The Interface

This is my take on Ubiquitous Computing.
For the past several weeks, I’ve mused on some sort of system that would allow collaboration between urban planners, politicians, and citizens of large cities. This would be a system that would allow people in a given city to readily reference what they are doing to address any one issue; people in other cities would have open access to this knowledge and would work collaboratively on shared solutions.

Originally, I had thought that a well-planned weblog could address this; however, on further reflection, no weblog (as we understand them now) could handle this much traffic and information. Imagine if every city planner in the world attempted to simultaneously discuss wastewater treatment and determine a collaborative plan of action. It may be almost possible with the systems available; however, what if the citizens of each of these cities also offered input? What if all the articles, abstracts, and past research were cross-referenced? It would quickly become a mass of unmanageable information. The next thought was a cross between Google News and (whatever the NSA is using to read and monitor e-mail which I probably don’t really want to know about). But even that would not be “intelligent” enough to collate such information. So, obviously, such a discussion would have to be moderated; but by whom? No one person could possibly moderate such massive discussions; beyond that, the discussion would be taking place in every major language simultaneously. Someone would have to translate everything—into everything else—in real time.

I was recently presented with three questions:

  1. In the future, how will we communicate?
  2. Will we shift from the service of war to the service of life?
  3. How will we eradicate poverty?

Each of these three interconnect; we can’t really answer one without addressing the others. I was drafting out responses to each; however, I think it’s all one question. Or, rather, they all point to common answers.

At one point, I thought I could readily define the root of all evil. However, evil is too complex an issue to confine to statements and definitions. The proposal I am about to make would not eradicate evil and eliminate war. In fact, if done improperly, it would significantly add to misery and abuse of power. But, I dare say, this is a logical step to address the three questions above.

I want that city planner, when he or she is standing in front of the mirror in the morning, to have an idea for addressing an issue. By that evening, he or she will have communicated with everyone in the world who is having similar thoughts and developed a plausible plan of action.

We have, in the past few years, experienced a sea change in communications and collaborative ability; however, we are still bound by many linguistic and interpersonal barriers. Though we can each post out thoughts on weblogs and openly discuss issues, there are still many limits to this sort of collaboration. The most obvious is language; I post in English and don’t read Russian, etc. An Arabic speaking person might have the best answer to a certain problem, but her insight is lost to the rest of us. Or, more likely, she has part of the answer; she has one part of a thousand part answer. But those thousands of people have no ready way to communicate or coordinate their efforts.

This is frustrating. It’s not necessarily that each of these individuals are aware they have some part of a larger answer with no way to express it; people are frustrated because they realise the world is larger than their immediate community and the value of this local community is lost on the world scale. Without a way to connect their local community to the larger whole, people become afraid. When people become afraid, they often react violently. If these many thousands concerned with one issue could connect globally to others who have similar thoughts and problems, perhaps some of this fear could be diffused. (We all, no matter what culture or country, have many of the same base problems to address.)

These communities, filled with many billions of parts of answers to as many questions, are the real wealth of the world. Currency as we understand it is illusory. Rather than understanding some communities as “poor” and others as “wealthy”, we ought, rather, to explore the real human capital invested in every human thought. If a method of real time and ready collaboration could be developed among all humanity, our entire understanding of wealth and society would, of necessity, change. It would be in the best interest of all of us for each of us to be as educated and secure as possible. Each of us would have some positive contribution to the whole.

My proposal is a system by which every person is the world has simultaneous access to every other; everyone would have complete access to the sum of human knowledge and experience. This is not the internet; currently, one must find others to collaborate with (and many of the “others” may not readily find “other others”). This system would constantly monitor the discussions and observations of every contributor, connect the ideas, suggest direct collaborations, and collate the conclusions. One person may not be able to directly converse with four million people on any one topic; but a computer, hypothetically, can. Through this system (which, for lack of a name, I will call The Interface) we would, in real time, discuss issues with every individual on the planet at once. (Well, I suppose not everyone is awake at once.)

So our city planner, standing at the mirror, would say to the Interface, “I have an idea to address this issue…” and go on to explain it. The Interface would immediately offer feedback from existing knowledge, ask others who have considered this same thing what their input is and collate the information. This exchange could go back and forth several times till a conclusion is reached. Perhaps this is something that people in a city would have to vote on. The Interface would just ask everyone. By the next morning, an innovative program for addressing the issue is already in place. Sixty other cities facing similar issues also enact the program.

This system would, of course, have to be designed with certain limitations. Or, more precisely, it would have to be designed with a specific mandate. These are the initial thoughts for its parameters:

  1. Its explicit and main purpose would be to foster peace between the people of the world and advance the sum of knowledge.
  2. It would be under the control of no government body but constantly monitored by all (though no one body or individual would have any more access or control of it than anyone else; this brings up some legal questions. Could it be called upon to testify in court? I would think it would have to report criminal activity. It would abide by Asimov’s 3 laws.)
  3. It would make the total resources of itself available to every contributor. This would not include the private information of other contributors; it would include the collaborate ideas of every contributor.
  4. It would not take direct action in human affairs; it must remain a neutral observer and advisor.
  5. It would take into account the skills and resources available to every contributor and suggest ways he or she could contribute best to the whole and receive the best in return.

Such suggestions immediately stir images of a monster device that takes over the world. (What happens when we move beyond the computer interfaces we have now and move to direct neural links?)

The system would be composed of a trinity of distinct and equally powered layers.

  1. The Interface: the core system that monitors and coordinates information and communication.
  2. The Watcher: Monitors activities of The Interface and ensures it does not operate outside its parameters.
  3. The Sentinel: Protects the first two from outside attack or system corruption.

Also, I would imagine the system would have to be mirrored in several places for security and backup in case of disaster. (We’d have to determine a way for each of these mirrored systems to communicate an absolutely massive amount of information in real time; or, actually, almost faster than that. I’ll let a physicist figure this out.)

There are multiple layers of problems with the above scheme (not so much, I think, in the technical limitations; the problems would rather come from entrenched powers). Who would build and pay for this? What existing governments would agree to let this happen (as it would, essentially, eliminate bureaucracy and government as we know it). There are also moral problems and, while it would “solve” many social problems, it could also cause some rather unpleasant ones. What would it mean for a society to become dependent on such a system? This system would be self-aware and it would become, after a time, the oldest sentient being in existence. Is there a danger of people looking toward it as a sort of god? What rights would it have? What kind of personality would it develop? (What kind of personality would you develop if you knew everything good and bad in the world?) Who would decide what we tell it is good and bad? And so on…

Nonetheless, the key to our future is open communication. We must begin working together or else we will become a world filled with disconnected and frightened people who tend toward violence as an attempt at peace.