The Global Computer: Aaron takes a day off!

Aaron Crossman here. Not doing anything productive, but just daydreaming. Just thinking about the confluence of recent software, hardware, and IT service revolutions, and how they might again redefine the “computer”. Where the investments can start to be used to truly improve the human experience, and bottlenecks resulting from software and hardware limitations (and not creativity!) are the norm. If we start encouraging the use of hardware systems which have been around for decades (i.e. wireless communication, distributed computing) and some which are new developments (i.e. mesh networking, cloud computing), then a whole new incarnation of the computer-internet duality springs into existence.

Or maybe it comes full circle? In the early days of computing (circa 1970s), expensive mainframes were kept busy by multiple users using multiple terminals. Work could be queued up and tackled in order by the machine. Cloud computing is essentially the same thing, except the experience has changed from standing in line at the grocery store to taking a seat in the movie theatre. As cloud computing continues to develop, I expect the experience of a cloud based computer to more exactly replicate the experience of a personal computer. Even now, there are devices hitting the market which are entirely cloud driven–only enough hardware is included to connect this terminal wirelessly to the internet, and therefore any cloud of choice. One such is from NCS Technologies, and the selling point is that the device offers the ultimate in security. The laptop is nothing but a mobile access point to a cloud based computer. Should a hacker steal the laptop, there is nothing inside to glean. Everything is in the cloud!

It all starts with the abstraction of the “computer” and the “internet”. Consider that cloud servers are providing software to interfaces all over the world using the internet. Also, that the same technology is being employed by large companies to setup in-house software offered across their intranet. The essence of cloud computing is the scalability of the solution. The cloud architecture makes it hard to distinguish where the internet ends and the computer begins, and it can quickly change its size and shape to fit a need. It is conceivable that as cloud-based applications improve, the experience of accessing the cloud would become functionally identical to turning on a computer. That separation of computer from terminal is what could create the next generation of user experience.

It’s not just the software which is becoming delocalized across the global interconnected machine, mesh networking is doing wonderful things to expand wireless access freely to those who otherwise would never appreciate it. The idea is simple: wireless devices can talk to each other as easily as to a router, so why not make each one of them capable of relaying the messages? Devices can still connect to the internet backbone via a router, but should that connection ever become interrupted at a point, the user probably wouldn’t even notice. And should every single connection to the backbone become severed at once, then these devices would still communicate with each other as long as the connections remain contiguous. Even then, individual pods could still be interconnected by redundant arrays of solar-powered satellites. If all devices were simultaneously connected to create a robust network for traffic, then this digital spider web of devices would make an excellent framework for other existing technologies.

For example, an immediate benefit from such a network would be to optimize data usage across various channels (wifi, cell networks, Bluetooth, etc), to maintain internet uptime during periods of instability, and to maintain communication in case of internet failure. This is exactly the service being provided by a great company called Open Garden. Visit them for details on how to start taking advantage of this technology immediately.

Imagine if the contiguous user experience of a mesh network was integrated with the distributed computing platform of cryptocurrencies such as UnbreakableCoin? Everyone’s phone would simultaneously be an anonymous digital wallet for easy international transactions at point-of-sale and digital stores, while the network also continuously checks for anomalies (or “thefts”) and corrects them. One would need to hack at least one-half-plus-one devices connected to the network simultaneously to effectively manipulate it. Or how about if unused computing power was collectively pooled using open-source software such as BOINC (Berkeley Open-Infrastructure for Network Computing) which has been using internet connected devices to compete with supercomputers? The fastest super computer in the world currently is the Chinese Tianhe-2, which performs at around 34 petaFLOPS. Compare that to the volunteer computing project folding@home which focuses on the problem of protein folding patterns, and does so at about 40 petaFLOPS. But this is only the beginning! A Mr Jeffrey Eastlack in his thesis submitted to the BOINC project concluded that in 2011, there was 141,000 petaFLOPS of unused potential in mobile phones alone.

Again: in 2011, phones alone were 17,000 times as powerful as the fastest supercomputer in existence. And phones (and everything else, too) has gotten a lot better since then. What about tablets? What about Internet of Things devices? Smart cars? I would be surprised if the true computing power of the world’s connected devices has even been fathomed yet. But I would think that if anyone actually knew, there would be more of a push to bring it bear on modern computational problems.

The final piece I have for this hypothetical future of computing: computers use a lot of energy, and they aren’t always super-efficient. Cooling and waste heat removal is often the prime consideration when designing a server farm. How do you keep the hardware from cooking itself? Modern server farms have been getting extremely creative in repurposing this heat, such as using it to heat office buildings, low income housing, and urban ecological projects. A great example: The Foundry Project. Using the waste heat generated from an underground datacenter, they have planned to create a whole sustainable ecosystem integrating aquaculture, agriculture, electricity generation, and computational power to feed and employ the community.

Now, putting the pieces together, I suggest this for the future of personal computing: Complete disconnect between terminals and computer power. Each computer (of any size) would have at least the same necessary parts which enable it to connect and take advantage of the economies of scale the Internet provides. The computer hardware would become the brain of the smart building of the future, to which all devices and communication would primarily flow through. A portion of the compute time could be allocated to volunteer projects to improve global weather forecasting or other currently-infeasible computational projects. Each terminal would be an access point to all systems digital, both within one’s own home and across the internet proper. Terminals could be fixed or portable, but to “buy a new computer” would be as simple as buying a new terminal (cheap). To upgrade the computer would then offer benefits across all users and terminals connected to the computer.

If such a device were installed in a home, then each home would have one or more computers installed (or simply placed) and would be as essential to a home’s design as if it were HVAC or electricity. Access to the complete digital experience of each home would be a username and password (or biometric scan) away, even if accessed from a terminal anywhere else in the world. Each computer in the home would redundantly backup the family’s data, such as entertainment programming, pictures, records, etc. Each terminal in the home would be a window into the computing power of the home, connected cloud networks, and even various controls such as entertainment content delivery schedules or environmental settings. Each home connects to the internet backbone and contributes to the integrity of the wireless mesh internet. The computer would be ever vigilant in defending the home from digital intrusion, tireless in its optimization of user patterns and cost savings across the home, and perhaps as familiar to the family as another member. I feel that this isn’t even as complete a picture as is possible, but the possibilities are truly endless.

The enterprise level hardware might include self-contained server racks with ports for power, communication, and thermal conduction. Each rack contains the same basic pieces which enables a common architecture for the interconnect systems, making server farms nothing more complex than computers connected by proximity. They may differ in hardware scales, however. For instance, a small company might acquire purpose-built hardware to introduce specific services into a growing portfolio. Alternatively, even the largest of companies would be able to rapidly expand or fracture existing datacenters by adding or removing computing units. Perhaps, even this idea is archaic already, since enterprise services would most likely be offered on leasing terms from superior cloud architectures. The internet would allow the democratization of the most robust enterprise solutions.

Lastly, as a gamer of the modern era, I would be remiss in not describing what this could mean for the future of gaming. Imagine this, your MMORPG is now offered streaming from the cloud to your virtual reality devices (or a common terminal) anywhere in the world. Games could be developed which project into every room of a building, making interactive physical/digital. You might one day work a fictional party in your own home to determine who the killer is, or any holodeck scene out of Star Trek.

Well, the day is over and my head hurts. One final note: listeners of the show might have heard some familiar names; we have had Open Garden and UnbreakableCoin on the show, and we are reaching out to NCS Technology and The Foundry Project to join us soon! So tune in to the show and join the Crossmans as we bring you a front row seat to the future.