Daniel Lemire's blog

, 8 min read

We need to go beyond the web

Ceglowski, a web designer, wrote a beautiful essay called “Web Design: The First 100 Years“. His essay starts with a review of the aerospace industry…

  • Back in 1965, it looked like aerospace was the future. Each successive plane went faster than the previous one. At that rate, by the early twenty-first century, we would be traveling across the solar system.
  • Instead, we hit physical limitations. Faster-than-sound planes cost a lot to run and they were noisy. The market went instead with slower, shorter, safer and cheaper flights. In the last few decades, the real-cost of air fare went down by half despite ever rising fuel costs and taxes. There is also about twice as many flights as there were in the 1970s. We do not fly fast, but there is over a million people in the air at any one time.

This outcome was a bit surprising to many of us. As a kid, I would have expected the space industry to be quite large by 2015 and I would have expected really fast planes.

As a trade-off, we did get something that was largely unexpected: functional telepathy (a.k.a. the Internet). The Internet has connected us to each other in ways that no science fiction author from the 1960s could imagine. In fact, I cannot stand old school science fiction because they typically depict a world where we spend a great deal of time flying left and right, but where there is no distributed multimedia computer network. Even old Star Trek episodes are annoying: the engineer cannot be bothered to snap a picture of a defect and send it to the captain… he has to get the captain to come and see…

In any case, Ceglowski’s thesis is that information technology is following a similar path. We got faster and faster computers… but nobody cares about that anymore.

I think Ceglowski is right in many ways. I do much of my serious work on a laptop that runs at 2.2 GHz. I could easily get a laptop that runs 50% hotter. I use an iPad for much of my informal computer needs, and that is considerably less powerful than even my underpowered laptop. My web server, where this blog is hosted, runs on an old AMD CPU. In many cases, CPU cycles have gotten so plentiful that we have more than enough.

This mirrors air travel: planes are so fast today that the time required to get to the airport and pass the security checks is a significant fraction of your travel time. It takes me 7 hours to get to Europe, but I need to be at the airport an hour and a half before. Because it can easily take me 30 minutes to get to the airport… only a bit more than two third of the travel time is spent in the plane. So I would not pay a lot more to fly twice as fast.

If you travel routinely from New York City to Tokyo, you are probably missing supersonic flights. Though you make up for it with in-flight Wifi, don’t you? Similarly, there are still people who need raw power. Some hardcore gamers… people doing numerical analysis… but most people do not see computing speed as a critical feature… not anymore than we view airplane speed as critical… it is a “nice to have” feature… easily overshadowed by more important considerations.

People want cheap, power-conscious, maintenance-free computing.

And the path forward seems clear. In fact, we are already there. We carry on ourselves low-powered computers. Smart jewelry (like watches) has a bright future. PCs are still around, sadly, but not for much longer…

We still have lots of accumulating computational power, but it is located in the cloud. And the cloud is not one super powerful processor… instead, the cloud is made of millions of shared processors, none of which is impressive on its own.

Ceglowls then falls into a conservative stance: “The Internet of 2060 is going to look recognizably the same as the Internet today. Unless we screw it up.” To be fair, he makes a living by selling a bookmark service for people who will not trust Google or Microsoft with their information. His whole business model depends on people remaining conservative. He believes that life has gotten worse for most people in the last 30 years. He writes that “we’re running into physical and economic barriers that aren’t worth crossing”.

Ceglowski would keep the technology as it is… “Why do we need to obsess on artificial intelligence, when we’re wasting so much natural intelligence?”

Technology is fine today. Let us work hard to keep it as it is.

I could not disagree more. We urgently need to improve our technology. The web as it stands today won’t be good enough in 30 years. Sadly, this means that services like the bookmarking service offered by Ceglowski will look antiquated. We have no choice. We need to move forward.

  • Though Ceglowski rightfully complains that we are wasting a lot of natural human potential right now… he fails to see that this is very much a technology problem. Schooling is a technology. And our schooling technology is stuck in the 1920s… And no, we are probably not going to fix it with animated HTML sites featuring multiple choice questions. I routinely meet with people who graduate college but they still can’t write a decent report or write a simple software application. There is a large fraction of the kids today who still do not come close to completing high school… and among those who do complete high school, most lack the skills that will be needed to get decent first-world jobs.Some star teachers manage to get kids to succeed despite the odds, but this approach currently does not scale: we do not know how to reliably produce great teachers, and to keep them great.

I am not claiming that AI will fix schools… I am merely pointing that there is a massive gap between what we need to do and what we do today.

It is fairly easy for a computer to track basic tests that a student fails. For example, we could easily keep track of all the words a kid can and cannot spell correctly (assuming we still care about spelling in 2015). Such tracking should be par for the course… but it is not. We could rather easily compare instruction as it happens to optimize it, the same way we optimize airplane routes… but, outside some narrow academic projects, none of that is happening.

Smart kids are bored all day long… while weak kids are stressed out. It is such a waste!

  • In 2060, a quarter or more of the population will be over 65 in many countries. Many of these people will be overweight, sick, frail and in decline. I am not particularly anxious about us spending 90% of our GDP on health care, but do we really want to have half our population burdened with elderly care?We need technology so that older people can remain maximally healthy and productive till the very end. This means better medical technology, but also better computing. We need exoskeletons. We need real-time health monitoring so that cancers can be caught and stopped early.

Already, computers can do better than radiologists in many cases, yet we still rely on these expensive human beings. We could easily collect vital signs from all of us and use machine learning to identify problems before they happen, but, instead, we rely on random doctor appointments.

Where are we today? Well, in Montreal, we do not even have electronic medical records. Though some hospitals have electronic systems, sharing information is still done on paper. We have “brain games” that pretend to keep your mind sharp as you get older (I suspect that they are waste of time), but nothing to support failing memories. Routinely, older people suffering from dementia get lost and we have no inexpensive way to locate them. We have not even begun to investigate how wearable computing can keep us healthy and productive.

Fifteen years ago, people dreamed of software agents that would act on our behalf on the web… track the information we need, find the new medication that can help us, automagically connect us to clients… Instead, we got Twitter, Wikipedia, Uber and Amazon. Close by no cigar.

Ceglowski writes, with a mocking tone:

If you think your job is to FIX THE WORLD WITH SOFTWARE, then the web is just the very beginning. There’s a lot of work left to do. Really you’re going to need sensors in every house, and it will help if everyone looks through special goggles, and if every refrigerator can talk to the Internet and confess its contents.

I do not think that software, by itself, will fix the world… but the reason software is put forward is that it is cheap. New planes are noisy. Software to optimize how we use planes costs much less. Biomedical technology to reverse aging is expensive and risky. Software to keep elderly workers productive is going to be much cheaper. Training great teachers is hard and expensive… building software to help people acquire demanding skills is going to be much cheaper over time. Simply put: software is cheaper than either human beings or hardware once it is made.

Eventually, we are going to need pills to make learning faster… we are going to need better treatments so that 90-year-old engineers can be as sharp as younger programmers… we are going to need planes that fly on half the fuel they do now… we are going to need batteries with ten times the capacity they have right now…

But our jobs, as software people, is to maximize what we can do with the hardware we have… and there is still a lot we can do beyond the current web. We are not even within a factor of ten of what is possible.