SHADES OF GREY: An essay by Extropia DaSilva

Looking at the first trend, there’s little doubt that we are rapidly approaching an era where the scale of information technology grows beyond a human’s capacity to comprehend. The computers that make up the US TeraGrid have 20 trillion ops of tightly integrated supercomputer power, a storage capacity of 1,000 trillion bytes of data, all connected to a network that transmits 40 billion bits/sec. What’s more, it’s designed to grow into a system with a thousand times as much power. This would need the prefix ‘zetta’ which means ‘one thousand billion billion’, a number too large to imagine. Then there is the prospect of extreme-bandwidth communication. ‘Wavelength Division Multiplexing’ allows the bandwidth of optical fibre to be divided into many separate colours (wavelengths, in other words), so that a single fibre carries around 96 lasers, each with a capacity of 40 billion bits/sec. It’s also possible to design cables that pack in around 600 strands of optical fibre, for a total of more than a thousand trillion bits per second. Again, this is an awesome amount of information that is being transmitted.

These two examples represent two of the four overlapping revolutions that are occurring, thanks to the evolution of IT. The first of these, the growth of dumb computing, is referred to as James Martin as ‘the overthrow of matter because it stores such a vast number of bits and logic in such a small space’. It was not so long ago that futurists were making wild claims about a future web with 15 terabytes of content. That’s not so impressive compared to Google’s current total database, measured in hundreds of petabytes, which itself now amounts to less than one data centre row.

The second revolution is the ‘overthrow of distance’, a result of fibre-optic networking and wireless communication. These revolutions will ultimately converge on a ‘global computer’ that embraces devices spanning scales from the largest to the smallest. Data centres sprawling across acres of land, acting as huge centralized computers comprised of tens of thousands of servers. Optical networks will transport their data over vast distances without degradation. Today, many of the duties once delegated to the CPU in your PC can now be performed on web-based applications. Current research, inscribing lasers on tops of chips, and the aforementioned all-optical networks, will radically decentralize our computing environment, as the Omninet embraces handheld communicators and receives data from ubiquitous sensors no larger than specks of dust. As George Gilder put it, ‘(the Omninet) will link to trillions of sensors around the globe, giving it constant knowledge of the physical state of the world’.

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