Building structures for the information age
A personal view by Al R. Vilcius
Imagine having a computer in your pocket! Not in a big bulky bag, or even on a belt holster, but on a slim bit of material in your wallet. Some people might find that thought thrilling, some may find it repulsive or even scary, while others may find it simply irrelevant Ė just another big so-what. In fact, there are many people I know who donít even like having a computer on their desk or even at home Ė imagine that!
But what if it were possible to dispense with all that paraphernalia of screens, keyboards, boxes, etc. while increasing functionality and security at the same time. Perhaps it is possible to have a little silicone device that is a really friendly and helpful companion. Perhaps it could be thought of as a sort of parallel to Microsoft using this "helpful companion" idea with its office assistant found in its 97 versions of its popular office software. Still just having this little bit of silicone in your pocket is by itself not such a big deal. The "killer app" comes in when all these little guys will be able to talk to each other, privately and securely, on our behalf - i.e. communication and connectivity is where it literally all comes together. This notion of communication almost has a Zen-like quality of the universal oneness to it - it reminds me of finding real truth from the hotdog vendor that "made me one with everything". The one-with-everything might be achievable in the information age through connectivity, which is the all-dressed version of modern electronic applications.
I believe we are in a Golden Age of Electronic Commerce. This brings me to my vision of what I call "The Intelligent Society", borrowing and building on a slogan by former Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, but extended into an electronic future. Perhaps we have not quite achieved all of the dreams and wishes of Trudeauís "Just Society". There are, of course, many other missions that are still incomplete, like the paperless office and "donít pay a cent" events. Nevertheless, I believe we must continue our relentless move towards the next phase of our social development, into the information age. Construction of the intelligent society focuses on the movement of representations in the form of bit strings, or bitreps for short. As the fundamental digital building blocks for this society, bitreps are just bit-strings that represent something, that is, series of 0's and 1's that have a meaning derived through some means of interpretation. For example, the 40 bits
might represent a telephone number. Most people would still probably rather use the decimal equivalent to record or remember a telephone number, by force of habit, and add some landmarks like brackets, dashes, or spaces to make it look like (416) 365-6677. The telephone unit itself may be set up to recognise this 40-bit string in groupings as a series of tones. In any case, the bit string actually represents the address of another communication device through which you could reach a person or service by using this bitrep, at least in this context. So we see that bitreps are context sensitive. On a philosophical level, the notion of bitreps does not deny the Pythagorean concept that everything is numbers. On a practical level, bitreps give us a way of identifying and dealing with objects in a context sensitive world. Clearly the bit strings by themselves are not enough for our practical purposes. We need assistance in interpreting bitreps, like turning the 40 bits above into a more conventional looking phone number. This involves the use of an algorithm which is just a set of rules to parse inputs and apply transformations (computations) to obtain an output. In general, the amazing thing is that there are so many ways of transforming inputs into outputs. Technically, there are infinitely many algorithms that can be applied to a bit string. The choices we make for our use involve science, art, and business. The fundamental theme here is that "intelligence is in the pattern". Art exploits pattern for conveying feelings, science exploits pattern for computation and inference, and business exploits pattern for trade and profit. Indeed, it is this ensemble of patterns and their relationships that constitute the "Intelligent Society".
A brief diversion here may help explain this concept a little bit further. A person that had a profound influence on me was a math professor I had as an undergraduate, the late Father Eric O'Connor. In addition to being a fine mathematician, he was also a Jesuit priest, a combination which seemed to give him special insights. Once I asked him what was needed to be a good mathematician. His simple and elegant answer surprised me because it was not a list of topics or theorems, but rather he said a good mathematician must know how to count and recognise patterns. Clearly he was not talking about counting eggs in a basket, but rather about things like counting algorithms which is what Goedel did in his seminal work, or counting transmission links in a network flow, or counting relative frequencies in financial market events. The patterns are then the theorems and relationships which are either constructed or observed. For practical purposes, I regard mathematics as an extension of the natural language to increase and enhance its powers of description, interpretation, and inference. It is in this sense that I see using patterns as fundamental to all aspects of what we think and do, and in this way that I think of patterns as the principal elements of the intelligent society.
Communication of bitreps is what brings my idea of the intelligent society back to that little portable chip called a smart card or IC (integrated circuit) card nowadays. It can help us to transmit materials, or rather their representations, which is what being digital is all about. For example, electronic money is just a bitrep. The bit string we call money has value only because a pattern like DM225 (or its binary representation) is interpreted through various algorithms to have value by agreement within a financial infrastructure. There is no natural or canonical reason for a string of bits or numbers to have value in any sense, except as a content sensitive bitrep. But once users agree, much can be done with bitreps. Indeed money is an ideal artefact in the information age because it actually needs no physical form at all - it can be a pure bitrep. To make it work for us, we just have to move the bits!
On one hand, bitreps are enormously powerful and flexible ways of encapsulating a pattern. On the other hand, bitreps seem awkward and clumsy for human use. This is exactly where technology can be used for our benefit in general, and smart cards in particular. The chip on a smart card is capable of storing these long "meaningless" strings of 0's and 1's, and computing with them according to the context sensitive algorithms users have agreed upon, thereby extracting the pattern and adding security, which is what we are really after.
Where would you stick this little card? Many people would make suggestions that I would not care to write here. Now we are into implementation details. But before investments are made in physical devices and infrastructure, we need to go through the process of formulating our wish list. Then the serious work of defining requirements, establishing standards, making business cases, writing specifications, designing algorithms and devices, writing code, devising processes, etc. can begin. So realising that bitreps are important and that smart cards can help us deal with bitreps in a useful manner, my question really is "where would you want to stick this little card". That is what I would like to explore further here.
My notion is that smart cards will become the Swiss Army Knife of the Information Age, a standard tool of those that inhabit the Intelligent Society. Furthermore, I think this is completely consistent with concepts the inventors of computers had to begin with, only in a different and extended format, and with added connectivity. The original idea of a computer as conceived by John von Neumann was that of a general purpose machine. Computers are supposed to compute, with numbers. But when numbers are regarded as representations, so much more happens. Computing algorithms on bitreps is what leads to the patterns which indeed serve our general purpose, especially when we can communicate these patterns. Some of the insights von Neumann had in the fifties are still futuristic e.g. neural nets, parallel computing, and the statistical language of the brain, not to mention quantum theory, Hilbert space, Ö the list goes on and on. As an aside, I recommend "The Computer and the Brain", a publication by the Yale University Press of the last manuscript written but unfinished by von Neumann Ė who is acknowledged to be one of the most powerful and exceptional minds ever.
Not to dwell on the visions of the past, it must of course be recognised that things do change, sometimes fundamentally, and sometimes with amazing (relative) speed. The notion of relative time is a whole other topic, concerning variation in general, and will be explored elsewhere. However, here is a rather simple example from my own experience which relates to technological change accommodating information needs:
But now Iím wondering if I really need to carry around that extra few pounds of plastic and metal at all, especially when Iím often looking for ways to loose a few pounds anyway. Letís face it, the item itself is a pretty generic piece of logic and hardware that actually causes me lots of grief to boot (pun intended) and is a constant target for theft. I thought the latter fear was only paranoia on my part, until my laptop actually got stolen in Vancouver, out of a locked 4th floor conference room at the Hyatt Hotel. That was devastating! Even though the software on it was pretty generic, there was information in the form of patterns I constructed that had great value to me. The change I want, and I believe many others want also, is to have the critical bits on a smart card which I can plug-in to devices anywhere and everywhere I need them. These devices could be as common and ubiquitous as telephones and parking meters are today. Furthermore, the generic software does not have to be present on my card - I could "rent" it through access to a remote location, requiring only the key on my card. Of course this raises a large number of issues: Is it secure? Is it private? What are the "standards"? Will it do my laundry? Coming to grips with these (and many more) issues is all part of constructing the Intelligent Society.
In the information age, the rent vs. buy decision is intimately linked with the concept of distributed intelligence. The mainframe environment of the past has moved in numerous steps to a new PC environment. Next steps are to move toward a distributed data processing environment. This can be thought of as resembling the human brain itself which is composed of neurons that interact with other neurons in complex patters through neural transmitters. The analogy here is that computers located all across the world are like the neurons of a brain with smart cards being the neural transmitters that activate the interaction, producing the overall patterns of intelligence in our society. This may already sound pretty far fetched, but we can go even farther. The resulting network of computer communications could be regarded as a new life form. Indeed, the Internet was the only thing that could not be "killed" during the break-up of the Soviet Union because it seemed to have an extremely robust life of its own. Notwithstanding fantasies of understanding the brain or creating life forms, there are serious and practical elements to be derived from distributed intelligence for everyday living.
The manifestation of distributed intelligence that will touch everyday life is "point of interaction" automation and synchronous vs. asynchronous communication. Again there could be very interesting philosophical digressions here, exploring the meaning of simultaneity or extending the previous analogy with the brain to the complete nervous system. However, for practical purposes, distributed intelligence means that "processing" associated with specific tasks or functions may be distributed totally, partially, or not at all; it may be localised or centralised or paralleled through a network. This relates to having nodes like neurons capable of performing tasks locally or requiring reference to other neurons. In this way the logical is no longer bounded by physical distributions ie limitations are disappearing rapidly due to communication: either through copper/glass wire or through "ethereal" connections. The computing world currently makes technical distinctions between:
Standardisation is of course certainly a key factor here since it is a critical component for connectivity, even for open systems. There are many more key facts which need to be explored and resolved in addition.
Although much of the discussion here has focused on smart cards, my vision of the "Intelligent Society" goes much further. On the business side, I believe the concepts of "distributed intelligence" will migrate into the securities area which still holds a special interest for me. Nevertheless, I believe the construction of the Intelligent Society is an enormous undertaking, just now starting to explode with opportunity, and here I am just scratching the surface. An obvious area for explosive development of complex bitreps is in Virtual Reality! I hope to advance additional related ideas in future postings.
The "Intelligent Society" provides a framework for both theoretical and applied investigations in a number of vital directions.
General Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are strictly personal and do not necessarily reflect those of any group, organization, or business entity;
Copyright © 1998 by Al R. Vilcius, Toronto, Canada
Please send e-mail to: AL.R@VILCIUS.com
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