Monday, August 27, 2007

Takahashi: A future of embedded chips, networks

By Dean TakahashiMercury News
Article Launched: 08/23/2007 01:36:45 AM PDT

Sometimes technologists don't stretch enough when they make predictions. That's when it's time to bring in a science-fiction author. The organizers of the Hot Chips conference at Stanford University relied on this wisdom for their keynote speaker this week.

And Vernor Vinge didn't disappoint the 600 chip designers at the conference. The author of sci-fi books "Rainbow's End" and "True Names" held the attention of the audience, partly because he is a retired computer science professor who spoke their language and has been writing sci-fi since 1965.

Vinge thinks of the future in scenarios. Because microprocessors are built into everything from cars to toys, he says he can foresee a rosy scenario where everything around us has electronic awareness built into it. I spoke with him afterward and he told me it would only require an incremental economic build-out of the current embedded electronics to lead society to a state of "digital Gaia," a reference to the theory that the Earth is a living, interconnected being.

As we get cheaper processors and sensors that are networked, these components can form the infrastructure for ubiquitous digital communications, like a sea of "digital plankton" that becomes the beginning of the food chain for all kinds of rich electronic services. If you're thinking of an Internet that connects everyday things, such as sensors in a vineyard or a networked alarm clock, you have the idea.

But he also sees four scenarios that can get in the way of such a world.

The first failure scenario would happen if Moore's Law, the prediction made by Intel Chairman Emeritus Gordon Moore that the number of components on a chip would double every couple of years, comes to a halt after decades of progress. But Vinge thinks the economic demand for progress is likely to keep the engines of Moore's Law going.

The second failure would happen if software can't keep up with hardware. The slow progress of artificial intelligence, for instance, is due more to the failure to create the right software for it than hardware that lacks performance. Chip companies like Intel are loading up chips with multiple cores, or computing brains, to avoid overheating problems associated with single-core chips. But they will have to wait for the software programmers to catch up, and if software becomes too complex to manage, it will never catch up. Vinge says the consequence could be disastrous: Imagine a multitasking air traffic computer sending 12 airplanes into the same airspace.

The third failure scenario happens when the software works, but the hardware doesn't. If we come to rely on a sea of chips embedded into everything, there is always the chance that the hardware will fail under the conditions when you need it most. We can avoid this future, Vinge says, if we preserve our hardware design diversity, avoiding a "monoculture." He said, for example, that we should avoid using only semiconductor chips and embrace other kinds of technologies - maybe quantum computers - that could serve the same purpose.

The fourth scenario of failure comes about when we surrender to the government. This happens if we pour all of our resources into security. Recent headlines about congressional approval of warrantless wiretapping leave him worried that the government will one day ask to put its own circuitry into every chip, justifying this action in the name of security. Chips with eavesdropping circuitry built into them would arguably create conveniences, like automatic tax collection on every single transaction performed with those chips. We'll never have to calculate our own taxes again or try to drive over the speed limit. The chips won't let us.

Clearly this was tongue-in-cheek praise on his part. He was winking at me the whole time he talked about the great benefits of such government omniscience. In reality, he said, this could lead to the nightmare of totalitarian control that Orwellians never imagined.

Vinge may sound paranoid. But he is simply taking today's headlines and stretching them to their logical conclusions in the future. It would behoove us all to start thinking about these scenarios and how to head them off.

But he also sees four scenarios that can get in the way of such a world.

If the fourth scenario happens, people (and AI) will create counter-measures to stop the government chips from spying on us. I mean, the demand for those services would be huge. Because if the government could spy on everything you're doing, it would just get totally out of hand.

It would take an unimaginable tragedy for the people to accept that kind of government control in their lives. Hmmm...


Blogger Tim Swanson said...

The government would never be able to do that. This is just right wing propaganda, because in reality, governments derive their power from fluoride. And our precious bodily fluids.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Bartleby said...

Thanks for your comment.

Was that a "Dr Strangelove" quote I hear? :p

3:03 AM  

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