Computational ubiquity

I've been re-reading The Third Wave, by Alvin Toffler. Though first published over twenty years ago, there's still some serious predictive mojo left in that book. The basic concept is this: there have been two previous "waves" of civilization. The first was the agricultural wave, which spread across the world over the course of several thousand years. About three hundred years ago, the second wave of civilization began—the industrial revolution. Now we are in the middle of the next wave, the information revolution. Each wave brings with it change, and upheaval, and uncertainty, and increased power and wealth to those who embrace the change.

I won't further summarize the book here. I'm merely suggesting it as potential reading for those who might be interested, and to provide a bit of background for some thoughts I've been mulling over in response to the book.

I get the feeling we are heading towards computational ubiquity. Already computers are watching some of us on a daily basis. Many of us use computers as our sole source of income, or computers have become the main tool of our job. Programs like the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project aim to spread the reach of computers throughout the world, into the lives of those who may never have had access otherwise.

Bring on the universal literacy

The first and best thing to come of ubiquitous computing will be universal literacy. I don't mean just reading and writing, though I believe that will be a part of it. The ability to control almost all aspects of your life will require the knowledge of using and programming a computer.

Of course, the definition of "programming" will change. It will probably not mean grinding out C, or Perl, or Squeak (the primary language of the OLPC environment). It will mean interacting with your environment, whether in the real world, or in a simulated world such as Croquet. But the fundamentals of logic will still apply. The ability to logically manipulate data constructs is the basis of all programming, whether using punch cards or virtual reality gloves.

There is another option, I suppose. Perhaps we'll all just end up on the couch eating corn chips and being endlessly entertained by our ever-present computers. That is not a future I like to contemplate.

Leave your privacy at the door

"You have zero privacy anyway," Scott McNealy said famously in January of 1999. "Get over it."

At the time, I thought the CEO of Sun was out of his mind, that we shouldn't give up on privacy so easily. Eight years later, I'd have to agree with him.

He's completely correct. Whether it's cameras in London scanning every face, or on-line credit card transactions, or the information we intentionally reveal on MySpace, we willingly give up our privacy for safety and convenience. In retrospect, it's probably inevitable that privacy disappears as computers become more powerful and pervasive. Soon, we can expect to see our outward public lives monitored constantly by cameras and microphones.

The libertarian portion of me doesn't wish to let go of privacy. It isn't so much the privacy itself, which seems impossible to achieve while out in the public, but the concentration of power constant surveillance represents.

Unfortunately, this is an issue for which I have no solution, and seems unsolvable. Some days I am resigned to the seemingly-inevitable lack of privacy. Other days, I am outraged all over again. Whichever way the world goes, though, the word "privacy" is destined to change.

Your house says, "Hello."

Computers will not live up to their potential until the day we no longer notice them. They will be there, constantly monitoring our lives, adjusting our environment for us, providing us information when we need it, perhaps even interacting with us in a naturally-human manner. They will politely ask us questions, wait for the response, and handle our desire. This was once science fiction, but is now close to reality.

Like flying cars, though, this reality constantly seems a decade away. Artificial intelligence research seems to be stalled, at least from the outside. Perhaps there is a seething vitality within the halls of AI research. But considering the dramatic increase in raw power of computers over the last twenty years, it seems we are no closer to a truly smart computer.

We are closer, though. Face recognition software is routinely employed in surveillance settings. There are even systems that use voice patterns to determine if a person is about to become aggressive. Voice recognition is getting better, though it is still too computationally-intensive for everyday personal use.

More importantly, our computers don't really know what to do with our speech once it has been processed. We need AI good enough to respond in a contextual manner. We need software strong enough to synthesize multiple query results into a coherent whole.

It is coming, though. I firmly believe it.

Those who control the computers control society

Society is based on information. The agricultural first wave was founded on the information that grain can be planted, and it will grow. The more we understood about domestication of plants and animals, the better we fed ourselves. The industrial wave was based solidly on the knowledge gained by science, and resulted in even greater crop yields, greater efficiency, and fewer people working shorter hours feeding the planet. This left others available for the creation of watches and roads and things that whir and buzz and roar.

The information wave allows us to achieve even better efficiencies. We can now build things just as they are needed, and we can predict when they will be needed. This saves time, money, and effort in distribution and storage. On a personal level, I can get on Google and look for answers to questions like, "How do I fix the thermostat on my dryer?" or, "What is the difference between Saaz hops and Cascade hops?"

In the industrial age, those who controlled the gears of manufacture controlled society. Good things came of this, like widespread literacy and a strong transportation infrastructure. However, we also ended up with pollution, and highly-concentrated wealth in the hands of a very few, and slums, and sitcoms.

Now we have the chance to turn the tide back again. Projects like OLPC are a good start, educating the next generation about software, and computers, and the joy of tinkering. The laptop itself runs GNU/Linux, and uses Squeak as the primary programming language. All of the source code is not only available, but is modifiable at run-time. The system not only allows modification, but invites it.

This is important. As the ubiquitous computing world is assembled, we need to think about who controls the system. We need to plan on giving everyone a chance to participate, to contribute, to benefit.

Really, that's it. I have been wondering where we are going, trying to sort the desirable from the undesirable, the inevitable from the avoidable.

We are all part of the evolution of our world. Our decisions will help shape the power structure of the future. I don't have any suggestions or guidelines. I don't have any words of wisdom or comfort. I just know that our actions now are very important in the outcome.

Projects like OLPC are a good start. It just seems we could do so much more.


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