Introduction - IT in TMP:
The communities of the Aquarius phase are likely to be some of the most ‘wired’ communities of the 21st century, host to Ubiquitous Computing environments linked to the global Internet and supporting a vast spectrum of personal communications, entertainment, information, and hard data communication between the various supporting subsystems of colony infrastructures. Aquarius will set the pattern in IT for much of later TMP development, marine colony systems serving as proving grounds for architectures that will be employed, with progressively more advanced hardware, in the later Asgard phase and on the lunar and planetary surface settlements of the Avalon phase.
In the original TMP Marshal Savage placed great importance on information technology in the culture of Aquarius colonies. Though he did not anticipate all of today's IT trends, he did have the prescience to realize the importance the Internet, personal computing, and digital communications would assume in near-future society, it’s potential for media and communications convergence, and how embracing the virtualization of property and communication through IT could contribute to a materially leaner culture. Savage saw living at sea as preparation for living in space based on its ability to compel a similarly more efficient way of life and envisioned Aquarius as a community where IT was fully embraced toward minimizing of the unnecessary material overhead of society. He envisioned a community where all media would be digitized and stored in collectivized, high-reliability data storage. Computerized personal packet transit would eliminate wasteful goods packaging and maximize the convenience of casual barter and the community-wide sharing of tools. And robust digital communications would preclude much long-distance travel and link human activity, and our living and working environments, across space and time, allowing for international collaboration and reducing the need for large specialized facilities on the colonies by allowing so many people to work out of their own homes. The Aquarian inhabitant can expect to experience a lifestyle greatly reduced in volume of physical stuff but greatly expanded in volume of communication, media, and information and thus with no sacrifice (indeed, a great improvement) in standard of living. The typical Aquarian dwelling may seem simple or minimalist in some ways but it will still have room enough to bring the whole world in.
But how will such a wired habitat be achieved? In the original TMP Marshal Savage, somewhat anachronistically, envisioned a great, possibly artificially intelligent, supercomputer at the heart of Aquarius, centralizing and collectivizing its IT infrastructure and systems control. In TMP2 we envision the whole Aquarius colony itself as that computer, its IT infrastructure distributed throughout its physical structure and the lives of its inhabitants rather than concentrated in any one machine. The key to this difference in paradigm is a concept we introduced in the Foundation section as one of the suggested projects of the Open Source Everything Project; a computer architecture concept known as the Distributed Computer.
Computing Outside The Box:
We live today in a world with the greatest diversity of digital devices and personal computing products in history. But it is a largely pointless diversity based on the exploitation of superficial differences, deliberate incompatibility, and trivial decoration as means of differentiating products and securing market share. The kind of pointless diversity that now typifies the automotive industry —driven by style to more different models than ever before but never actually realizing any practical functional improvement over vehicles nearly a century in the past. There are few competitive computer architectural platforms left and the basic design of personal computers has seen little significant change or functional progress in 20 years, with only grudgingly slow progress in connectivity despite strong demand for it. Had it not been for the Internet boom of the 90s –which, despite their attempts at revisionist mythology, caught the personal computer and telecommunications industries largely by surprise— the computer industry would now be as hopelessly stratified as the auto industry.
Design evolution tends to result in a progressive functional refinement of artifacts through the basic competition for quality and performance at a given common architecture and level of technology. Once you get down to the functional essence of what a device is and does in the design of its form, there is nothing else relevant for design to say. Everything else is aesthetic -style and decoration- intended to differentiate a product in spite of the designer’s inability to actually improve it in any significant way. Even unnecessarily extreme ‘performance’ –the engine that can push a street car to 200mph or get you from 0-60mph at the drop of a hat, the suspension and drive train that lets you drive through the wilderness like a Sherman tank— has nothing to do with the practical use of the vehicle if you can’t actually use it all the time. It’s another form of decoration just as relevant as chrome trim and tail fins. For design to relevantly progress it must alter the fundamentals of the artifact’s architecture in a useful way –how it is made, works, or what it does.
We are now a relatively mature computing culture and many of us –those who are routine computer users and have a working knowledge of the underlying technology— sense a fundamental inadequacy in our personal computing products. Their designs are refined to the point where there is nothing interesting or important left for any computer company to say in their product designs. Even aesthetically narcissist Apple Computer has gone minimalist. Typically ahead of the curve of the mainstream in terms of design theory, they seem to have started to come to the conclusion that computers now only have anything important to say in terms of software –and they’re absolutely right.
Yet what a computer is and what it does is still falling woefully short of our collective expectations. Computing still seems ridiculously primitive in aspect. The technology has gotten stuck in a perceptibly inferior state of functionality —like the automobile that just won’t give up gasoline in an age of Peak Oil. Much of the hardware —refined in design as it may be— still seems unnecessarily cumbersome, fragile, and unreliable. Software is chronically brittle and progressively non-intuitive in spite of 20 years of supposed user interface science. Our common computer platforms are like Swiss Army Knives. They can do an endless assortment of things but they don’t really do anything particularly well. They are limited by over-generalist design. Thus we’ve seen a market-driven trend in the physical diversification of computers. The one-size-fits-most generalist computer on a desk is now an anachronism. We now have a spectrum of different devices refined –largely in terms of size and shape— for different use situations. MP3 player, cell phone, tablet, laptop, desktop, digital TV. They are all now whole computers ergonomically optimized for a certain spectrum of uses. But their connectivity is inadequate. They each behave like separate —redundant— computers when, in terms of how we personally use IT, no one really needs or wants more than one computer in their life, let alone a lot of different devices that each make us learn different ‘languages’ for operating them.
In the last decade of the 20th century the computer industry tapped into a meme called ‘Convergence’ (sometimes called Digital Convergence or Media Convergence) with many companies promising an imminent merging of all the forms of media and communications into a single new generation of personal computers by virtue of their mutual ‘digitization’. However, by the end of the century, the term Convergence became a much-mocked anachronism, due partly to industry pundits and company executives never being able to explain the concept in any coherent way when pressed, but mostly as the exact opposite had obviously resulted in the marketplace with the very companies whose executives hyped the idea the most utterly failing to deliver products with the necessary connectivity to make it work. While personal computers did progress in their theoretical potential for convergence through multi-media capability and ever-increasing processing power, a divergence of products actually occurred based on performance and ergonomic limitations of the personal computer’s very generalist designs.
The problem was that too many executives were envisioning Convergence in the form of a single ultimate universal hardware product, which was fundamentally nonsensical given the way people use media. Yes, you could read books, watch TV and movies, and listen to music on a personal computer. But just like trying to cut firewood with a Swiss Army Knife, it just wasn’t as comfortable or effective for most people as with more traditional devices dedicated to those activities and so very rarely did the average person even try to abandon any of the other communications and media artifacts and appliances a single PC was, in theory, capable of replacing. The fundamental limitation of the ‘monolithic’ personal computer architecture was here plainly exposed. The one-size-fits-most notion of computer design just stopped making sense to everyone but the people who made them.
And yet, the computer industry of the time did, in fact, have the appropriate technology and a viable computing model at-hand on which to build Convergence and make it work. They just abandoned it a decade earlier because the technology wasn’t up to the task when it was first explored. As early as the 1980s computer scientists and a number of key computer companies began cultivating a concept known as Ubiquitous Computing. Throughout the latter-half of the 20th century futurists had been projecting that the Personal Computer would evolve ‘beyond the box’ to become a more abstract notion akin to a Personal Infospace that followed individuals around the civilization’s increasingly ubiquitous data processing and networking infrastructure. A variety of relatively simpler, often unseen, networked digital systems all behaving, as far as the user was concerned, like one personal computer always at-hand wherever they went. Ubiquitous Computing sought to initially realize this concept in the context of an office network environment that called for a variety of use-specialized ‘thin client’ devices called PADs –personal access devices— to provide users access to personal computing resources and storage anywhere in a building or business campus. However, progress with this concept was stymied by limitations in networking technology and cost problems with critical flat-panel display technology on which planned new families of PADs were to be based. And with the Internet still the province of a few universities and government facilities; there was no infrastructure for deploying Ubiquitous Computing beyond campuses and large corporations with WAN-scale networking. As the traditional old guard of large business computer companies lost market share to increasingly cheap and generic PC products, work on Ubiquitous Computing was abandoned as these companies shifted focus to increasingly ‘vertical market’ products and office peripheral equipment.
Unfortunately, all this past work seemed to have been forgotten by the major computer industry players after the turn of the century, just as their key technologies were coming into their own. By 2000 Ubiquitous Computing had become completely feasible yet, to date, not a single new personal computer software platform and hardware architecture exists anywhere in the world with which to implement it –that is, with one possible, if crude, exception; cell phones.
Within the concept of Ubiquitous Computing lay the keys to the realization of the ideal of Convergence. For Ubiquitous Computing disconnects the back-end architectures of data processing from the designs of the front-end user interface. It divides the computer between a very generalized data processing system and network and front-end PADs that are free to be as generalized or as specialized as the user’s spectrum of activity demands. Free to ergonomically and stylistically diversify without the bulk and waste of redundant data processing and storage resources while the back-end is free to become increasingly generic, ‘commoditized’ in components, and cheaper and easier to distribute through the habitat. Or to put it another way, today’s proliferation of rather overcomplicated specialized digital media and communications appliances now have the option to converge through connectivity by becoming application-specific front-ends for an architecturally generic computing and networking infrastructure integrating them. But, as we just noted, no specific platforms or architectures exist to allow this. We can crudely ‘hack’ the capability into existing operating systems but the physical design of contemporary computers are still monolithic. This is where the Distributed Computer comes in.
The Distributed Computer is a computing platform that abandons the hegemony of the motherboard and the operating system in favor of sub-system modularization and open network connectivity. All computers can be architecturally broken-down into a traditional series of sub-systems; CPU, mass storage, user interface systems, and peripherals. With the exception of peripherals (though not their sometimes specialized interfaces), personal computers have traditionally combined all these elements on a single motherboard –along with much of the bulkier sub-system hardware like disk drives and sometimes displays— inside a single box owing to their need for intimate high-speed intercommunication and simply to make the computer as compact as possible. But if you can replace direct specialized connection for these with a network and engineer these sub-subsystems to be largely generic in interface and autonomous one arrives at a computer architecture that is ‘free-form’. It becomes infinitely scalable, adaptable, and distributable across the physical space of the network linking these systems. They become peripherals of the network, which itself defines the nature of the computing environment. This is the sort of fundamental change in the very definition of a computer, what it does, how it’s made, and how it functions, that opens the door to a world of new, relevant, product design and a host of applications and productivity advances never before imagined.
The design of traditional Personal Computers is typically motherboard-centric. As basis of integration for everything in the device, the motherboard design dictates the parameters of the rest of the hardware design. This is where the over-generalization of computer design has been established, particularly with the lack of intelligent interfaces to user interface components and peripherals. Before the advent of USB, every different device you plugged into a computer had to have a specialized interface port on the back of a box –rather like the specialized sub-system interfaces that linked all the big parts of a mainframe computer. The motherboard was still responsible for their low-level control and could not communicate with them all in a common standardized way. We STILL haven’t completely overcome this with current computer designs even as USB has made some device interfacing more generic. Video display interfaces and drive interfaces still rely on low-level handling hardware on the motherboard and so have relatively primitive and specialized interfaces to connect them that limit where you can put these devices and what forms they can take. And USB still isn’t all that convenient to begin with. It still doesn’t work very well in any sort of daisy-chain configuration, compelling the use of what is essentially a cumbersome desktop star network.
Why does any modern computer need more than one chain of one kind of cable to interface every kind of device it works with?
A Distributed Computer is net-centric. Networks replace the motherboard as the key integrator of system components. Everything else is really peripherals –or what you might call peer-peripherals— for them. System components are reduced to ‘network appliances’ but also provided enough local intelligence to communicate on the network in a common way and without a lot of direct control from any CPU. PADs define the user interface and the user experience and can be ergonomically optimized for specific spectrums of use. There’s not just one kind of them, they have no need to be in any one place, and they don’t have to be designed as one-size-fits-most. In a sense, all the components of a Distributed Computer are still autonomous computers in their own right. They are just individually simpler and more specialized in purpose while their means of interconnectivity and intercommunication is more generic. The computer with just one cable –when it’s even using a cable.
A Distributed Computer is like a digital space frame building system. The parts all connect in a standardized way but it doesn’t matter too much where components are physically located relative to one another and there’s no limit on how they go together and what the end form can be. This sort of free compartmentalization has always existed with traditional Personal Computer and has increased as sub-system circuitry has been consolidated into dedicated chips. It just never got off one motherboard and out of the box. Each sub-system has still been linked to its fellows in specialized ways —more like the parts of a jigsaw puzzle that can only go together one way rather than components in a space frame going together in many ways. The jigsaw puzzle has only one ‘correct’ end-form. The space frame has an infinite variety of forms and few ‘wrong’ forms.
It has been argued that the idea of breaking a computer up into autonomous potentially redundant sub-systems is impractical because it would only make the Personal Computer bigger, more complex, and more cumbersome when the dominant trend is to make computers perpetually smaller. But, in fact, this idea isn’t likely to radically change the number of computer devices at all, given that we’re already in an era of physical diversification of computer hardware, and should actually simplify computer design, increasing the commoditization of many components that had become increasingly platform-specific , encouraging their shrinking in size and cost (because that’s keyed to production volume), and making it possible to reduce ownership of hardware for may users to just PADs, eliminating some of the bulk of home-based hardware. It just changes the relationship of these sub-systems to each other in a way that allows the flexibility of networks to fully be expressed in the generic integration of the computer into our environment. Or to put it another way, by cracking the hegemony of the motherboard one is also cracking the hegemony of the desk. Obviously, some subsystems –PADs designed for laptop-like mobile use in particular— need more local processing power to be functional due to limitations of networking bandwidth. The truly portable device like a laptop needs a more complete compliment of sub-systems to effectively function over WAN distances and cope with the fact that network reliability declines and latancy increases with distance. Though this may change in the future with growing network infrastructure ubiquity, it’s still a bit of a dodgy proposition for the laptop to function exclusively as a remote ‘thin client’ with no local storage. But look at the current trends in laptop design. It’s no longer assumed that a laptop need carry around in miniature form like a Swiss Army Knife all the junk of a desktop computer because so little of it is actually needed at-hand all the time when someone is on the move and few users now have just one computer device. The latest, most compact, and most sophisticated laptop designs today have no removable disks or hard disk drives! They use flash RAM storage instead. These are almost PADs as-is.
The Distributed Computer is already slowly emerging within existing evolutionary trends in the computer industry. It’s just doing so in a haphazard ad-hoc manner owing to the lack of understanding among computer industry executives and computer designers of what’s going on in the market -where the trends embodied by their own products are going in spite of their resistance to true connectivity due to irrational notions of locking-in market share through deliberate platform incompatibility.
Today we see a trend where laptops are slowly replacing desktops by virtue of their compactness and physical simplicity. Used to be that laptops were so underpowered in processing capability that the average laptop owner was, at least, a two-computer owner, the laptop being treated largely as a semi-autonomous peripheral for the desktop machine specialized to presumed lesser mobile computing power needs. Now the only practical difference between the two is defined by price and the degree of personalization of hardware you desire, laptops tending toward the more generic, desktops allowing you to ‘decorate’ with a lot of novelty junk. (don’t you just love all the taxidermy animal case-mods lately? If only Salvador Dali had lived to see it…) But while the desktop computer may be getting displaced by the laptop, the war for desktop space certainly isn’t shifting much as the laptop owner is still relying on enough peripheral hardware –storage and multimedia hardware in particular— at home to back-up his portable device that it ends up consuming just as much desktop space. At-home and on-the-move modes of use remain different and so their respective spectrums of practical hardware remain different. It’s not unusual to see a laptop used as a desktop computer with a traditional large desktop keyboard and large size desktop monitor plugged into it.
We are also seeing a nascent trend in Internet-based subscription services able to replace ownership of a CPU and mass storage. Already we see the first companies exploring what has now come to be called Cloud Computing; where large clusters of networked servers are collectivized using resource virtualization to provide personalized application or storage services to end-users over the Internet. It’s like a Distributed Computer Processing Domain hacked from web servers with no specific front-end beyond web browsers. Most are either relying on conventional computers as front-ends –which is rather redundant— or using rather primitive custom thin-client desktop mini-PCs that are restricted in connectivity to the individual ‘cloud service provider’. (so far, only Apple seems to have realized that this is something that makes most sense in the context of mobile device use, particularly things like the iPhone. Hence this author’s conclusion that Ubiquitous Computing evolution is now being led by the cell phone, not the traditional computer, because Cloud Computing is now more likely to first become significant with today’s generation of PAD-like cell phones, then move to laptops, and then to replace home CPUs riding the trend of laptop replacement of desktops)
As a percentage of collective hardware volume, processing circuitry tends to be rather small. Desktop computers today are little more than a way to centrally package disks drives that now can just as readily and conveniently be packaged individually –unless you’re using some really large number of them. This is well demonstrated by miniature desktop designs like the Apple Mac-Mini and the various ‘shoebox’ PCs. What really matters is in how much hassle the underlying architecture presents to changes in any on-demand mix of hardware and technology. One could make a strong argument that motherboards exist only to perpetuate planned obsolescence –just like the automobile industry’s compulsive reliance on the 70-year-old technology of pressed steel welded unibody construction because it precludes upgradeability, insures irrepairability, and deliberately makes cosmetic damage permanent so that cumulative wear compels obsolescence.
The near-term trend in Personal Computing evolution points toward a reversal of roles between desktop and laptop; the desktop computer as we know it becoming a peripheral for the laptop! In other words, it turns into an application server for laptops and a cluster of mobile and stationary devices and shrinks, on average, toward the size of the Mac-Mini while the laptop turns into a semi-autonomous PAD that becomes ergonomically diversified and, for that matter, all other peripherals turn into semi-autonomous and increasingly wireless network appliances. Some users will own that home desktop application server. Others will rent it over the Internet. Some users will still want personal data storage at home. Others will rent that over the Internet too. The end result will be largely the same; a computer whose architecture is broken up into a collection of autonomous network appliances. This is the trend the Distributed Computer concept anticipates. Instead of just fooling around waiting for this situation to be realized ad hoc (and ironically with cell phone companies likely taking the lead, albeit in bumbling fashion…), it proposes a specific computing architecture with which to do it now, purposefully. The key advantage offered by anticipating this evolution with the Distributed Computer is that we get to this much sooner and with greater capability by deliberately implementing the generic connectivity and software architectures necessary to realize (and coerce industry capitulation for) the most important aspect of Ubiquitous Computing; the Personal Domain Space. Anticipating this trend in the development of this platform will give the electronics-producing members of the GreenStar Industrial Cooperative a powerful near-term economic advantage and allow them to establish a strong industrial base through production of a new generation of market-disruptive computing products.
Design of the Distributed Computer:
Starting with the work of the Open Computer Project, Aquarian communities and their businesses, under the GreenStar Codeworks and GreenStar DigiTech ventures, would seek to develop a family of devices and products based on a common Open Source Distributed Computer architecture. Many of these will have their start in existing network appliance technology but Aquarian computer designers will seek to amplify the potential of the Distributed Computer concept by complementing it with a new and simple processor concept; the Homogeneous or Dynamic Processing Array. Derivatives of today’s Field Programmable Gate-Arrays, DPAs would be programmable gate array devices with the ability of self-addressability for its gate definition RAM, allowing software to create processor structures on demand with the ability to reconfigure those structures on-the-fly much as computers today shuttle software components in and out of RAM. Unlike todays microprocessors which process instructions and data together in series, a DPA system uses software to create temporary processor circuits in a RAM-like array that perform actions in a single processing cycle with the number of these processor circuits running simultaneously limited only by the size of the DPA array. DPA ‘programs’ are not lists of instructions. They are data that defines circuits, loaded into a special area of RAM space. They are specialized modular processor ‘images’.
This creates what is known as a Virtual Computer that exists only as software and which is not limited by Amdahls Law of diminishing parallel processing performance because there is no parallel expansion in instruction communication overhead. With complex processing tasks done in parallel and mostly in a single cycle, astounding performance increases are possible relative to clock speeds. Today’s experimental virtual computers routinely surpass the performance of the most powerful supercomputers doing discrete tasks and running at hardware clock speeds surpassed 30 years ago. This technology reduces the hardware architecture of a computer to just a small variety of similar commodity components with most of the computer’s circuit architecture based on software. DPAs will allow computer designers to employ new deep levels of ‘resource virtualization’ for freely scalable processing capability in their development of Distributed Computer networked devices, resulting in a compelling boost in cost/performance for their products and this particular computing architectural paradigm. Distributed Computer CPU units will become astounding processing powerhouses for their size, can merge together seamlessly and transparently in their collective processing capability, while PADs can more freely diversify in form, may rival today’s portable devices in on-board processing capacity, while still having essentially the same simple internal circuit-level architecture.
The family of Distributed Computer devices developed by Aquarian companies could become quite large but will tend to be dominated by the following devices; Processors or ‘CPUs’, Storage Units, Network Management Units or ‘Nodes’, Web Controllers, and PADs. These devices will vary very greatly in unit size and design from small portable devices and embedded ‘black box’ units to large rack-based installations. But they would still all share one common and open systems and connectivity platform and many of the same types of commodity sub-components.
CPUs: CPUs would basically be akin to today’s application servers but with their mass storage removed, this role being assumed by separate Storage Unit appliances –though in many instances large installations may still combine these in the same rack structures much like server arrays today. They would handle back-end processing jobs whose processing is largely independent of any particular user interface –that front-end portion of processing being handled by the on-board processing capability of PADs. Just as the Distributed Computer does-away with monolithic hardware design, so too would it impact software design with application development evolving to be divided along ‘domain relationships’ of processing ranging from software that is truly resident in a PAD (and often ‘widget’-like in aspect) or focused on (but not entirely exclusive to) hosting its user interface to software that is wholly resident on CPUs, devoid of user interface elements, and focused predominately on raw number-crunching and data streaming, with any number of possible combinations in-between relative to network connectivity, bandwidth, and typical latency. This parallels a trend already occurring with the Internet today, the lines between local and remote software and their processing increasingly blurry as developers explore the potential of network application services like Cloud Computing and applications have their software progressively more dispersed across the hierarchy of network infrastructure. CPUs will also have a key role on Aquarius colonies as hosts for ‘sequencers’; higher-level management applications that coordinate activity among ‘sensor and control webs’ based on Web Controllers, which we’ll be going into more detail on shortly.
The typical CPU unit would be a small stackable box designed for table-top or shelf placement akin to the Mac-Mini design and containing DPA chip arrays in forms akin to today’s SIMMs on a single controller board hosting the more analog components. (designs based on the use of Enclosure Profiles as described in the Open Source Everything Project section are likely) Though generally intended to be self-contained and interfaced only by LAN connection with software-based virtualization, some may feature specialized stacking interfaces that allow these units to plug into each other when stacking to more directly link their DPA arrays, making them a single scalable unit. Other CPU designs would be ruggedized for outdoor locations or embedding into structures or be based on rack mount enclosures hosting potentially larger base DPA arrays.
Storage Units: Storage Units would, as their name implies, be concerned with bulk data storage. They would range between more intelligent versions of today’s pocket flash drives and portable CD/DVD drives that feature wireless network interfaces rather than USB ports to large storage server installations with integral RAID capability or other means of automated data back-up. Devices comparable to current flash drive ‘fobs’, credit cards and DVD boxes in size and shape are likely to be the most common forms. A burgeoning assortment of these kinds of network appliances already exist today and are becoming increasingly sophisticated and ‘consumer level computing’ oriented. They were originally introduced in, and limited to, the high-end business computing world –because mainstream computer companies failed to ‘get’ the concept and could see no consumer applications for it. However, peripheral developers recognized the opportunity mainstream computer company CEOs didn’t and now we are seeing this emerging in such forms as WiFi enabled portable hard drives and ‘storage robots’ intended to compliment laptop use and as digital media peripherals to TVs. This is an interesting example of how the computer industry, being based on an Industrial Ecology rather than traditional Industrial Age development paradigms, generates trends from the bottom-up just as readily as from the top-down. Indeed, today one could argue that the former is far more common and vital to evolution in the industry than the latter…
The typical Storage Unit would be contained in a simple stackable box like any conventional portable disk drive and largely identical to the typical CPU unit. If based one the same case designs, they would also be stackable with the CPU for convenience –since in an office setting these would often be kept in the same locations. Early ones would likely be based on conventional hard disk drives, sometimes using them in sets for RAID mirroring when not doing this virtually over the network, but there is a strong trend in favor of growing use of solid-state storage, which will most certainly dominate the pocket-sized carryable Storage Units and WiFi based units as well as become the primary local storage media for PADs. Solid state optical storage is also another near-future contender for the role of the hard disk drive, promising dramatic capacity and reliability improvements, but, due to stagnation in that side of the photonics industry, it had been so for 30 years and not come to fruition and so remains somewhat speculative. Like the CPUs, Storage Units will also have their rack-mounted counterparts. Storage Units for current CD/DVD media are also likely but may be on the way toward obsolescence in the near future as they are supplanted by network transfer as a means of media distribution. They will tend to be treated more like traditional peripherals –such as scanners and printers— than typical Storage Units.
Nodes: Network Management Units, or just ‘Nodes’ for short, would be derivatives of today’s network routers, switches, and other network interface devices. Like these devices, they would tend to be physically located at places where they serve as a bridge between different types of network technology, gateways to up-stream networks, or any combination or variation thereof. Thus they would tend to be the least ‘motile’ of the Distributed Computer’s components, since their location depends on the physical distribution of cable links they connect to, the network identity of other components would tend to be relative to theirs, and they would be most likely to assume the most minimalist form-factors, particularly that of embedded components within the utilities spaces of homes and buildings. Their difference from today’s assortments of network interface devices would be in their focus on Domain Space management as opposed to simple routing along IP hierarchies and basic network connectivity –which, of course, they would also perform.
A Domain Space is a variation on the idea of a Virtual Private Network that forms the basis of the Ubiquitous Computing concept. It ties all a person’s/household’s/organization’s/tribe’s/community’s digital appliances together as a collective ‘cloud’ independent of their physical location or underlying network topology so they function like a single collective Personal Computer structured dynamically according to relative communications latency between devices. It also ties subscription data/application services into that Domain Space allowing for their independent communication with digital appliances –rather than funneling it all through a central CPU which would waste its own performance on this rather simple network mediation. PAD’s and Storage Appliances wouldn’t link to specific CPUs. They would link to applications that exist in the ‘cloud’ of the Domain Space. This allows them to optionally function ‘CPU-less’ as far as the user owning that hardware themselves is concerned. (something that today already exists to some degree with Cloud Computing but which may function at much deeper levels of integration in the future) So the Node needs a little more intelligence and a little more metainformation about stuff in the net space compared to today’s network devices. Routers and switches are usually only concerned with the shuttling of data packets and the simple hierarchies of IP domains. They assume all ‘local’ systems fit in a simple IP hierarchy. But Nodes will have to also deal with recognizing the nature and System Domain relationships of autonomous hardware and subscription data services independent of specific IP addresses. The Personal Domain is a much more motile and amorphous entity relative to the physical network infrastructure.
Nodes would likely parallel physical design approaches of CPUs and Storage Units –the ‘back end’ components of the Distributed computer would tend to favor minimalism and commoditization in design. However, their location, particularly in a home environment, would tend to be associated with the locations where ‘up stream’ network links enter a home and most-closely link to in-home cabling and also where WiFi coverage is most efficient. So ruggedized units that mount inside telecom box or in garages and basements are likely. These may be supplemented by repeater units placed in various locations around a home and office and of highly variable but generally shrinking designs. Today WiFi repater use is rare in household environments owing to the still very centralized single-room nature of personal computer use. WiFi LANs are most commonly used by home users as a means to reduce the mess of cables associated with a home computer rather than to share resources or spread a network physically about the household –a clear but overlooked indication of the problems with current personal computer physical design. In the future, WiFi bandwidth and distribution to many rooms will become more critical in the home environment and repeater use is likely to increase as a result.
Web Controllers: Web Controllers are a more sophisticated form of industrial controller and, though relatively new, are in common use today. Generic models are of typical bare board or rugged industrial ‘black box’ design. They combine a small control computer managing a series of analog or simpler digital electromechanical devices or sensors with an IP based network interface and a streamlined embedded web server that functions as a virtual control panel for the device which can be configured with programmable ROM based code and small local programs. Individually, these are very simple devices. But in a collective spread over many systems, they become the basis of a sophisticated adaptive control and sensory network that can handle everything from managing the HVAC of an office building to launching rockets and managing space stations. Though still predominantely ‘industrial’, they are appearing increasingly in more specialized forms in a variety of appliances and home-control systems, most notably web-enabled video cameras and WiFi robotic toys. Gadget designers today have barely scratched the surface of their potential.
Simple Web Controllers are operated by accessing web pages or control widget programs hosted by streamlined servers embedded into each device and using them as virtual control panels, eliminating physical displays and switch panels and allowing operation by remote. On Aquarius, technicians will be able to use simple desktop and hand-held PADs to communicate with virtually every kind of machine on the colonies. However, they can also be byte-code operated from other Web based software, thus allowing the creation of ‘sequencers’ based on programs, or more elaborate expert systems, that run on other computers or servers and perform management and monitoring of Web Controllers in large groups. Akin to software such as today’s LabView laboratory automation platform, these sequencers could, in turn, be monitored and managed by other sequencers, thus establishing complex object-oriented networks of control and sensing with fairly simple task compartmentalization and an option for multiple redundancy. Such control and sensor webs will have increasing use in industrial automation, building systems automation, and home control systems. Currently, many unnecessarily divergent platforms exist for these roles. With web controllers designed specifically for the Distributed Computer platform, a new and completely unexplored potential for connectivity in these applications will be realized. Industrial automation will now have a global level of communication, integration, and information gathering previously unimagined.
This technology will prove key to the development and management of the utilities infrastructures of large marine colonies –and eventually space stations like the MUOL and space habitats. Parallel sensor and control webs based on embedded Web Controllers distributed throughout a colony will manage all automated systems and be accessible from any physical location in the colony just as though they were all part of some central control system –only that ‘centralization’ will be network-based rather than on any one computer installation. In effect, the Aquarian super-computer Marshal Savage once envisioned will be a network of distributed intelligence rather than a specific machine. There is great power in this simple concept. Just as the physical structure of the marine colony would be designed to be virtually unsinkable as a whole, so too would this combination control/sensor web be virtually uncrashable whole as well as self-adapting to changing conditions and situations and self-healing in response to localized failures. It would truly behave like the nervous system of an animal. And as sequencers become more sophisticated, they will increasingly rely on expert-systems, fuzzy-logic, and many other artificial intelligence tools and eventually implement a growing distributed intelligence. And yet, the setup of this system, colony-spanning in size as it is, will be largely as simple as today’s Web applications development.
PAD: PADs will be the most important devices in the Distributed Computer repertoire. As the devices most routinely physically interacted with, they will define the nature of the personal computing experience and the design of applications. Put crudely, a PAD or ‘personal access device’ is alternately like a ‘thin client’ and a ‘smart terminal’ in an application server environment. A thin-client runs software much like a normal PC, treating servers as communal hard disks. A smart terminal –an older concept once thought obsolete yet revived today through Web applications and MMOs— only runs a built-in user interface program that a remote application program running on a computer elsewhere communicates with by network. Distributed Computer applications software will freely drift between both these modes, with PADs sometimes even operating off-line as autonomous computers with some level of completely independent functionality. (based mostly on widget-like software) As the Internet is now demonstrating, there are no longer hard lines between these modes in contemporary software development. However, quite unlike thin clients and smart terminals which have always been generalist in design, PADs will vary very widely in size, design, and built-in processing capability, assuming different forms for different spectrums of use. This is their key virtue, the thing which allows the Distributed Computer to progress beyond Swiss Army Knife design without the clutter of contemporary computer diversification.
The most common and generic forms will be as follows in order of relative size; Headsets, Badges, Handhelds, Tablets, Laptops, Monitors, Tables, TVs, and VOXes. Notice we’ve used some conventional terms here to imply the roles these devices might assume in use.
Headsets would be physically similar to today’s BlueTooth earphones for cell phone users, though in the near future they may optionally include stereo audio capability, a wearable display device working in HUD-like modes, small palm-carried keypads, and the very powerful innovation of silent speech communication through sub-lingual voice recognition. They would be intended for predominately audio-based computing. These will not only be the smallest of PADs, they will likely be the most ubiquitous given current personal communications trends. And being wearable, they will be treated as fashion accessories and thus see a great deal of jewelry-like aesthetic variation. Though it’s sometimes difficult for this author (a confirmed misanthrope…) to comprehend, today’s trend of young people in seemingly perpetual phone and text conversations with family and friends is likely to continue with Headsets offering the new compelling potential for totally silent perpetual conferencing. (a BIG improvement for those outside those conversations as well…) These devices will also initiate a trend in embedding information in the ambient environment, the connectivity of these as PADs coupled with location sensing and RFID tagging affording the ability of associating software and audiovisual media with places and objects much like the ‘audio tour’ systems used in museums. There are many practical applications for this, though the trend will likely be pushed most by advertisers seeking to pack more ad media into our already saturated environment. Headsets may become a key mechanism behind the trend of the merging of physical and virtual habitat.
Badges would be extremely small Handhelds designed to be worn using pins or lanyards or carried like key-chain fobs or even cell-phone and bracelet charms. Far too small to have much of a functional user interface, they would tend to be used as digital keys, as portable storage devices, portable media players akin to today’s MP3 players, very small context-sensitive remote controls, and as displays for freely changeable sets of ‘widgets’, functional or fanciful. As with the Headsets, small size and wearability will make these fashion objects and will lead to great jewelry-like aesthetic diversification.
Handhelds would be small tablets designed to be carried in a pocket, held in one hand, and used like –and as— cell phones, PDAs, and personal media players. They will include most, if not all, the features typical of cell phones and likely be very similar to the contemporary iPhone and its many clones in design, though by the time of the full-scale Aquarian colony circuit technology may afford such devices near credit-card thinness and much greater durability. A minor variation of these may employ pop-out, fold-out, or edge-mounted keypads in their ends for text messaging or to make them useful as portable game units. With their advanced connectivity and motion-tracking capability, they would optionally function as hand-held remotes with virtual control panels for many other networked devices, such as the TV we will discuss later, appliances, robots, and the like. Simpler versions, sans many of the cell-phone elements, may also find use as smaller wall-mounted control panels or be used as larger passive widget displays and media players in a desktop/shelf stand or wall mount. Just as today we are seeing some convergence in cell phone hardware design inspired by the iPhone as software becomes more key to design and function, generally, Handhelds may not differ greatly in hardware design between these basic use roles because their function is more dependent upon software than form-factor. They will tend to all be largely identical mini-Tablets and will simply assume these different roles based on software and how and where they are used.
Tablets would be devices akin to today’s tablet computers and still relatively primitive eBook displays, typically ranging in size from that of a DVD box to large tablets intended to rest at an angle on a table, one’s lap, or on some easel-like stand for use as a digital drawing board. These are likely to be second only to the Headset in ubiquity (assuming headsets surpass Handhelds in ubiquity), though they may not be quite as broadly general-purpose as the designers of todays tablet computers have often expected. These devices would be intended primarily for touch control and the optional use of a stylus with pressure-sensitivity and gesture and handwriting recognition capability. Though likely to be used as a general-purpose portable computing and communications device in their smaller forms, they would be focused more on the reading or viewing of media than the interaction with it –particularly text media where they would suit the role of eBook devices. However, with stylus use they would be far more focused on –and better suited to— interaction with graphics information than is typical of other PADs, serving well as digital sketchbooks. Their larger area also makes them better suited to the role of virtual control panels, where they would often employ vertical wall-mounted installation.
Again, by the time of Aquarius the thinness of these devices may be astounding. Some may sport chord-keypads for one-handed typing while standing, though this is not likely to become as ubiquitous a way of typing as has sometimes been suggested, being suited to those very rare people –like journalists, doctors, and field scientists— who really need to type text while walking around and will put up with the learning-curve. Some may also sport the same video cameras common to cell phones and some laptop computers, affording them picturephone and crude camera/videocam capability. On Aquarius colonies Tablets will be particularly important as front-ends for technicians’ instruments and as the basis of paperless text media and document use, the colonies establishing vast digital media libraries as a way of reducing the materials waste of the Aquarian culture. Aquarian tablet designs may be quite sophisticated and ruggedized compared to general market versions, employing hermetically sealed monolithic packaging and being designed to operate in space or underwater environments.
Laptops would be largely identical to today’s laptop computers. In fact, the first mass-produced PADs may, if they don’t evolve from cell phones first, be derived from existing laptop computer lines –some already called ‘PADs’ by model-name even if they function nothing like it. Designed primarily with mobile typing and traditional general-purpose portable computer uses in-mind, they would be the most autonomous of PADs sporting the most built-in alternative connectivity options, mass storage, local processing capability, and ruggedization. Just as many people today now treat a laptop computer as their primary personal computer, many people may consider the Laptop PAD their primary use PAD. Current design trends for these point to likely designs akin to the anticipated second-generation of OLPC XO computers; a ‘clamshell’ housing two touch displays either of which can be employed as a keyboard or the two combined when flat to function as a larger area Tablet. Currently, tablet computers, with their need to be light enough to be held on one arm while standing, remain too underpowered for their cost to compete with laptop computers for ubiquity –much as laptops were once too underpowered for their price to compete with desktop computers. That situation may change —especially given the greater simplicity of underlying circuit architectures based on DPA chips— but for those who need more of the typing convenience of the desktop computer in a mobile setting, the Laptop form-factor will continue to have an edge.
Monitors would be Tablet PADs adapted for sit-down desk use through the addition of a moveable table-stand, arm, or wall-mount like today’s flat-panel desktop monitors and a conventional wireless full-size keyboard and optional mouse, keyboard joy-button, or small touch-tracking pad. They would also likely feature more robust audio speakers and optional video cameras. Laptops, of course, would also suit this same role. However, this form of PAD would be preferred by those who want larger displays and must type for long periods at a desk or sit-down workstation, people likely to wear-out keyboards regularly or who need ‘full travel’ keyboards with firm tactile response and solid mass for typing comfort and efficiency. The quality of keyboards and the design of word processors have been in steady decline in recent years as more emphasis has been placed on portable devices. Though the Distributed Computer may be doing away with the hegemony of the desk, writing and text communication will long remain a primary activity of the personal computer nonetheless and we anticipate the very common need for a PAD form to accommodate it with the use of quality keyboards and word processing software, though this may become an increasingly specialized area in the future as Headset use supplants some sit-down typing with silent speech recognition that is as cognitively intimate as typing has been.
Tables, and their similar but rarer form known as Consoles, would be large Tablets adapted to integrate into a horizontal or angled desk or table surface. Much to the future chagrin of companies like Microsoft who have been promoting this form of device recently as if they expected it to be the next television, this is likely to be the least commonly used form of these more common PAD types and one likely to remain expensive for a long time. They will tend to be used as the basis of digital whiteboards in conference rooms, game interfaces for group entertainment, digital music devices for group music performance, digital map boards and kiosks in public areas, and in some cases virtual control panels for control centers. Though they may eventually be considered common, they will most likely never become ubiquitous as is often imagined because –ergonomically— a very big horizontal display just isn’t that suited to solitary computer interaction.
TV PADs would, essentially, be tomorrow’s digital television. A very large Monitor PAD assuming the role of a media entertainment device controlled primarily from a ‘remote’ in the form of a companion Handheld that serves as a virtual control panel and inertial motion-tracking pointing device. Like contemporary TVs, they would also feature a vast assortment of options, though key options would include home theater audio components and modular ‘high performance graphics engines’ to support video game and virtual environment use. Specialized storage mediums for media, such as CDs and DVDs, will, as the Internet becomes the primary distribution system for all entertainment media, likely disappear in the future in favor of increasingly generalized forms of digital storage. Already, the generalizing of digital storage is proving the fulcrum of most convergence in video media. But the TV will always demand a distinctly different user interface compared to other devices owing to its area-spanning public mode of presentation. We don’t normally directly touch TVs anymore in their routine use and the future will favor progressive elimination of what physical contact is left and a means of accessing networked media with TV-remote convenience –a key factor for media system design that is often overlooked.
The most advanced role for TV PADs would be as Virtual Window-Wall displays. This updated variation of the long-hyped but never practical ‘picturephone’ or ‘videophone’ would incorporate whole-wall displays as virtual windows linking rooms over any distance. Though TVs will certainly be ubiquitous, Window-Wall displays may be more common than some PADs, but will likely never become ubiquitous in use. Just as with the picturephone, people simply don’t like being seen with interrupt-driven communication. But digital teleconferencing has, in fact, shown great staying power and practicality and is likely to become more important as energy costs increase and families and businesses seek telecommunications solutions to sharing activity and events across distances increasingly expensive to travel. On the colonies of Aquarius and the space facilities of Asgard, teleconferencing will be a very important tool in science and engineering collaboration and there may be many situations where continuous video links between locations –particularly in public locations— are maintained indefinitely. (much like the fanciful Telectroscope art installation that briefly linked New York and London –an early demonstration of public virtual window-walls) Thus we anticipate a possible expanding additional role for the wall-sized TV as Virtual Window-Wall. Virtual Window-Walls may also see a role in the creation of CAVE (CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment) installations as immersive entertainment and teleoperations workstations. With these an entire room is enclosed in Window-Wall displays projecting an all-around view of a real or virtual environment. Though initially very costly, these may become popular as a way to experience Virtual Environments. This author also anticipates the likely architectural experiment of ‘virtually wall-less architecture’ where Window-Wall displays linked to exterior cameras replace windows and turn windowless structures into virtually open yet totally private interior spaces –foreshadowing the use of virtual window systems for spacecraft and habitats.
The VOX –short for Voice Box— form of PAD would be based on relatively small devices but would use them in potentially large groups covering whole rooms, homes, or buildings and thus we place it as the physically largest of the PADs. A VOX would essentially host the same type of user interface as a Headset. The difference is that where the Headset functions as a private personal voice and audio communications device, the VOX functions as an open area voice and audio communications system which can link to other types of PADs in its proximity and be used by many people identified by voice. Simply put, the VOX is a voice-control interface PAD that works much like the voice control systems commonly portrayed in Science Fiction and now in use with home control systems. VOXes would tend to take three basic design forms; small embedded control devices that connect many speakers and microphones about large areas, self-contained table-top or shelf-top units that look and work rather like a speakerphone (this author imagines a design inspired by the intriguingly spooky 1937 Isamu Noguchi design for the Zenith Radio Nurse) and may incorporate a small display which cover communication in a single room, and wall-mounted units akin to a small Monitor PAD that likewise cover communication in a single room. They will typically operate with voice pattern identification but may also incorporate RFID keying and use with Badge PADs as electronic keys. They could be linked to any or all of the other PADs in a Personal Domain, associating them with relative user location so as to be able to automatically use them as complimentary display devices. Many later PADs may incorporate VOX functionality as well, Monitors and TVs in particular, allowing them to function ‘hands-free’, but the dedicated VOX units will tend to have an edge on audio fidelity and be capable of freely linking multiple VOX units into a common interface for many users over very large areas.
Development of the Headset and its audio interface metaphors is likely to produce much more robust ‘conversational’ voice-driven computer interaction than we have seen –or rather heard— with today’s crude voice control systems. However, this is still not likely to be as ubiquitous as futurists have often suggested for much the same reasons the picturephone wasn’t. Computer interaction has always been most efficient when it’s discrete, the computer functioning like an extension of ourselves rather than a separate personality we have to negotiate with to get things done. This is why Headset interfaces are very likely to become ubiquitous yet the VOX, not as much. It externalizes the Headset’s discreet communication and places it in a large, potentially public, space with the computer assuming the role of a disembodied person in that space. That’s much less conducive to concentrated mental effort. Put simply, it’s hard not to look and feel like an ass when talking to disembodied persons in public... Nonetheless, the VOX is likely to find a great number of practical applications even if those applications are more specialized. It may be key to assisted living systems for the elderly or disabled, hands-free computer control for technicians and surgeons, and casual stand-up control for group presentation software and teleconferencing.
With the advent of AI, VOXes may see another boost in functionality and use and may increasingly incorporate video cameras to allow AI agent software to identify users by sight, track their movement, interpret gestures, and even analyze mood and emotion. VOX units may assume a design rather similar to the monitors of the imaginary HAL 9000 of Science Fiction with wide-angle camera eyes mounted in various locations. Again, many users may find this intrusive, others very useful and practical. Thus it may, again, never be ubiquitous but is likely to find many practical roles.
Aside from these most generic and multi-functional of PADs, an endless assortment of much-more application-specific devices would also be likely as would an endless variation in design of the common PADs to accommodate variations in personal ergonomics and aesthetic taste. With back-end data processing made independent of front-end user interface management, great ergonomic and aesthetic diversity on the front-end become possible. PAD functionality will be integrated into many toys, robots, furnishings, and household appliances and take the form of specialized devices like gaming consoles, digital cameras and video cameras, hand-held inventory logging systems, electronic cash registers, medical instruments, power tools and fabrication systems, portable instruments, and even the dashboard consoles of automobiles or the cockpits of aircraft.
In the near future, the smart money is in diversity. The Industrial Age concept of one-size-fits-most no longer makes sense for an ever-increasing number of things; from the way our artifacts are designed to the way we live our lives. But traditional Industrial Age practices and the products designed developed to cater to their limitations cannot support large diversity. Today’s proliferation of digital devices would have been impossible without the Industrial Ecology of the computer converging with new production technology that has enabled a reduction in product tooling overhead. This is why such diversification is coming late to so many other industries. But even this is not enough. Many product concepts still can’t get to market because they can’t create or divert their necessary production capacity without maximizing market share through design overgeneralization. Designers of truly new products are always being demanded to do the impossible; to ‘prove’ the existence of markets for products that have never existed before in order to justify large minimum production capacity volumes. Long-term, success in computer design will come to those who can find ways to bridge commodity production economics to this burgeoning ergonomic diversification, and thus be able test designs on markets without risk rather than speculating on them. For digital products that means digital technology that’s a space frame, not a bunch of Swiss Army Knives built like jigsaw puzzles.
With TMP ventures leading the way in Distributed Computer development, the marine colonies of Aquarius will become test-beds for the world’s first community-scale Ubiquitous Computing environments and the first large scale deployment of Web Controller based sensor and control webs. Given our overview so far of the basic Distributed Computer concept and its common components, readers should already be starting to visualize how this computer architecture would physically fit into homes and the structure of communities and function as the basis of a communications, computing, and control/sensor infrastructure. Basically, it’s all about System Domain Spaces.
In the realm of Ubiquitous Computing, the world is organized into System Domains; virtual networks associated with particular collections of Distributed Computer hardware, system resources, and users which co-exist on a shared physical network infrastructure and are linked and bridged or just isolated from each other in various ways. Some of these things are totally exclusive to one user or a household –a Personal Domain Space. Others may be shared in various ways according to a user’s relationships beyond the home or subscriptions to specific services. Thus these domains relate to each other in an object-oriented way according to the elements they have in common and the communications bridges they employ. System Domains may come to mirror and map our social structures and personal relationships. (much like the eerie anime vision of the future of cell phone use in the film Platonic Chain) Most of the time the emphasis will be on isolating system domains from one another as with today’s VPNs so they can remain independent and private while sharing common physical networks supporting some random distribution of their hardware and software. In some cases the need for security and performance will be so critical that domains will be physically isolated to separate network systems exclusive to a particular area of use. And, of course, at home the local LAN environment needs to be private, secure, and free of interference and so these branch networks may be mediated by Node units also assuming the role a gateway device, much like today’s gateway routers.
In the general Internet the network infrastructure is spread among a vast assortment of owners from the end-user with a home LAN to the large corporation or government managing a regional telecommunications system. On Aquarius colonies most of the network infrastructure would be collective, owned and maintained by communities and a collective cooperative of communities all sponsoring and supporting the collective network infrastructure as a shared community utility, though a great deal of individual hardware will be personal property. Like water, sewerage, and power, personal digital communications will be seen by Aquarian inhabitants as a key measure of standard of living and critical to economic sustainability of communities, and they will only settle for the best they can collectively afford, rather than what markets deigns to offer them piecemeal.
Throughout the structure of the Aquarius marine colony a conventional, yet very high performance, IP based network would be distributed, most likely based on current fiber optic platforms. Bandwidths to the home would be impressive because, as a community collective, there is no need to tier access speeds as with commercial services on the mainland, installation cost is low despite high bandwidth because distances are short and routing space very easily accessed in the colony structure, and for communities of these sizes using many different forms of network hardware is actually more expensive. Thus, even if they almost never fully use it, the typical Aquarian inhabitat is likely to enjoy personal Internet access at remarkably close to the same bandwidths of the primary telecom links connecting the colonies as a whole and whole towns or cities on land.
This network infrastructure would be organized into two parallel backbones, each composed of a bridged wireless and cabled network. One system would be for general-purpose communications and computing, the other for the utility control and sensor webs distributed through the colony utilities infrastructure and habitat architecture. They would be very sparsely bridged by high-security gateways, if bridged at all. A later third backbone could also be added to support industrial automation distributed across colonies, though initially this would be rolled-into the general-purpose backbone. The general-purpose network would additionally be bridged to the global telecommunications infrastructure via satellite and aerostat up-links (see Aquarian Airship) and eventually sub-sea cables. These long distance links will be somewhat logistically problematical for the first colonies out on the Equator, but will become progressively more robust as the community of colonies establish independent means of global telecommunications deployment in competition with the existing telecom cartels.
The utilities backbones would be host to predominately Web Controllers and CPUs hosting sequencers and other control systems. Web Controllers would be everywhere in a colony, though usually in places out-of-sight and in nondescript hermetically sealed boxes. The CPUs, with some companion Storage Units, would be redundantly and strategically distributed among a series of maintenance and operations centers around the colony. Most PADs used for this range of activities would be simple Monitor and Tablet PADs with Badges often used as digital keys. The community ‘bridge’ may feature table and consoles as well. However, there will likely be a large number of wall and pedestal mounted kiosk displays dispersed about the colony used as public information displays, community-wide intercoms, and to operate such things as PRT and PPT terminals. (PRT cabs will likely all include kiosk displays for route status display, user control, and in-route news and entertainment) And, as discussed in the article on the VersaBot robotics platform, there will also be a variety of utility robots on Aquarius colonies that will link to the utility network via wireless just like any other Distributed Computer component, sometimes functioning like self-mobile PADs.
Though Aquarian colonies may feature a symbolic operational center or ‘bridge’ –most likely used as a way to showcase and make visible the ‘engineering wonders’ of the community to visiting tourists— most of the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the colonies will be conducted by people working at home, since their access to control systems would be completely free and independent of the physical location of system hardware. The ‘bridge’ will likely only have functional use during emergencies and other times when engineers need to meet to collaborate face-to-face on their coordinated activities.
The general-purpose backbone would be host to domestic and general communications and computing domains. Here would be hosted all the routine personal communications and personal, public, and business computing Domain Spaces as well as links to the global Internet. By the time of the full-scale Aquarian colonies, personal computing in the world at large will likely form a spectrum between two use mode extremes; users who own their own CPUs and Storage Units and users who rely entirely on subscription network services for application and storage services and own only PADs linked to Node devices. Odds are no one will fall completely into one or the other camp and the argument over the relative virtues of each camp will supplant today’s pointless never-ending arguments over which is the superior operating system platform. On Aquarius colonies networks will be far less hierarchical and there would be much more community-owned/shared hardware on-line. Latancy may initially impact use of global Internet services but local resources would be astoundingly robust and linked by extremely high bandwidths with no latency issues, thus compelling local replication of many global services. So, while a few may own their own CPUs and storage, Aquarian residents are likely to rely much more on community-hosted resources and the use of primarily PADs at home.
Consequently, the Aquarian colony is likely to feature at least one communal ‘data center’, starting initially in the same facility used for long-distance telecommunication systems and likely close to the colony ‘bridge’. There will be no ‘computers’ in this data center in the 20th century sense. (though conventional computer hardware is likely in the case of the early seed settlements) Rather, it will be host to rack-based hot-swap-module batteries of CPU arrays and Storage Appliance devices with sophisticated automated backup systems that would all be distributed on-demand and through resource virtualization among various System Domains hosting either communications services, media services, applications services, traditional Web services, Personal Domains, and Virtual Environments. In effect, it would be a cloud computing facility operating rather like an electric power utility, automatically bringing generic processing and storage resources on and off line on-demand. The collective processing power of these systems –especially when based on Dynamic Gate Array CPUs that can effectively blend together seamlessly into large collective arrays just like mass storage— would rival the largest super-computers of the world and may, occasionally (though Aquarian research facilities are likely to also have their own data centers), be used collectively on single huge scientific or engineering data processing projects. Other separate data centers for research, education, and digital financial exchange facilities may also be employed. Though Aquarius colonies may never host a supercomputer in the old-fashioned sense, the Aquarius infrastructure will, collectively, BE one of the largest supercomputers on the planet.
As the community data center grows with the colony it will likely incorporate a unique integration with the Aquarian Personal Packet Transit System - PPT technology. As discussed in the article on that key transportation system, PPT will provide modest door-to-door cargo/mail/packet transport around the colony integrated at automated warehouse facilities called SuperStores. In later data center design, this very same SuperStore technology would be combined with the rack systems used for data center systems, allowing the facility to become self-maintaining through the simple pick-and-place replacement of modules and their transport by the PPT. This later, larger, denser, automated, and unattended data center may be located deep within the interior volume of a larger colony’s island-like mass, sealed, and filled with nitrogen to enhance system duty life. It would also enjoy, in this location, more direct integration to chill-water cooling direct from the colony OTEC plants.
With demand for high security data storage growing in concert with commercial activity on the colonies, this data center facility may also employ a form of back-up data storage vault also unique to the colonies; large storage arrays filled with flourinert fluid installed in hermetically sealed vaults placed on the sea floor with only optical cable links to the service. These would be designed for unattended operation over as much as a century and may make colonies popular globally for their extreme-security data storage services. By the time of Asgard, similar data vaults may even be placed on the Moon as one of the very few cost-effective lunar export resources.
Ubiquitous Computing Lifestyle:
Ubiquitous Computing is primarily about ubiquitous access to data resources through ubiquitous connectivity with transparency. Essentially, the solitary personal computer that exists everywhere. This is what will characterize the Aquarian computing and communications experience. Today we tend to regard the Internet as a random collection of discrete places in/linked-through a nebulous other space. A vast –sometimes desolate, sometimes noisy and crowded— city in a perpetually foggy night, with Google as our flashlight. But with the advent of Ubiquitous Computing our perceptions of the Internet are likely to change to more of an extension of a virtual personal environment overlapping the physical environment wherever we and our PADs and other hardware are. As meta-indexing of Internet resources becomes increasingly sophisticated while many categories of web media become more standardized in their content formats and front-ends through competitive refinement, we will rarely deal in the messiness of URLs, network port configurations and profiles, and discrete web sites in the near future. An increasing volume of information will be served-up to us in a context-sensitive way rather than being searched tediously for and in some ways it may become almost an extension of our own minds. (especially given the advent of sub-lingual communication and passive AI conversational user interfacing)
With personal communications evolved through advanced connectivity to a kind of interaction within or between personal domain spaces rather than just between discrete communications devices and programs, very sophisticated means of conversation and collaboration between people and software may result. Today we perceive strict distinctions between modes of communication because they are limited to specific types of devices with no means of cross-communication. But in a ubiquitous computing environment all user interface devices –all the many kinds of PADs— all our modes of communication, and all data resources are part of the same environment. So any communication between two people has their whole Personal Domains with all its information and media and all digital devices at-hand or nearby integrated into the conversation –and eventually some passive AI software literally listening-in! So all the devices, data, and software one has at one’s disposal –wherever it may be in the world— are linked into the same communication channel, depending on whether it is synchronous communication like a phone call or asynchronous like email.
This goes far beyond the dream of the picturephone. You can add as many people to a conversation as you like, in any mix of voice, text, or video links. You can have a conversation with people in a Virtual Habitat just like calling them on the phone and can see them as their virtual avatars. (you could even call and talk to AI programs embodied in the same way) Any dimensional area of user interface display space on a PAD can have that space live-linked to one or more other persons’ PADs of comparable or larger size. Mixes of PADs could share each other’s display configurations to automatically negotiate a minimum shared area. If someone wants to give you a data file, they need only pass it between this shared space. If someone wants to give you a photo or video clip while they are talking to you, they can put it right onto your TV or any other kind of PAD that’s at-hand. If you want to send someone a model, figurine, or other object you can pick up it, show it to them in a live video image, then show the ‘computer’ the bar code on the bottom, and then they could get the data for the whole model from its source and send it to their home fabber to be immediately duplicated. If two children have robot toys and call each other those toys can sense each other’s presence over the link and can engage in their own conversion and interaction –might even be able to remember the links between those toys and communicate independently of their owners in order to pass messages. The potential in this intimate and pervasive level of connectivity is astounding.
With such connectivity coupled to a proliferation of Post-Industrial tools and a relatively compact living environment, the work environment of Aquarius colonies will be markedly different from that of typical of 20th century communities. Virtually all residents of the colonies will work from home or in a casually mobile manner all or part of the time with centralized commercial office space virtually non-existent save for occasionally used conference rooms, meetings lounges, presentation/lecture halls, and ‘team’ office suites. Many small industrial facilities will be integrated into people homes (particularly those on outer-terraces) or operated largely from a distance. Similarly, every Aquarian colony will be a world-class university with no campus, students free to study with the same casual freedom of location as people conduct work and business and the same lecture hall facilities used for business purposes also used for education where teleconferencing and increasingly sophisticated courseware are insufficient. Even the lower pre-college grades of education are likely to employ a variety of venues from homes to parks to traditional classrooms in a variety of locations about the colony.
With PPT integrated into every home and business, little to no shopping may actually be done in physical stores –save for those shopping areas reserved for tourists— and the interior atrium commercial centers of the colonies may be dominated by dining, entertainment, public art galleries and museums, aquariums, hotels, and public service facilities. An increasing number of goods may be produced entirely at home or through simple trade across the PPT between neighbors. Quickly adopting digital currency systems, Aquarian colonies may likely quickly transition those systems to more fluid resource and social credit based systems.
Able to transport an entire examination room door-to-door by PRT, even doctors will favor making house calls and there would be no need for large hospital facilities as home monitoring of patients and loaning of medical equipment would easy. Aquarian society will not suffer the common Industrial Age social fracturing across lines of age due to the physical separation of generations for sake of mass centralization of schools, colleges, workplaces, and elder care.
With such powerful computing resources at hand and the benefits of potential tax-haven status on the Equator, the collective Aquarian colonies may establish a sophisticated independent digital financial exchange rooted in the fundamental ‘currency’ of its massive food and energy production. Unlike today’s restricted and propriety financial exchange markets, the digital exchange of Aquarius would be an endlessly inclusive and diversified environment hosting both traditional financial instruments in a non-stop 24 hour exchange (a radically disruptive concept in itself) as well as microcredit and barter systems and its own new systems of social and resource based exchange. Global finance through this vast time-zone-spanning exchange may become the primary basis of commerce activity on the colonies, cultivating the world’s most powerful financial engine and pushing it inexorably toward a resource-based economics.
One of the key aspects of digital lifestyle on Aquarius colonies may be the growing significance of virtual environments and the cultivation of a collective Internet-spanning Virtual Habitat. Virtual environments, today typified by MMO gaming platforms and virtual reality chat environments, are likely to become increasingly significant in the contemporary culture as mediums of entertainment and socialization. This is why, in the Foundation section TMP2 anticipates participation in this evolution though the deliberate development of a new, open, and more dynamically connective multi-user VR platform called Hyperborea. Coupled to the ubiquitous connectivity of the Distributed Computer, its cloud-like dynamic allocation of processing and storage resources, and its ability to allow PADs to evolve into specialized interfaces for VR activity, this platform would be capable of realizing a sophisticated global standard for virtual environment development, creating the basis of a comprehensively integrated collective Virtual Habitat. Unlike earlier science fiction visions of ‘cyberspace’ which assumed some kind of automatic virtual representation of the Internet’s overall and ‘secret’ hardware/software infrastructure, the actual Virtual Habitat likely to develop would be based on the deliberate creation and integration of aesthetically pleasing environments focused on the role of human socialization. There is no practical point to a ‘looking glass’ representation of the essentially passive infrastructure of the Internet –just as there is no necessity for our cities to be based on transparent architecture so we can continuously monitor the inner workings of their infrastructure. The true cyberspace will not be a mysterious magical sewer system as second-home to an anarchist hacker elite. It will be a world public square whose use and popularity will be driven –just like most other aspects of the Internet— by its potential as a medium of self-expression.
Trends in virtual environment development point to, of course, increasing visual realism, but not realism in design, and an increasing connectivity between virtual environments and ‘external’ media and communications channels and web-based application environments, progressively bridging them to the overall Internet and ultimately to the physical habitat through a growing diversity of user interface and spatial merging display devices. During the first Virtual Reality craze toward the end of the 20th century much emphasis was placed on the realization of total sensory interfacing for users to the virtual environments –a challenge which, like artificial intelligence, inspired much over-estimation of the near-term and proved far more difficult to realize, ultimately causing a loss of popular interest in the subject as this ideal proved unattainable that was only restored by the emergence of MMO gaming. Today the goal of total sensory immersion, though not eliminated, has been set aside as unnecessary, the emphasis now more rationally focused on convenience of use and access, content deveopment, and means self-expression within the virtual environment.
Tomorrow's virtual environments will be increasingly integrated to each other as VR platforms converge in common data and communications standards. With the advent of platforms like the proposed Hyperborea, a web-like collective virtual habitat formed of increasingly interconnected themed, public, private, and commercialized environments will emerge and become increasingly perceived as a single multi-dimensional ‘place’ bridging space across the physical habitat. A great diversity of devices and communications methods will link people to this virtual habitat in different ways. Simple conventional displays and keyboard consoles as are commonly used for todays MMOs may continue to predominate, evolving to more specialized yet still diversified virtual environment consoles akin to todays dedicated video game consoles as convergence brings standardization in the interfaces to environments and their gaming platforms. Thus we can expect a range of access from small portable game devices or light wearable headset systems based on stereoscopic display to full room immersive entertainment centers using full-surround sound and window-wall displays. Long underestimated in importance by the designers of MMOs, avatar creation and expression will become an increasing obsession for virtual habitat users and a chief focus of software development. An increasing number of common media and communications will integrate into virtual environments. Telephone, videophone, email, instant messaging, broadcast or streaming media, and so on will link to the virtual habitat just as if it were any other place in the real world. Already people watch live streaming Internet video shows in simulated theaters or broadcast live shows out from the stages and sets in virtual habitat. This will eventually evolve into merged space installations where large area displays, HUD based VR displays, rudimentary holographic display technology, and large area motion and haptic systems create special locations where the virtual habitat perceptually overlaps the physical habitat in simple ways. Though unlikely to ever supplant it, over time the virtual habitat will become as ubiquitous a means of entertainment and communication as the modern television and thus become as significant to popular culture. And, of course, the sexualization of virtual environments is already well underway –a clear indication of a communications medium likely to be persistant long-term.
Though probably initially hampered by issues of latency with satellite Internet, on the colonies of Aquarius the virtual habitat is likely to be as culturally significant as anywhere else and robust ‘local’ virtual environment development is likely as a means of compensating for latency –though the initially small populations of the colonies will not lend themselves to as much virtual socialization. There’s no particular novelty in socializing virtually with people who live next-door, though participating in multiuser games will still be interesting. Though functioning primarily as an entertainment and social venue, the virtual habitat will have one very practical role in TMP development as a medium for the communal cultivation of proposed settlement designs. As modeling tools becomes more convenient to use, the virtual habitat will –as early as the Foundation phase– become a useful means to publicly showcase and promote the habitat and vehicle concepts of TMP and to develop them in a participatory or peer-to-peer manner. An evolving virtual representation of all the phases, developments, and technologies of TMP is likely to preceed all real development, ranging from simple virtual mock-ups to very elaborate simulations. The promotional importance of the virtual TMP will likely lead to development of sophisticated immersive entertainment centers on Aquarius colonies geared to maximizing the visual/experiential impact for visiting tourists compared to what they might experience with personal computer hardware at home, which will provide a dividend as communal immersive entertainment centers for the resident population and more advanced tools for virtual habitat modeling and programming.
Long-term, virtual habitats may become a key medium for the development of artificial intelligence, serving as a medium for first cultivating intelligence and then serving as native environment and home to the resulting AI personalities that produces. Having progressed beyond early ‘brute force’ strategies of artificial intelligence that typified development in the late 20th century, we understand today that intelligence is strongly associated with body image and environment and currently many artificial intelligence research is now associated with staged physical environments for robots. Simple superior cost-effectiveness will compel a shift of such research to virtual environments as that software improves and will find ready financial incentive in the improved performance of virtual characters in on-line game environments and for use as virtual pets and assistants inhabiting increasingly cross-connected Personal Domain spaces. Thus this author anticipates a strong likelhood for practical artificial intelligence and ultimately true artificial sentience to develop within the context of the virtual habitat, particularly given the amplifying effect of its potential concentration of the interactive learning feedback of a global community of users. As the potential shepherd for a whole knew era of IT and master-cultivator of the emergent virtual habitat, the community of TMP and the Aquarian colonies has a strong chance of being the first to realize this long-anticipated breakthrough in technology and to be the ideal host to this possible new branch of human society.
Islands of Light:
As a symbol of energy, communication, intellectual enlightenment, the heavenly bodies that are TMP’s ultimate goal, and of human civilization itself, light will likely feature prominantly in the communal aesthetic of the Aquarian settlement –if not all settlements realized through TMP. Early in the Foundation phase, with its focus on cultivation and promotion of the TMP vision, light will feature in its use of portable information kiosks, walk-through exhibits with digital interactive projection displays, and portable theaters. Early eco-communities may initiate the tradition of the Star Festival –perhaps associated with Yuri’s Night– as a celebration of the theme of light resplendent in digitally controlled light shows and sculptures. On the earliest of Aquarian seed settlements light will feature in public art –particularly in the form of the community lanterns serving as these small floating structures’ alternative to the conventional lighthouses of the past. As anticipated in TMP2’s proposed designs, here too we will see merging of art and IT as these lanterns serve double-duty as outdoor projection displays for entertainment and ‘mood lights’ whose colors and projected iconographics community information on the state of the settlement, the weather, time, and seasons. On the full-scale marine colonies, where light through fiber optic networks will drive the nervous systems of the habitat, such art may see its greatest expressions, ranging from things as subtle as modern equivalents of the sun-daggers of ancient cultures to as sophisticated as the Living Earth digital globes now appearing in public places in some cities, merging global information through the Internet in a vast spherical display of Earth as organism. Elaborate immersive entertainment structures and ‘merged space’ installations may become vast and/or numerous on the colonies, particularly where a new AI community may seek an increasingly casual and visceral interaction with the organic society.
Indeed, Aquarius will glow in ways literal and figurative. Luminous islands on the sea, perhaps some day a string of pearls around the Earth.
- Pneumatically Stabilized Platforms - PSP
- Sea Towers
- Cold Water Radiant Cooling
- Large Area Cast Acrylic Structures
- Polyspecies Mariculture
- Free-Range Fish Farming
- Terra Preta
- Cold-Bed Agriculture
- Small Space Animal Husbandry
- Tidal/Wave/Current Systems
- Algae-Based Biofuel Systems
- Vanadium Redox Systems
- Hydride Storage Systems
- Next-Generation Hydrogen Storage
- Alternative Hydrolizer Systems
- Supercritical Water Oxidation
- Plasma Waste Conversion