Sunday, January 16, 2011

Cleaning Gantry's

I suppose that it's time to add an entry here again. I missed all of 2010 on this blog. The 2009 blog entry might explain that a bit.

I have read many places on the Internet. I've visited a lot of science blogs. I've read a lot of stories about science. I've tried to pay particular attention to Artificial Intelligence and the technology that would help to enable it. It would be arrogant of me to say I've read it all. Perhaps not even a true AI could have read it all. There is a lot of information available. In fact, it has been opined that each day more information is added to the knowledge of mankind than existed in the days of many famous scientists. It's not unfair to ask why we humans are not much smarter now.

On to the point I hear you say. Tedious reading is as tedious writing does... no?

I have felt a kind of compulsion to join in on conversations on the Internet at times yet many things do not allow that. I've tried to write to several people about various topics and was dismissed with the simplicity of no reply. This is how life is. It's no reason to be bitter or upset, it simply is. I have many ideas fomenting which have this simple reasoning as a central tenet. It simply is. That is to say that as Einstein is supposed to have said: "make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler." There are hundreds of good reasons that I might not have enjoyed the attention I would have liked, but the simpler ones are probably the correct ones. Everyone is busy and they generally only have time enough to respond to the things in their lives which generate fear or tension. Not many of us are fortunate to have the resources to spend our time on the frivolous, even if that frivolous thing is of paramount importance to another.

Editor's note: Writing in this blog will not change the world. It might not even be noticed by anyone but it currently makes the author feel a bit better somehow.

Cleaning Gantries

With all that in mind, I find that I have no true place to contribute in ways that make me feel personally happy. Yes, it's a personal thing. I wish to contribute, to be part of a larger effort to change the world for the better. One might wonder if I'm pouting about not getting to play with the bigger kids. A good question. The simple answer is that I just want to feel I'm contributing in some way. Have you ever thought about the people that clean the gantry way which astronauts use to get on the Space Shuttle before launch? Well, those people contribute to a great thing in very positive and meaningful ways. It's just not what most people think of as positive and meaningful. Think about that and you have a good frame of reference for what I hope to do here. I'm in the mood to clean a gantry or two.

Editor's Note: I have no association with NASA or any of their gantry personnel though I would love to hear from them and post a few pics.

Recently I have been thinking about the gantry cleaners in many other forms which all of us use. Those gantries take many forms and functions as do their cleaners. Striking close to my pet ideas we can easily see that there are gantry cleaners at work in our daily use of computers. Every program should have something referred to as 'garbage collection' which cleans up memory for use by other programs etc. We use antivirus software which cleans files of unwanted trash. We have programs to rearrange the data on the  hard drive so it is more efficient while we surf the Internet. Closer to home we have air, fuel, and oil filters in everyday use. There are thousands of cleaners we use every day. When we use a search engine (I think mentioning Google is a requirement here?) it cleans up the results to try to give us information which is focused on what we ask for. This is a hard task to accomplish and we see Bing and others trying very hard to do it better all the time. In fact, Netflix offered $1,000,000 for anyone that could improve their particular cleaner.

We all know what Moore's law is all about, or close enough. I can't find any adage which relates to the commoditization of products and services. Take the cellular phone for instance. Once the purview of the well to do, more people in India now have a cell phone than have access to clean toilets. This commoditizing happens to computers, televisions, radios, cars, and so on for various reasons, but it is generally caused by the ever forward drive of commerce. If we were all still riding bicycles, the company that put a motor on one would make a mint! Thus would begin the path of commodity hardware for pedal powered bicycles. Look for a post on 'Information as a Commodity' in the near future. For now it's important to know that such a process accompanies Moore's Law in a way that makes them inseparable. We can call it the Moore Commodity Effect (MCE anyone?). Commoditization necessarily brings with it new cleaners. I believe that understanding the cleaners can help us predict both the parameters of commoditization and what will be commoditized.

As I write this the commoditization of Information Systems or IT infrastructure is fully underway. One of the events that put the motor on this particular bicycle is the Linux Kernel and the GNU Herd. Performance computing is no longer the sole purview of entities with deep pockets and personal ties to IBM. Why, it's become so easy that you or I can set up an High Performance Computer in our homes. Obviously we'd not quite make the Top 500 list, but it still counts. Not that long ago Nvidia gathered up some resources and jumped into this sphere with GPU computing which will be very helpful when you decide to build your own HPC system. If you like old school, you can own your own Cray Supercomputer. This Cray / FPGA hack takes us full circle on the commoditization. New 'hacking' hardware in the form of an FPGA and older Supercomputers. Now you can own what could not have been thought to exist in your living room when it was created. The drive to improve FPGA hardware has made this possible. (do back-flips and shout loudly because it will do other things more useful too)

Now would be a good time to tie that together and get back to cleaning. Information has become practically more plentiful than clean air. Using it effectively remains the purview of the deep pocketed companies. Google is trying hard to commoditize it, yet it remains as no better than information services. This is like subscribing to telephone services. It's a tricky business and the services may 'seem' the same but they are not and they all have hidden costs of one kind or more. So, when we look at commoditization of information we have to see it in several ways.

  • Information is the voice you hear when you use the phone, not the phone itself or the phone line or the phone network.
  • Information can be bundled, sorted, filtered, mangled, managed, and many other things. Consuming information currently requires you to either request these functions or deal with them in some way. Information consumption has yet to be commoditized.
  • Information providers still believe they have a golden goose and try to protect that goose from being copied. Information does not work that way. Media content providers still believe their product is NOT information, and in some way is equal to the "Mona Lisa" - It's not.
  • Commoditization of information will severely harm companies that do not play along, if not destroy them altogether. (Do you know anyone that still uses a buggy whip?)
  • Information exists in many forms and formats. Without formatting we can call it 'raw information'. The sights and sounds of a large city collectively are 'raw information' and they do not become 'useful information' until someone applies filtering, formating, and management of some sort. 
  • The capacity to collect 'raw information' has outstripped our current abilities to process it. Systems like e-mail are very useful yet fail miserably to be an agnostic method of information consumption. The same can be said of IM, FaceBook, Internet 'home pages' and just about everything else that has come along to improve things.
  • On a personal level 'information overload' has become a common and pervasive problem. Take all these observations together and we have a vector for future 'gantry cleaners' in the information sphere.
Information Gantry Cleaners

Why do we need information cleaners? The problem should be obvious from the Bing advertising campaign. Bing is a decision engine, not a search engine. Despite that claim being false, a smart search mechanism does help us make decisions, some better than others. Still, they all currently require us to 'know' how to use them. Try typing "I want to go out to eat" into a search engine and see what happens. Worse yet, misspell it as "I want to go out to heat" and see what happens. Neither are very useful to the individual who is hungry yet another human would know what to infer and how to search for the inferred information. That extra human in the loop is a cleaner. We might summarize this by saying we need an AI that is more or less a clone of ourselves to help us deal with the deluge of information we are drowning in. This might take many forms; from the jack in the back of the heads of characters in the  movie "The Matrix" to computer systems like in the movie "Moon". 

My pet theory is that to achieve the creation of such cleaners we will collectively have to understand human intelligence; what it is and what it is not. In short, AI is the next vector of commoditization to happen. It's not about the singularity but about commoditization. The next step is about understanding and using more information than evolution has equipped us to deal with. Just as tools like hammers and knives gave us an advantage, our use of knowledge in the near future will make us seem like magicians.

What are your thoughts on information gantry way cleaners?

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