September II 2007

12 September 2007

Fredric Morris, Editor-In-Chief, Connect-World
Fredric Morris

The Web, the brain, science fiction, business fiction, artificial intelligence and real intelligence

Ever had a bit of music, a fragment, a phrase from a song, running around non-stop in your mind? I haven’t been able to ignore certain bits of news, statistics and whatnot I’ve come across in the last week; they seemed somewhat connected, but I was not sure just how. These disconnected notices eventually jelled into a plausible, if not necessarily probable, scenario. Who knows, the scenario just might come true sooner than many would expect.

Not so very long ago, the Internet bubble burst. A lot of companies and jobs and hopes burst with it. Things eventually picked up; the spin masters got the world spinning again. A few months ago I heard the head of a major network equipment company say that Internet traffic would grow at 500 per cent per year. This week I read an article in a newspaper someone had left in a seat near an airport boarding gate that a professor – if I remember correctly from the University of Minnesota – calculated that Internet growth is closer to 50 per cent than 500. Of course this could be temporary. The growth of IPTV, of YouTube-type services will all supercharge the growth of the net. Whatever happens, the growth of the Internet will reach unimaginable levels – it is just a matter of time.

Images of all kinds will drive an incredible amount of traffic; some for entertainment, others for education or business use and still others will be recognized and acted upon automatically. My feeling though, is that although images will generate traffic, hyper-connectivity and interoperability – everything connected to everything and working with everything – will be the true driver of growth and profitability. I’ve seen estimates that there will be at least one trillion devices hooked to the Net by 2010. This will include not only PCs, but also smartphones, RFID devices and, in time, just about anything else with a chip in it. I suspect that this sort of connectivity – and the traffic it generates – will grow much more, and much faster, than most of us imagine.

In another developing field I was reading about, Dharmendra Modha, the Manager of Cognitive Computing at IBM’s Almaden Research Center, who is trying to figure out just how to re-create, or at least emulate, as much as possible of the human brain’s functioning. He has a blog for those who wish to follow this sort of research at

They are working on a reverse engineering of the brain using a “massively parallel cortical simulator”. So far, they have concentrated on re-creating a functioning mouse-brain – some 3,500 times less complex than a human brain, they say – on a supercomputer. This stretches even the resources of today’s supercomputers quite thin; IBM’s biggest take six seconds to emulate one second of what they take to be mouse thoughts. Hope is in sight; IBM expects to be pumping one quadrillion calculations per second, about the same volume as the human brain, through their supercomputers by 2010.

This is quite a bit different from the attempts, starting almost a half-century ago, to create artificial intelligence, AI, using software and algorithms to mimic intelligent decision-making. Some of the AI initiatives have dealt quite successfully with a number of problems, but overall AI has had only limited success. It ran into a series of intractable methodological and ‚Äòphilosophical’ problems aggravated by the practical limits of today’s computers.

The latest techniques will, no doubt, build in part upon AI’s successes, but IBM’s latest effort takes a different path. According to Modha’s page on the IBM website, “The idea is to re-create the ‘wetware’ brain using hardware and software.”

To understand what all this has to do with the growth of Internet traffic, we need a few more bits of the news and ideas I’ve run into or re-encountered during the past week.

One year after 2010, the year that supercomputers will begin to handle the same number of operations per second as the human brain, Hitachi expects to commercialise its new non-invasive, neuroimaging-based, mind-machine interface. The system is currently limited to simple switching decisions – operators can turn a train set on and off simply by thinking about it, but within five years the company expects that paralysed patients and others “undergoing cognitive rehabilitation” will be able to use the system to perform a variety of mind-controlled tasks. I read last week that a young girl wired with sensors is able to play Space Invaders just by thinking about the moves. Is there anything that moves faster than gaming technology?

There are many reports on the Web about research into these types of controls. Today, some of us use voice-activated controls to make and answer calls on our mobile phones. I suspect that some years from now mind activated controls will become more common. Although this in and of itself will generate more Internet traffic, the real jump in traffic will come from this in combination with a number of the other factors mentioned above.

Hyper-connectivity will by itself generate a tremendous amount of traffic; more than a trillion interconnected devices swapping information will move volumes of data unlike anything we have seen so far. Utility computing (sometimes called grid or cloud computing) using the Web as the platform will not only move data, but the programmes and applications that process it as well.

As the level of intelligence in the network – and the speed with which the network can process information and execute applications grows – and as we add ‚Äòmind-control’ applications to the mix (even if only for gaming) the overall system will reach the level and complexity of the brain. This will not be the same as the human brain, for a great variety of reasons, but the ability of this globally interconnected system with human-like, but faster, ‚Äòreasoning’ to gather, respond to, analyse and absorb information will reach awe-inspiring levels. At this point, the network itself might generate a great part, perhaps even the major part, of the total traffic.

It is fascinating to imagine how current trends and R&D might develop over the next few years, but it will be even more fascinating to see what really happens as developments such as these increasingly turn the Web into the planet’s nervous system. Will this happen soon? Certainly not entirely, but everything I am speaking of is in the works or exists in some form today. Other, still unimaginable, developments will enter the mix, others will slow down or die, but many will live on in simplified or partial form and add their richness to the mix.

This all sounds a bit like science fiction, I know. Still, in the years I’ve spent as a professional planner I have seen that truly new advanced technologies most often sound like science fiction at first. This science fiction, though, often turns into a sort of business fiction in the hands of corporate visionaries – yes, they exist and are responsible for many of the technological marvels we now take for granted. Significant business fictions often turn into significant marketable products that change society, the economy and the lives of people; just look at your cell phone.


Our next Connect-World Latin America issue will be published later this month. The issue will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows where we are one of the main media sponsors such as: Futurecom (1-4 Oct, Florianópolis, Brazil) and Broadband World Forum Americas (3-6 Dec, Sao Paulo, Brazil).

The theme of this issue of Connect-World Latin America will be Innovation and trends.

Innovation in the information and communication technology, ICT, sector drives a significant portion of the world’s economic growth. As in all sectors, novelty and fashion certainly pushes the market, nevertheless, the ICT driven economic boost is predominantly a reflection of the fundamental contributions these technologies bring to the economy.

New hardware spawns new software, applications and content, and vice versa. ICT innovation – new technologies, products, services and applications – increases productivity, increase efficiency, reduce costs and build revenues of provider and user alike. Innovation in the sector creates not only new business, but also new, previously all but unimaginable, businesses and jobs. Due to ITC innovations, existing businesses, through foresight or necessity, re-invent themselves, redefining, creating or eliminating jobs. New companies spring up overnight to take advantage new market opportunities. Innovations give policy makers and regulator sleepless nights, but the same innovations also make possible vast improvements in government services. e-Government is revolutionising the responsiveness of even the most tight-budgeted governments around the globe.