The Smart Network

For those consumers of fine film I shall take you back in time to the James Cameron classic “Terminator”. Where Arnold Schwarzenegger  first graced our screen (Conan was first but that was so-so bad) and was single. OK sarcasm aside it was a good film in the sci-fi genre. It had Arnold at his finest, big, buff and with very few lines to say. It was a rather dark film in portraying the future of mankind. Is the future ever shown as happy or is it always glib?  If you remember the movie you will remember the main character, Reece, explaining how the future came to be to Sara Conner (whom Arnold was supposed to come back in time and murder), he  discussed the government defense network (DARPA?) and how at some point the network “got smart” and decided the future of mankind in a nanosecond.  Extermination.  It may seem a bit far fetched but if you think about what was being described,it was a future with a convergence of technologies.  A ubiquitous network, artificial intelligence, robotics, nano technology all running really high end and effective software.  I am not sure James Cameron thought of all these things when he wrote and directed the screen play for the movie.  But if you look at where we are today a lot of those technologies either exist or are being developed.  The idea of a truly smart network is becoming more real with each passing day, with each passing hour, with each passing “nano” second.

Starting with the idea of a ubiquitous network, this piece is not that far-fetched.  In today’s society that is all we are striving for.  The ability to be connected all the time and any time.  Like the movie this is something that we are moving towards and will become a reality.  It all started of course with the internet.   It’s the smart piece that we are missing.. or are we?  The intelligence is a simple term, it’s software.  Software is what made the internet cool.  It was a small company called Netscape that really launched software  to the internet. Software is becoming pervasive in nearly every device we touch today so why not the network?  The reality is it already is.  It always has been in nearly every bit of hardware equipment in the network is running more and more software to provide higher levels if intelligence in how information is routed and delivered

Recently AT&T launched and turned on its 4g LTE (Long Term Evolution) network in Washington State and other parts of the United States.  It provides you a 20mb/s pipe.  To put that in perspective your home wi-fi network only provides 10mb/s.  The US carriers have gotten very good at increasing the capacity of their networks to deliver higher speeds and more content to the device.  It means we can send more and more information across the network.  We can issue commands across the computer,  We tell devices to turn “on” and to turn “off”.  But to date we have limited that to a lot of data center hardware.  More and more we see that capability entering the home.  It also means that the idea of a network is moving away from the physical way we have traditionally viewed networks.  Yes there is and will continue to be lots of fiber in the ground, but increasing amounts of data shall simply pass through the air.  In the not so distant future gigabytes will be replaced by terabytes.

Cloud Computing is on everyone’s mind these days, but that is just yet another example of more intelligence being moved to the network.  As more and more data is moved from company hard drives located in internal data centers to cloud based data centers.  The applications customers run live in the cloud and are accessed via a browser.  Even consumers are moving into the cloud as their digital content does need to reside on local hard drives in an office, but sit in iCloud or on Facebook.  However it is no longer traditional software applications that are being moved to the cloud, but entire network infrastructures are moving to software driven models.  Cisco has a software based router.  Traditional gateway appliances are moving from a hardware based appliance to software.  Load Balancers? Moving to a software based model.

A term we see increasing is machine to machine technology.  The concept is simple which is machines communicating (usually sharing data between one another).  we have companies like Nest and their founder Tony Fadell (one of the men behind Apple’s iPod)talking about the idea of M2M .  Nest today is working ion next generation thermostats.  But down the road the idea of a smarter thermostat will increasing play across all appliances.  Including stronger communications and integration withe the internet.  We see this type of technology being discussed in aviation   When a plane is in flight it can communicate information via wireless network back to a hub for collection and to be analyzed.  Cars can transmit information about driving habits back to your insurance company and be billed based on usage patterns.  These scenarios can and will be done  with n human intervention.  Just machines talking to one another.

We see increasing activity in the robotics industry as they come out with new robots  such as  vacuum cleaners, pool cleaning robots, gutter cleaning robots they become more pervasive how hard would it be to connect them to the “new” smart network?  Recently Google founders Sergey Brin stated we will be driving robotic vehicles within five years.  Having recently gotten a photo ticket I look forward to this development as a robotic car could actually receive information about motor ways from a smart network and automatically adjust the driving pattern of the vehicle so I can avoid a lovely ticket from local police force.  As Bill Ford of Ford motor stated, the automobile is becoming a platform, it is no longer a mechanical device.

There has already been work done where chips are inserted into humans.  These chips in the future could collect data on the daily activities.  Even Steve Wozniak is getting in on the act.  In a recent trip he talked about the iPhone 45, something so intelligent it will have more data about him than other humans do.  He won’t need friends.  Having read his book “iWoz”, this does not surprise me.  He seems to have an aversion to people.  Woz goes farther saying in 40 years we will have computers with impulses, with feelings.  This is starting to sound like Steven Spielberg’s film “AI”.  In this future that humanoid will be connected to the smart network.  Not to be out done Microsoft founder Paul Allen is funding work to map the human brain.  To understand each pulse and how it creates a human thought or reaction.  Understanding how the human mind works has long been a dream and a goal of science.  Today though it is more a goal and not so much a dream.

Do humans desires to move forward at an ever-increasing pace cause room for concern?  Could the smart network make decisions on our behalf?  Some for us, but some against us?  At this point it seems like fantasy, but had this been written 50 years ago could it have had as much current supporting evidence?   If I come back to this article in 10 years how much further will we have come?  Don’t worry there can be positives that come out of all this.  Our cars will be managed more efficiently as a result of the move to robotic driven auto’s.  Provided we can get alternative energies to scale we should have a cleaner healthier environment.  Our ability to readily and easily communicate across boarders and across cultures will be seamless. We could enter a world where there is no need to learn a foreign language.

Lastly the big question.  As this network grows in size and intelligence, what happens if it learns to reason?  To make its own decisions based on information it receives about the world around it?  That after all has been the goal of man since the inception of science.  The grand experiment started by Galileo in “The Dialog”.  Where science challenged faith.  To not just understand mankind, but to replicate it.  This is not going to happen in the next 5 years or even ten years but it will happen.  The simple reason being technology cannot help itself.  Technology is about ever-increasing pursuit of learning and doing it with ever-increasing speed.  Thirty years ago computing was done on mainframes. Twenty years ago most people did not have a PC. Ten years ago almost no one had a smartphone.  We used to talk about information at your fingertips less than twenty years ago and now we have it, whenever and wherever we want.  All because we are connected in new and exciting ways.  We now are talking about the ubiquitous network.  Being connected by high bandwidth everywhere we walk.

Will the network at some point flicker ever so slightly and start to have its own ideas .  How will it view humanity?  Will it discriminate between good and evil?   Will it even understand the concept which is tied more to human emotion than reason. From a stand point of logic can it comprehend the complexity of what makes us human?  The excitement or horror here is not what a “smart-network” will or will not judge, but the fact that technology is moving so fast that we can even contemplate and have such a discussion.   Whatever your thoughts you cannot stop this high-speed train as it left the station long ago and is whisking on into the future, with or without us.  In the end it may decide our fate.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann Dec 4, 2012

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