Decentralizing our Infrastructure

Recently I read Ray Kurzweil’s “The Singularity is Near.” Kurzweil, a reputable futurist, takes the reader through his vision for a future in which machines overcome human intelligence, recursively redesigning themselves in an “intelligence explosion” known as the singularity (don’t be afraid, the machines don’t overtake the human race, we become the machines). Kurzweil predicts that ongoing advancements in the fields of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics will lead us into (and beyond) the singularity. These advancements raise questions about the energy and infrastructure required to support our ongoing technological development and increasing population. One of the themes revisited throughout the book is sustainment through massive decentralization of our infrastructure.

Decentralization is the localization of services currently administered through large hubs – think power plants, industrial agriculture, and water treatment centres. Given our state of technology, it has historically made sense to keep these systems centralized; however they are susceptible to a number of dangers. Recall the immense blackout of North America’s eastern seaboard in the summer of 2003, caused by the shutdown of a generating station in Eastlake, Ohio. While electrical power IS distributed through a grid, the generators are large nodes on which we are very dependent. Ideally individual households could act as generating stations, connected through a self-organizing, self-repairing network not unlike the brain. Of course, this level of decentralization is not yet possible (we would need the ability to more efficiently harness the sun’s energy, while mitigating factors – from noise to meltdowns – that currently keep our power plants and treatment centres away from home), however it does provoke interesting discussion about the benefits of decentralized resources – namely decreased dependence on individual nodes.

Consider cloud computing – Amazon is just one example of a company now offering this service having realized they could put their otherwise idle servers to use outside of the busy holiday shopping season. Instead of hosting files on one computer, Amazon keeps your information on a network of computers. If, for some reason, one server were to catch fire and become irreversibly damaged, never fear! Your information is safely stored around the world. And because the Internet is quite adept at finding new paths around damaged nodes, you probably wouldn’t notice that a fire had happened at all.

Can principles of self-organizing networks be applied to resource and infrastructure problems? I think they can with a little effort. Maybe the Jetsons weren’t so far off in their depiction of the future home. There may be a market for faucet-sized water treatment devices, solar-generating windows, and green-roof vegetable gardens. The Internet could be the platform to support this development. Let’s get this singularity moving people!