Archive forComputing

My So-Called Cyber-Life

End of February 2008

It’s a familiar lament to any parent of a modern teenager: they are so multiply connected to electronic inputs that the real world slips away and might become irrelevant. If you tell a fifteen year old that when they were eight there were no iPods and when they were born there was no Internet, they’ll look at you either blankly or aghast, as if you had said there was no food.

Many newspaper inches and web electrons have been spent dissecting the onrush of digital media and their effect on young people, but the biggest mine of real data is the web site of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. This charitable organization has had its finger on the pulse of the Internet and its impact on the popular culture for nearly a decade. Their reports cover everything from education and privacy issues to the effect of the Internet on the political discourse of the nation.

There’s a YouTube video currently posted with a message that scrolls up, Star Wars style, saying “For years, parents could not text message. They could not figure out how to record a voice mail. They could not even connect to the Internet without using AOL.” After a warning that parents are adapting to new technologies, there’s a clip of a man figuring out how to the video capabilities of his cell phone. “Watch with caution,” the video closes, “and pray that your parents do not gain these powers.” The teen mind may recall the opening scene of an earlier science fiction classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, when apes confront the enigmatic monolith that will change them forever.

I have relatives in their eighties who have iPods and know how to text their nieces and nephews, but young people are ascending the rapid curve of technology much faster than their parents. Teenagers now spend six and a half hours a day with video input. That total is not much longer than a decade ago, but the mix has changed; TV watching is down and playing video games and watching video clips is way up. It’s axiomatic that all teenagers multiplex on a computer, doing their homework in parallel with text-messaging, watching online videos, checking out MySpace or Facebook, and surfing the Internet.

The most recent Pew report notes the emergence of “super-communicators,” the quarter of all teens who use all the major communication channels—texting, cell phones, social network web sites, and instant messaging—to connect to their friends. A sub-theme of this blog is projecting the future of IT usage. What is the end point of this extraordinarily rapid assimilation of technology? Will it saturate at some point due to limitations of the brain or the finite number of hours in the day? Will the distancing aspect outweigh the ease of making new connections? Will these technologies be used to sustain a froth of popular and often trivial culture or will they be used to promote learning?

One hopeful sign from the Pew study is the fact that teenagers are not passive users of these new technologies. Two thirds have created some kind of online content, compared to only 15% of adults. A third have shared artistic creations or songs, or have created or worked on blogs and web pages for school or groups they belong to. A quarter of them have created their own web page or online journal. And a quarter of them have remixed online content into their own creations, creating what is known as a mash-up. Blogging is hot, nearly doubling among teens between 2004 and 2006. There are interesting gender effects too. Girls are twice as likely to blog as boys while boys are twice as likely to post videos. The new modes of content creation and posting facilitate further communications: 90% of teens report feedback from others or online conversation as a result of posting a photo or video.

At the pinnacle of young people harnessing these new capabilities are some amazing success stories. Catherine Cook founded MyYearbook.com while she was in high school as a way of keeping in touch with friends after she graduated; it has 2 million members and has attracted $4 million of venture capital. Ashley Qualls was 14 when she created a web site to help teens “express themselves” with art and graphics. Her site now gets 60 million page views a month. Ben Cathers was only 12 when he started his first business on the Internet. By age 19 he had his own syndicate radio show and had founded a search engine technology company. For each of these teenage titans they are many mini-moguls.

Internet use is saturating for the simple reason that 93% of teens are online, versus 73% eight years ago. Their use is intensifying; a third go online multiple times a day. However technology has not been able to use Special Relativity to create more hours in the day, so we can anticipate that the new technologies will become like “wallpaper,” unremarkable parts of the everyday flow of life. And despite the fear voiced up front, teens still value face-to-face contact. As for parents, you’re on your own. But it’s a comfort to know that almost any average eight year old could help you program your web phone.

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Scientific Computing for the Masses

End of January 2008

The temple of scientific computing has been opened to unwashed heathens. Science has always pushed the envelope of computation and the state of the art of computers. Until a decade ago, supercomputers built by IBM and Hitachi and Cray duked it out to claim the title of fastest calculator; their speeds were measured in teraflops, where a teraflop is a mind-bending trillion floating point operations per second. Such machines were power-hungry and cost tens of millions of dollars and they had sleek housings made of anodized aluminum. It took chilled water or Freon to sooth their fevered circuits. Supercomputers were cool, literally and metaphorically.

Supercomputers still exist and they’re used to tackle the toughest problems in science: how galaxies form, how proteins fold, what happens when an atomic bomb goes off underground, and how to embarrass mere mortals at the game of chess. The current record-holder is an IBM machine called Blue Gene that clocks in at a staggering 500 trillion operations per second. It could do you taxes in a nanosecond, if it would ever stoop that low.

But the relentless pace of Moore’s law means that a high end desktop today is like the supercomputer of only a decade ago. Moreover, blazing speed in a supercomputer is achieved by clustering processors and running them in parallel. As PCs gained speed researchers realized they could be harnessed into a highly distributed supercomputer, where the calculations are parceled out over the Internet and the answer is assembled afterwards.

Rather than a supercomputer in a room, this is a supercomputer in thousands of rooms scattered across the world. There are a half a billion PCs around the world. They spend most of their time idling, and rarely approach their computational capacity even when they are being used by their owners. Scientists have figured out how to harness this vast excess capacity on a volunteer basis. Most people are delighted to be able to help solve problems at the cutting edge of science.

Volunteer or networked computing has projects across all scientific disciplines, spurred by an open-source platform to make it easy to set up and manage these projects called, with onomatopoeic whimsy, BOINC, or the Berkeley Open Infrastructure Initiative for Network Computing. Projects include searches for prime numbers and cancer cures and testing for drugs that can combat tropical diseases. IBM has harnessed 800,000 volunteer computers for a variety of philanthropic and humanitarian causes. A group from Stanford studies protein-folding, which is the key to a variety of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and late last year they used the processing power of 40,000 Playstation 3’s to pass the magical petaflop barrier, a quadrillion floating point operations per second.

Astronomy features heavily in this new form of “citizen” computing. The granddaddy of distributed computing projects is SETI@home, which started in 1999 and has had over 6 million participants. This screensaver analyzes chunks of radio spectral data looking for artificial signals from extraterrestrial civilizations; none has been found so far. Some of the more interesting distributed computing projects tap the skill and judgment of their participants, not just their CPU’s. Stardust@home enlisted 24,000 volunteers to search images of the porous aerogel from the Stardust comet sample return mission for telltale tracks of interstellar dust grains. This needle in a haystack project was very successful; forty million searches resulted in fifty new dust particles recovered.

The Galaxy Zoo has been even more of a hit. This British-American collaboration seeks civilian scientists to classify the shapes and types of galaxies from Sloan Digital Sky Survey images, of which there are too many for professionals to handle. In under a year, 100,000 volunteers have classified over a million galaxies. Project managers had to buy new servers to handle the overwhelming public response. Each galaxy is classified by as many as 30 volunteers. The results are just as accurate as classification by a professional.

It’s unabashed good news that computing power is making science less of a priesthood, and letting members of the public participate in cutting-edge research or help find the answers to real-world problems. If you are not doing research right now, you’re almost certainly wasting the computer in front of you.

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Getting Used to Exponential Change

Middle of January 2008

We’re captives of linear thinking because time flows like a river and our lives play out linearly. The closest most of us get to an appreciation of non-linear growth is the wonder of compound interest. Exponential change is so dramatic intuition fails us. We smile at the story of the precocious child who normally gets $10 a week pocket money, but tells her father that she’ll cut him a break but accepting a penny at the beginning of the year and doubling it each week thereafter. Wise fathers decline the offer because the monthly amount will reach $10 in March and instead of $520 they’ll be in for more that the GNP of the world, $45,000,000,000,000 by years’ end.

Some technologies change slowly or improve only marginally. The internal combustion engine is mostly unchanged in a century and the rockets that power the Space Shuttle are close relatives of the chemical rockets that launched Sputnik fifty years ago. Information technology is different. The speed of microprocessors has been doubling every twelve to eighteen months since the mid 1960’s, and Moore’s law is accompanied by shrinkage in size that decreases the power requirement and increases the portability of computers and computational devices. Experts differ on how long this virtuous trend can continue. The fundamental limits of the architecture of integrated circuits are being approached, but by using light instead of electrons Moore’s law might continue for a decade. Beyond that, the famous physicist Richard Feynman pointed out, there’s “room at the bottom.” If bits can flip at the level of individual atoms, the engine of ever-increasing computer power won’t run out of steam, if you’ll pardon the anachronistic metaphor.

Moore’s law is paralleled by two trends equally relevant to information technology. One is the logarithmic or exponential increase in the capacity of memory or storage of digital information. The other is the rapid increase in the bandwidth of most wired and wireless networks. These trends create an extraordinary convergence of benefits for anyone who uses information technology, which is to say: everyone. The manipulation, storage, and transmission of bits are all getting ever-easier and ever-cheaper.

Of course it doesn’t always feel that way. Bloated and Byzantine software seems capable of absorbing all the gains on offer from Moore’s law (for more information, try Googling “Wintel conspiracy.”) Images, music, and particularly, video, can fill the most capacious hard drive, and the sharing of such material within rapidly-growing social networks will tax bandwidth even as it rapidly grows. Despite these teething pains, our digital lives are much richer and more capable than they were a decade ago.

What would happen if we were to anticipate exponential change, rather than just riding it breathlessly? Ironically, if you’re in any business that involves solving problems or doing calculations, you should sit on your hands and do nothing. Procrastination is the logical answer. Why? Because anything you can do right now will be subsumed and superseded in the future. In my field of astronomy, this is the situation of the people who search for radio signals from hypothetical intelligent aliens. They scan the radio spectrum Hertz by Hertz and look at as many stars as possible; the experiment is limited by both bandwidth and computation speed. The survey started last year using the Allen Array will exceed in a year the sum of all surveys that preceded it over fifty years. Such is the power of riding the exponential curve.

Many people do in fact wait on technology. The first cell phones in the 1970’s were the size of a small briefcase, very power-hungry, and served by limited networks. The first PCs of the 1980’s were prone to crashing, and their speed limited them to simple tasks and games. The rapid maturation of technology is a natural byproduct of Moore’s law because a lower price leads to economies of scale in manufacturing and larger potential markets. We sensibly jump into a new technology when it has evolved beyond the first few steps along the exponential curve.

A modest extrapolation of current trends, and technologies currently in the lab, leads to the following prediction. In fifteen, or maybe twenty years, we’ll only dimly remember cursing the slow downloads off the Internet, getting frustrated because we’ve filled our memory stick or iPod, or staring at the hourglass icon (another wonderfully anachronistic metaphor) while our computer chews on some process. Fifteen years of eighteen-monthly doubling is two to the power ten, or a factor of a thousand. Let’s be conservative and say the gain is only a factor of a hundred.

When the average microprocessor runs at 100 GHz, the average memory device holds 1000 Gbytes, and the wireless Internet runs at 10 Gbits per second, the situation will fundamentally change. When your personal computing device holds all the music you could ever listen to or all the photos you could ever take, when you can have instantly delivered to your handheld any web page or video clip, the organization and navigation of information becomes more important that your degree of access to information. The limitations of human sensory input and human processing power will dominate. Without tools to make sense of the cyber-babble, Moore’s law risks turning into a curse of plenty. In this important aspect the Information Age is still in its infancy.

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