Four trends that could change everything

Several trends, already firmly established, now seem poised to exert a significant impact on international relations and human interaction. As a result, educators might do well to take heed of four of the more ubiquitous of these trends, which I’ll allude to by means of these labels: (1) parallel computing, (2) cloud computing, (3) brain mapping, and (4) the "global dis-assembly line."

Taken together, these four trends could add up to a profound and historic phenomenon: Humanity is developing a network-enabled, computer-assisted global consciousness.

With this broad, unprecedented perspective, we at last have the opportunity to affect our planet and ourselves in ways never before possible. With luck and intelligence, we’ll use this opportunity to do more good than harm.

Here’s what’s certain: We’ll need all the science and technology available if we are to fight our way out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into lately. Education and innovation are the keys to success. Luckily, we have more resources than ever before in history to help us out–resources such as …

Trend No. 1: Parallel Computing. Breaking up is hard to do, but this evolutionary step beyond serial computing gives us enormous powers. Parallel computing is not particularly new, except in the sense that its deployment is about to have an unprecedented impact on our lives.

Traditionally, we think of one computer working on one problem at a time. That’s serial computing. When you take one large, complex task, break it into byte-size pieces, have multiple computers process the problem simultaneously, and then reassemble that output into a single, unified outcome–that’s parallel computing. Universities are doing this sort of thing routinely now.

The most ambitious application of parallel computing I know of involves the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, near Geneva, Switzerland. (You know, the one some people fear will create black holes that will swallow up the world.) Well–assuming we survive–the collider actually is intended to help us understand the essential nature of matter. It’s designed to produce about 15 petabytes of data per year. A petabyte, as you know, equals one million gigabytes–or a million billion bytes. (Facebook is estimated to have 1 petabyte of user photos.)

Therefore, the problem for scientists at CERN, the big European physics laboratory, was how to process these vast amounts of data. Nobody could afford to buy all the computer resources necessary. The solution: parallel computing.

The collider team created the CERN Grid. With central coordination, the grid incorporates both private, fiber-optic cable links and existing high-speed portions of the internet. That enables data transfers from CERN to academic institutions around the world and back again. As a matter of fact, even your personal computer can be recruited to work on CERN data in its down time. In theory, every computer in the world could be yoked together in this way.

Now and for the immediate future, a central challenge will be developing software programs and specialized computer chips to break down complex tasks, process them on a distributed, global level, then reassemble the outcomes into usable information. Besides improving our understanding of elemental physics, humanity should enjoy some additional payoffs, too: Simulations of hugely complex data should help us predict global weather patterns–tornados, hurricanes, and the like; computer modeling will help us understand how diseases spread, and digital analysis will help us see how student brains react to specific pedagogical techniques, allowing us to identify successful teaching strategies and pair them with individual learning styles. 

What’s more, where and how parallel computing can be deployed is greatly enhanced by…

Trend No. 2: Cloud Computing. Although the concept has been around for at least a decade and half, the terminology is only lately gaining popular traction. Cloud computing is just a poetic way of alluding to software that runs on remote servers accessible via the internet or a similar network. It might also be called the World Wide Computer.

In 1993, Eric Schmidt, Google’s current CEO, was the chief technology officer for Sun Microsystems. At the time, he made a prescient prediction. He said, "When the network becomes as fast as the microprocessor, the computer hollows out and spreads across the network." The company boiled Schmidt’s prediction down to a memorable tagline: "The network is the computer."

More recently, Schmidt elaborated. "The servers should be in a cloud somewhere," he said. "And if you have the right kind of browser or the right kind of access, it doesn’t matter whether you have a PC or a Mac or a mobile telephone or a Blackberry … or new devices still to be developed–you can get access to the cloud."
The cloud is a metaphor for the internet (suggested, incidentally, by how engineers traditionally have depicted the internet in their diagrams of computer networks).

Here’s the basic idea: Computing resources can be a little like electricity.

Say you have a vacuum cleaner. When you plug it in, you can vacuum the rug. It doesn’t matter much to you where the electricity comes from or even why it makes the vacuum run.

Well, cloud computing is a little like that–except for one thing: the difference between atoms and bytes. A library book, for example, is made of atoms. When you take it off the shelf, it’s gone. Nobody else can read that book as long as you have it checked out.

But as I said, computer programs are different. They’re made of bytes. When you borrow a program via the internet, you can check it out, yet that same program still remains on the internet shelf, so to speak, ready to serve the next user, and the next, and the next.

So now, you have what’s called "software as a service." Software on the internet shelf, in other words, instead of software in a shrink-wrapped box. Now, the software runs on a server, but that server no longer needs to be down the hall from your office. It can be anywhere. It can be in–oh, say–The Dalles, Ore., which happens to be the site of one of Google’s giant server farms.

According to recent estimates, Google now has well over 1 million servers worldwide, all gently nudging us toward the full transition to cloud computing. Yahoo, Microsoft, Amazon, and even QVC aren’t far behind.

And all their server farms gobble up vast amounts of electrical power. It’s not by accident that Google’s server farm is located on the Columbia River near The Dalles Dam, which generates power to run Google’s servers. One energy analyst estimates such server farms will consume half of the world’s electricity within a decade.

Cloud computing not only will liberate corporations and institutions from the need for locally located servers–and, eventually perhaps, even from in-house IT departments–but it also will accelerate the development of massively parallel computing, increasing exponentially our collective ability to calculate and analyze.

Of course, it also will put vast power into the hands of those who run the server farms. Let’s just hope, therefore, that Google lives up to its informal corporate motto: "Don’t be evil."

So what shall we do with all this computing power? It certainly could help us buy more Ginsu knives and ThighMaster exercise devices or … just possibly, it could help us better understand the human condition and specifically how humans learn, which brings me to…

Trend No. 3: Brain Mapping. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (or FMRI), we can go under our own hoods and see what makes us tick.

Your brain has approximately 100 billion neurons, of which about 10 billion are cortical pyramidal cells. These cells pass signals to each other across approximately 100 trillion synaptic connections.

When you are exposed to information, various of these synaptic connections are energized with electrical impulses. These impulses become visible via FMRI. For example, different sections of the brain are activated, I am told, when one studies Spanish and when one studies English.

At places such as the Biomedical Imaging Center at Harvard and the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University, researchers are now able to map the effects of various pedagogical techniques on a person’s brain activity.

It now is possible to observe and catalog the relationship of sensory input, such as instruction, with brain activity and then correlate that observed activity to learning outcomes. The goal of such work is to identify practices effective with individual learners and, thereby, eventually increase the efficacy of instruction. 

Breaking down complex processes such as brain activity has corollaries in both the world of technology and in traditional manufacturing. And that brings me to…

Trend No. 4: The Global Dis-Assembly Line. Be it round or be it flat, globalization has arrived.

In 1908, Henry Ford changed the world when he introduced the assembly line. Instead of individual craftsmen fashioning one car at a time, specialized workers concentrated on one or several specific tasks as the product itself moved down the line from start to finish.

Bringing all the necessary parts to one location, then working on them in a coordinated sequence, enabled Ford’s assembly line to give rise to mass production–and that vaulted the United States into a leading role among world economies.

Nowadays, our global economy features instant communication, rapid transportation, and computer-managed production. These elements signal the end of mass production as we’ve known it and herald what some have called the global dis-assembly line.

Here’s what that means, as described by Robyn Meredith in her best-selling book The Elephant and The Dragon:
"… J.C. Penny might order 100,000 copies of a shirt. First it might buy yarn from a Korean producer, then ship the yarn to Taiwan to be dyed and woven into cloth. The clothing company might order buttons from a specialized Japanese company with a factory in China, but ship the buttons plus the freshly woven cloth to Thailand to be cut and sewn into a shirt."

Five weeks after the order is placed, the finished shirts are on the shelves of hundreds of J.C. Penny stores in the United States.

Sophisticated technology is required to track the process and keep everything on schedule and within budget. This "global dis-assembly line" is, in effect, the physical-world equivalent of parallel computing.  

Nearly all the trends I’ve just described–and many others besides–rely on technology and on persons who understand technology. That, in turn, requires effective education. Many nations–including, especially, China and India–now have come to view education as an essential national asset. President-elect Barack Obama says he gets that, too.

He’d better, and so had we all. Because education is the only way the United States can hope to keep up in our interconnected world.

Consider this: Early last year, the real estate market began to tank in the United States. As a result of the economic repercussions, many American and European consumers slammed their wallets shut. This year, in response to falling demand for imported goods, China had to shutter 67,000 factories, laying off hundreds of thousands of workers. This, in turn, is certain to drive up prices for imported products in American outlets like J.C. Penny and Wal-Mart.

As our current economic crisis so painfully underscores … we’re all in this together. But so, what else is new?
As John Donne put it in 1624: "No man is an island, entire unto itself." Today, nothing much about human interconnectedness has really changed. Donne’s advice still resonates with the ring of relevance: "Never send," he advised, "to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee."

In our case–given what’s been happening on Wall Street–let’s just hope it’s not the closing bell.

This article is adapted from remarks delivered Nov. 20 at the 2008 Technology Innovators Conference of the National Center for Technology Innovation.

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Eco-Friendly Computing resource center. With energy costs soaring to record levels, taking steps to reduce the amount of energy you use isn’t just good for the environment–it’s also essential for your schools’ fiscal health. Fortunately, manufacturers of technology are responding to these needs by developing more eco-friendly products that can reduce power consumption and save schools money over the life of these systems. Go to: Eco-Friendly Computing