The One Machine

What Is the Value of a Telecommunications Network

By Jeffrey R. Harrow, Principal Technologist, The Harrow Group


An interesting change is in the offing that holds the promise of delivering far more communicative “things”: Big things, little things, things that are parts of bigger things, and things that can do things they could never do before – because they can talk amongst themselves – and with you.

This change is the opening of the U.S. cell phone networks so that almost anything, not just the cell phones the cellular carriers sell, can reach out and touch on the cellular networks. As one offshoot of a recent spectrum allocation, the carriers, including the 700-pound gorilla, Verizon Wireless, will be allowing a growing assortment of things to send and receive information. It means that for any purpose we can imagine, we’ll be able to buy components that will either be able to communicate natively (such as a sensor from SupplyNet that reports the level of liquid in a tank), or buy communicative bolt-ons such as, perhaps, a USB cellular “stick.”

Of course, many things can communicate today – proprietary wireless connectivity is available for a price, and cellular modems that can put computers and other special-purpose devices “on the air” have been around for some time. But they are relatively expensive, in part due to just a few sources that have the blessing of the cellular carriers. The magic will be that as the carriers increasingly relax the “certifications” they require for devices that join their networks, a Darwinian evolution of talkative things will sprout at mass-production prices.

I suspect we’re on the cusp of a communications revolution akin to the 1968 Carterfone Decision that allowed pretty much any device to plug into a wired phone jack. That spawned entire industries of consumer electronics, security and other ad hoc solutions that were only possible once they could communicate over the public (then wired) telecommunications network. We’re about to experience the same thing for the un-wired.

And like last time, once the marketplace can innovate en mass rather than only through a few carriers’ product choices, there will be an enormous array of communicative “tinker toy” building blocks that we can use to forge new solutions for our customers’ needs. And their “needs” are going to dramatically grow because of The Network Effect.

Speaking of networks, Metcalf’s Law says, “The value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.”

It explains why fax machines were not very useful until a sufficient number of businesses had them; why cell phones were at first an expensive curiosity; and why the Internet continually becomes ever-more important as its number of connected computers, and connected users, grows.

Already, if a business or even an individual is not part of the Internet in appropriate ways, they can be at a competitive or social disadvantage. Yet it’s hard to imagine that the Web (which represents the visible face of the Internet to most folks) is less than twenty years old!

Following Metcalf’s Law, it’s clear that the Internet will increasingly innervate every element of how we work, live, and play at a vastly accelerating rate.

Tomorrow’s Internet

With that much change on the way, taking the time to envision where it may lead could lead to “ah ha” competitive moments. Which is why I found a talk by Kevin Kelly at the 2007 EG conference, where he extrapolated what the Internet might look like 15 years from now, most interesting. He predicts:

  • 1 billion connected PC chips
  • 600 billion RFID tags in use
  • 2 billion location-aware nodes
  • 8 terrabytes of traffic each second
  • 2 million emails each second
  • 1 million instant messages each second
  • 17,000 voice queries each minute
  • 7 million phone calls each hour
  • 100 billion clicks every day

He suggests that the Internet will then have 55 trillion links, which approximates the number of synapses in the human brain, and that the quintillion transistors that will then be touching the Internet approximates the number of neurons in the human brain. “To a first approximation, the size of this “machine” [will be] the size, in its complexity… to your brain,” he says.

He calls it 1 “HB” (one Human Brain).

Kelly then goes on to suggest that in the Internet’s subsequent 15 years of growth (about 30 years from now), “The One Machine” will have grown to “a six-billion HB level of complexity,” while of course our brains will not have evolved in any meaningful way, leading to, “By 2040, the total processing power of this machine will exceed the total processing power of humanity.”

Will We Be Borged?

We don’t know enough about what makes us “aware” to infer that “complexity” and “processing power” equals “awareness.” So even if Kelly’s assertion that our brains and the Internet will become similarly complex is correct, it does not necessarily follow that it will become self-aware like Colossus in The Forbin Project.

But some of Kelly’s thoughts on how the expanding Internet might change already feel like writing on the virtual wall. For example:

  • Kelly suggests that all our devices will simply be portals into “the cloud” of The One Machine.
  • Google’s Web-based “App Engine,”Amazon’s “EC2” and Microsoft’s “Azure” efforts into cloud computing are already herding us down just that path. Then add in the many new “things” that will soon be joining the Internet wirelessly through the opening up of the cellular networks that we discussed above, and a cloud of interconnected processors and people and storage and things – a virtual one machine – seems about right.
  • Kelly also says that humans are the “extensions” of The One Machine: They are the eyes and ears of YouTube and Flickr and the like.

But those already-household-names are only the beginning. “The One Machine” can already go farther, such as by combining those individual movies and pictures that we place on the Web into a picture that is far greater than the sum of its parts. For example, Microsoft’s Photosynth plucks thousands of snapshots of, say, tourist locations, from the Internet and creates a rendering of the subject in far greater detail than from any one picture. As Microsoft describes it, “[Photosynth] can capture the sweeping scale of a mile of the Grand Canal in Venice and focus in on the exquisite rot at the waterline of a beautifully decaying palazzo doorway.” You’ll have to play with it to appreciate how this lets you explore an extraordinary breadth of detail from what is seemingly a single photograph, only made possible by the photos of popular places that just happen to be stored on the Web by you and I.

These are just examples of how today’s “fringe” or experimental uses of the Internet could well become the norm as the Internet continues to grow in usefulness, driven by Metcalf’s Law. Perhaps most significantly, these potentials don’t seem that “far out” at all.

Breaking Shackles

The one thing about the Internet that has been a constant is its breaking of innovation’s shackles. Bright minds were let loose in a fertile networking playground that didn’t regulate or restrain their out-of-the-box ideas, and the incredible diversity of applications and continuous organic evolution that is today’s Internet became almost a given. And we are still very much at the beginning of this journey.

The Internet played a significant role in the recent U.S. presidential race, and one of the race’s mottos seems just as appropriate to the Internet’s own future as it did for the political candidate. The Internet, innovating constantly, keeps saying “Yes, we can.”

Don’t Blink.

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