will not have to wear glasses, unless you want some respite from the “Omninet” (a word describing the Internets successor).
As the Internet of today is absorbed by some barely imaginable Omninet of tomorrow, scientists at places like Berkeley, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and other technological powerhouses have come to believe that a better-wired world will require a communications web as intricate, powerful, and malleable as its living ancestors. While biological networks are fine-tuned by the algorithm par excellence called Darwinian evolution genetic variation and natural selection the clunky, human-made networks of today are built top-down in the creationist mode, engineered not by omnipotent gods but by mere mortals. If the next few decades unfold as the more visionary computer scientists expect, the line between the natural and the artificial will blur, then fade away (Johnson, 2000).
These scientists imagine computers becoming an integral part of our material world: “Your environment will become alive with technology, says Leonard Kleinrock, the UCLA computer scientist responsible for setting up the first Arpanet node three decades ago. The walls will contain logic, processors, memory cameras, microphones, communicators, actuators, [and] sensors” (Johnson, 2000).
I guess that means you could tell your wall what color you wanted it to be on a particular day, and it would change to suit your mood. When we discussed these possibilities, my wife became wildly optimistic, speculating that my bathroom would one day be clean at all times if the walls and floor could suck up male crud minute by minute as nano-bacteria eaters chomped happily away twenty-four seven, creating an anal-retentives heaven-on-earth.
As the theory goes, when the Internet morphs into the Omninet and becomes a part of everything we do, we will not even notice it anymore:
The [Berkeley Endeavor] project leader, Randy Katz, imagines a day, maybe even by the end of the decade, when the Internet disappears, when computation and connectivity become so pervasive that you forget they are there. No longer will the network simply be a vast expanse of nodes strung together with dark, gaping holes in between, but rather an all-pervasive presence firmly entrenched into our culture and society. According to another Endeavour leader, this Information Utility will eventually become a giant, largely invisible infrastructure that makes your life better (Johnson, 2000).
That is the part I seriously doubt. I would certainly enjoy the extra time I would have with my wife if she were freed from cleaning chores (I am not considered thorough enough), and it would only take me only a nano-second to turn lawn care over to the mowbot, but the aspect of having virtually everything we lay our hands on being tied to an Omninet is frightening.
Concerned about intruding hackers, I installed a Netgear router for my home network. How would I cope with constant surveillance?
Also, my brain appears to be shrinking now because I rely on the Internet and spell checkers and computerized calendars. If every decision from the trivial to the consequential were turned over to intelligent agents, how long would it take before I became a drooling, slouching (sieg heiling!) member of the Omninet human corps?
After all, once the all-pervasive network is in place, those who control the “facts” would be in control of the population’s hearts and minds.
And what if these networked parrots and intelligent agents and other artificial life forms start taking on a consciousness of their own, ala HAL in 2001 A Space Odyssey? If the network is truly “biological” and evolves on its own, who is to say it will not morph into a collective force that is not only omniscient, but omnipotent, and beyond our control?
If we are to proceed with the development of such potentially overwhelming technology, we must be tentative at every step and spare no expense in risk management in order to guarantee the security of individuals, nations, and entire cultures. Unfortunately, based upon our track record thus far, we have not yet developed this precautionary attitude in the software and technology industry. The current practice is to get it out quickly and fix the mistakes later, an attitude we can ill afford to maintain as the technology we develop has a dramatically more significant impact on our very existence (Johnson, 2000).
I do not doubt that these new technologies are possible and are on their way to fruition.
But unless we think through the consequences of our decisions and proceed with caution by building in redundant checks and balances, a self-perpetuating and constantly evolving network of machines will compete for control of our humanness and dominion over the planet that provides for our existence.
© Michael “Gene” Scott 2003
Johnson, George (2000). From swarms of smart dust to secure collaborative zones, the Omninet comes to you. Issue 8.01, Only Connect. Retrieved November 8, 2002 from the World Wide Web: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.01/nets.html
“Omnipresent and Omnipotent,” 2002 from the World Wide Web: http://www.cs.usask.ca/undergrads/smm735/490/490a2.htm
Poor, Robert D. (1997). High-density networks. MIT Media Laboratory. . Retrieved November 22, 2002 from the World Wide Web: http://www.media.mit.edu/pia/Pubs/HyphosSlideShow/index.html
Purola, Jeremy (2000). The Future of Networking :A sequential look at DNA, quantum, and optical computers. Retrieved November 28, 2002 from the World Wide Web: http://www.ashtabulaart.com/jp/Papers/NResearch.htm#shape
van de Velde. Walter (1997). A tail of parallel worlds and parrots. Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Retrieved December 1, 2002 from the World Wide Web: