Computers are like Old Testament gods; lots of rules and no mercy.
In late February 2008, I went to meet my first supercomputer at the Peter Kiewit Institute of Technology (PKI) here in Omaha, Nebraska. PKI is Omaha's local version of MIT or Caltech, built in 1996 to offer a top-flight education to students headed for careers in information science, technology, and engineering. On the first floor, to the right of the main entrance and down a glass-and-steel corridor, is the Holland Computing Center, a secure, glass-enclosed bay that is home to Firefly, at the time of my visit the forty-third-most-powerful supercomputer in the world.
I met John Callahan, director of Technological Infrastructure, responsible for the care and feeding of Firefly. Callahan gave me a tour, a spec sheet, and a summary of Firefly's components and capabilities. In its February 2008 configuration, Firefly's brain consisted of 1,151 Dell PowerEdge servers stacked in four sleek black climate-controlled walk-in bays (donated by American Power Conversion). As we browsed up and down the rows of humming servers with blinking blue lights, Callahan described how companies, businesses, and other universities were sending him programs that took weeks or months to run on their older, lesser hardware configurations and were delighted and amazed when Firefly ran the same programs in minutes.
Supercomputers grow up even faster than kids, it seems. Firefly, still less than a year old at the time of my tour, and running on newish AMD Opteron dual-core chips, was already due for an upgrade. Callahan said that in April 2008 Firefly would receive all new AMD Opteron quad-core chips, which would make it more than twice as fast, more than twice as powerful--so fast and powerful that it would vault into the top twenty of the world's fastest supercomputers. Sometime in 2009 or 2010, it will be time for another upgrade. Firefly was built to accommodate just such scenarios; more bays, more racks, more and better chips can be easily added.
I went to see Firefly because I'm anxious about just when supercomputers like it will be programmed to write better books than I do. I wanted to see if Firefly felt like just a big marvelous tool or something more. Was it a whole new species of machine intelligence that might one day think for itself? And even if Firefly can't yet think for itself, what about ten or twenty Firefly supercomputers networked together? What about a billion or so computers--our computers--harnessed by a company like Google? Would those be capable of mimicking human intelligence, assuming someone, or some supercomputer, came along and wrote the proper software?
Other questions soon follow: If a supercomputer ever does "think" the way human brains do, how will we know it? Will it be "conscious" in the same way we are? Do these questions make sense given the trouble we've had over the centuries describing human or animal consciousness?
What is the true nature of our relationship to information technologies? Are computers and supercomputers just the latest tool, the latest bone in the hand of the hominid apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or are we, like the apes, worshipping something, be it a black monolith or some other technological force beyond our understanding? What are we creating when we log on each day and contribute to Google's vast repository of information?
This book is about the future of technology and the evolution, coevolution, and possible merger of humans and computers. Some futurists and AI (artificial intelligence) experts argue that this merger is imminent, and that we'll be raising Borg children (augmented humans) by the year 2030. Others predict that supercomputers will equal and then quickly surpass human intelligence as early as 2015. We are accustomed to using computers as powerful tools, and we resist any invitation to think of them as sentient beings--and with good reason: Computers, even computers as powerful as Firefly, still just kind of sit there, patiently humming, waiting for instructions from programs written by humans.
Richard "Dick" Holland, native Omahan, original Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway investor, and philanthropist, provided most of the funds to build Firefly and the Holland Computer Center. At age eighty-six, Dick is a passionate reader and a polymath with a crackling, underhanded sense of humor. When I described this book to him, he told me about a 1954 sci-fi short story called "Answer," written by Fredric Brown.
In the story, set in the distant future, a computer engineer solders the final connection of a switch that will connect all of the monster computing machines on all of the populated planets in the universe, forming a super-circuit and a single super-calculator, "one cybernetic machine that would combine all the knowledge of all the galaxies."
The engineer plans to ask the new supercomputer "a question which no single cybernetics machine has been able to answer."
He flips the switch, turns and faces the machine: "Is there a God?"
The mighty voice answers without hesitation, "Yes, now there is a God."
Fear flashes on the face of the engineer, and he leaps to grab the switch, but a bolt of lightning from the cloudless sky strikes him down and fuses the switch shut.
1.3 Your User Profile
User, noun. The word computer professionals use when they mean "idiot."
There are only two industries that refer to their customers as "users."
It's time to launch the Web browser of your imagination and surf the undiscovered future of technology, but first a few questions to assist you in formulating your user profile.
Are you addicted to your computer? To the Internet? To e-mail? To your Treo, iPhone, or CrackBerry? To computer gaming? Or maybe to computer programming? Perhaps you're not addicted (and you don't overeat or drink too much or take drugs); maybe you just like to configure and personalize your favorite software until it does just what you want it to do, just the way you want it done. Do you tweak the options and widgets and custom codes on your blogspot or your WordPress weblog for hours on end, until your little corner of the Internet is "clean" and well designed? Have you logged on to MySpace at 2 a.m. asking, "Help! I can't get my marquee scroll generator to work! How can I make my table backgrounds transparent, the border invisible, my photos appear to hover, and my hyperlinks underlined and 12-point Garamond?" Are you the type who customizes menus, macros, and toolbars for hours at a time, sometimes for more hours than you'll ever spend actually doing the task you had in mind when you started the program?
Here's the big question: Do you ever feel that you once used computers and computer programs as tools to get a specific job done, but lately you wonder if Dave Barry was on to something when he wrote: "I am not the only person who uses his computer mainly for the purpose of diddling with his computer"?
Then again, maybe you aren't addicted to your computer. Maybe instead you hate your computer. But somehow, even though you detest the *&^%$@!# thing, you spend more time messing with it than your tech-loving, over-clocking geek friend spends messing with his. Maybe you hate it even more when your tech-loving geek friend stops answering your user-in-distress e-mails, because then you wind up on the phone all evening with a woman in Bangalore, asking her how to make your spyware-hijacked Internet Explorer Web browser stop loading the Play-Strip-Poker-with-Hot-Young-CoEds website before your wife gets home and wants to check her e-mail.
Does your handheld sometimes feel like a prosthetic device containing your own personalized sixth sense? Is it a brain extension, with an extra, palm-held visual cortex for displaying YouTube videos? When it's gone, or broken, or not charging properly, are you bereft? Adrift? Are you a victim of what Harvard neuropyschiatrist Dr. John Ratey calls self-inflicted "acquired attention deficit disorder," because you compulsively reach for the thing, even when you don't want to? Were the editors of the New York Times talking about you and your gadgets when they observed (on iPhone day, June 29, 2007): "The real test of each new apparatus is how easily it is ingested and how quickly it becomes part of the user's metabolism. All you have to do is watch a 9-year-old teaching her mother how to text to understand the truth of this"?
When you're in a panic to make an appointment and you can't find your car keys or your billfold or purse, do you instinctively begin formulating search terms you might use if the real world came with Google Desktop Search or a command-line interface? Whoever created the infinite miracle we glibly call "the universe" is surely at least as smart as the guys in Berkeley, California, who made UNIX. The UNIX creators wisely included a program called Find, which enables you to instantly find any file on your system, especially any file in your "home" directory. Another command-line utility, Grep, enables you to find any line of text in any file on your entire system. Mac OS X uses Spotlight to do essentially the same thing with spiffy visuals, and even Microsoft finally included "Instant Search" in Vista. So why can't the creator of the universe come up with a decent search box? Why can't you summon a command line and search your real-world home for "Honda car keys," and specify rooms in your house to search instead of folders or paths in your computer's home directory? It's a crippling design flaw in the real-world interface.
And while we're at it, how about an Undo button? Wouldn't that come in handy in the real world? Especially if you just totaled your car or contracted a venereal disease? Why can't you just hit Ctrl-Z or click on the swirly little Undo arrow icon and put everything back the way it was before? If only your mouth came with a backspace key. If you have one of those days where all of life seems corrupted, broken, full of error messages and warnings, and the kids are all out somewhere performing illegal operations, buffer overruns, segmentation faults, and destabilizing the system, what you need is Real Life System Restore. Restore Your Life to Last Known Good Configuration.
Do you ever feel that you have everything--your "life"--on your MacBook Pro or your laptop? Indeed, and doesn't that totally justify the vast amounts of time you spend configuring it into the well-tempered desktop? After all, it's not just a computer, it's a professional, customized tool, which you deploy each day to advance your career in the information age.
Ever had a hard-drive crash? On your main machine? Had you made a recent backup? No, wait, let me guess--you thought you had a backup somewhere, but you didn't? How bad was it? Did you pay several thousand dollars to a hard-drive-recovery service, after which they were able to salvage a few unreadable WordStar archives and a complete set of last-century game maps from Duke Nukem 3D? Did you lose ten years' worth of photos, e-mails, tax returns, a Rolodex with four thousand contacts, your novel (the opus major) dating all the way back to college, your $1,500 music collection, your ancestry research, several dozen works-in-progress for clients, bosses, and colleagues, and your fantasy baseball league--all gone? Did your doctor recommend therapy from a professional "data crisis counselor"? Did you have to go on antidepressants because, in the twinkling of a screen, your life became a data-barren wasteland?
What if at that very moment a genie had appeared and had said that you could have your laptop back with all its data, but only if you would agree to stand back and watch your house burn down? What would you have done? (Hey, at least the house is insured, right?) Were you consumed with guilt and self-loathing because tech-savvy, computer-wise Dutch uncles had been telling you for ten or twenty years that the only way to protect the integrity of your data is to back up? It's like a seat belt, they said. You need it only once, but then it's absolutely critical. Did you keep saying, "Yeah, I know. I will. I think I have most of it backed up on an old laptop"? But here you are in information gray-out, because you in fact did not back up. Now, alas, it's too late. You may feel the same way at the end of your life, when you realize that you could have spent more time with your kids instead of your MacBook Pro. Now your "life" has been erased, leaving nothing but an epitaph in stark white letters on a black screen: "Hard Disk Controller Failure."
If you're like me, all of this has convinced you that it's time to log on to the Online 12-Step Forum for Online Addiction (where people are hard at work improving themselves and changing the world through chat). Time for you to type:
BartlebyScrivener: Hello, my name is Rick, and I am a computer addict.
1Byte@ATime: Hi, Rick!
NoMoMachineHead: Welcome, Rick!
I<3MamaBoards: Hey, Bartleby, don't I know you from the Linux.Debian.User Google Group? 4giveme but I got my SATA 300 Seagate hard drive talking to my ASUS Motherboard using the configs you recommended, but now I can't get RAID to work. Can you help me?
It'll be like holding an AA meeting at a TGIF happy hour.
If computers and programming and the Internet are all sins that divert me from my family and the rest of humanity, then for the last four or five years I've been doing technology the Gnostic way. The Gnostics believed that the only way to avoid a sin was to commit it and be rid of it. When I get done thoroughly sinning and overdosing on machine living, I can perhaps rid myself of it, retire to the Alaskan wilderness, and get all of my technology-news updates from the bush pilot who drops off my groceries once a month. When he shows up sporting a new fiber-optic skull port in the back of his head with a Cat-5 connection for seamless neuro-navigational and instrument panel data transfer, I'll know that the future of technology has arrived . . . in my absence.
1.4 Time to Quit?
But before I go native, I thought I'd write this book. Perhaps my own tech addiction and my disturbing apprehensions about what technology will do to us in the very near future will serve as a cautionary tale for the age. As if the age and I are capable of saying no to more and more and more technology (aka Moore's law). Addicts (like us) are sharks. We don't think; we move and feed. At the moment, the age and I are both mainlining computer technologies. The scary part is that addicts often go on moving and feeding, right up until they land in jail or on the table in the ER, where they don't wake up. Sometimes it's worse if they do wake up, because then they have to quit.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Rapture for the Geeks by Richard Dooling. Copyright © 2008 by Richard Dooling. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.