Sunday, May 27, 2007

One-way trip to Mars

I had an idea a couple of years ago and neglected to blog about it and now I read that somebody else has proposed the same idea: one-way trips for human colonists to Mars. Writing in response to John Brockman's 2007 Edge question "What are you optimistic about?", physicist Paul Davies of Arizona State University and author of The Cosmic Jackpot, writes in his essay response entitled "A One-Way Ticket To Mars" about the significant logistical benefits of sending supplies and people to Mars withot the burden of returning them to Earth.

There are a zillion interesting issues that crop up, but I find the concept quite appealing and would consider it myself. It's an opportunity to be a true pioneer, a real colonist.

In truth, most of the early colonists and immigrants to America ame here knowing that going back was not an option.

It would be interesting to contemplate a Mars Colony simulator. It wouldn't be practical to directly simulate the lower gravity, but it should be quite practical to simulate the isolation, the atmosphere, the sights and views, the sounds, the terrain, the delayed communication with Earth.

As a starting point, do we have the necessary resolution to create a dome of hi-res display screens that would simulate the view from inside a dome on the surface of Mars as well as a "vehicle" (simulator) with displays for the windows viewing the landscape as the vehicle "moves". One issue is that current display technologies don't have the raw brightness to simulate the Sun. We do have the experience with Biosphere 2 for constructing a simulated environment to draw upon.

To be honest, merely being an astronaut isn't that exciting to me, but being a Mars Colonist is an entirely different matter.

-- Jack Krupansky

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Quantum information technology

One far out field that may have dramatic implications for computing and software design in the coming decades is the emerging research in quantum information technology.

For example, from the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) program of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Northwestern University (NU), we read that:

Quantum superposition and quantum entanglement are the bedrock on which new theoretical paradigms for information transmission, storage, and processing are being built. The preeminent obstacle to the development of  quantum information technology is the difficulty of transmitting quantum information over noisy and lossy quantum communication channels, recovering and refreshing the quantum information that is received, and then storing it in a reliable quantum memory.  

With support from the Multidisciplinary Research Program of the University Research Initiative (MURI), we have assembled a truly interdisciplinary team from researchers at MIT and Northwestern University to overcome this obstacle. The focus of our program is an architecture we have established for long-distance, high-fidelity qubit teleportation. Its key elements are:

  • ultrabright, narrowband sources of polarization-entangled photon pairs;
  • long-distance transmission of entangled photons over standard telecom fiber;
  • qubit storage and processing in trapped atom quantum memories.

Although some of these concepts may make more obvious sense down at the bit, byte, chip, and machine language levels, I suspect that the concepts may have even greater potential if they can be transplanted to the level of software, software components, and software agents.

Try to imagine what quantum information technology might mean at the level of the Semantic Web and Web Services.

Try to imagine a large number of swarms of software agents interacting via the exchange and sharing of quantum information and built upon the concept of quantum entanglement.

-- Jack Krupansky

Sunday, May 13, 2007

What are the kids up to?

I am in the middle of reading John Brockman's Edge question for 2007: What are you optimistic about?, and although it is all very interesting, it strikes me that almost all of these "visions" are rather dated and even somewhat stale, probably because these are the ideas that people of the "boomer" generation grew up with in the 1960's, 1970's, 1980's, and even most of the 1990's. Enough of the stuff already. What I really want to know is: What are the kids up to? Not in the sense of what toys do they play with and what tools do they work with, but what ground are they beginning to break and what visions of the future do they have that are their own creation and not something that was spoon-fed to them or rammed down their throats by a well-meaning but misguided elite.

By "kids", specifically I mean young people who:

  • Grew up with the Internet and the Web as their earliest significant computing experience, or at least since they were juniors in high school
  • Experienced 9/11 while in high school or freshmen in college, at a time when it had a chance to dramatically shape the way they started to view the geopolitical world
  • Just assume that global warming and climate change are "real" since the concepts were not "new" to them even when they were juniors or seniors in high school
  • Have been exposed to open source software in college
  • Have had a cell phone since high school and most of their classmates in high school had cell phones
  • Are no older than 25 (or maybe 26 or 27) and consider people who are 28 or 29 or 30 as already "too old" to "understand"
  • Are not deeply attracted to and attached to traditional politics and political parties such as the Republicans and the Democrats, and have their own politics and world view
  • Have been blogging since high school
  • Since high school have had teachers and professors who are challenging traditional views of economics, politics, and social structures

What I am interest in is:

  • What fields of intellectual study are they most attracted to?
  • What aspects of computing excite them the most?
  • Are they breaking any new ground, or simply "refashioning the wheel"?
  • What are examples of computing breakthroughs by the 20 to 25-year olds?
  • What are some hard-core examples of great leaps that kids have made compared to Ray Kurzweil, Dan Bricklin, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Larry Ellison, Bill Joy, et al when they were of this same age (20-25)?

Is it really true that "change is accelerating"? If so, we should see a much larger list of breakthroughs than for those "old-timers."

I'd also like to see two lists: one for applications, but primarily one for underlying technological fundamentals. Applications like YouTube, Digg, and Facebook go on that first list, but what I am primarily interested in is what fundamental technology ground is being broken by "the kids"?

-- Jack Krupansky

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Four levels of language for semantics and knowledge

The open question of language level comes up when considering the open question of how to represent, access, manipulate, and otherwise use knowledge and meaning in the form of a distributed knowledge web or semantic web. I certainly do not have any  immediate answer, but I was thinking that rather than envisioning one unified "knowledge" language, possibly we need a multi-level language model:

  1. Low-level "assembly" language - work with meaning and knowledge at a very atomic level
  2. High-level language - a very expressive language that focuses on higher-level structured meaning, probably leveraging contextual meaning
  3. Scripting language - a concise, terse, convenient method for working with knowledge that emphasizes broad expressive power rather than specific detail and nuanced meaning
  4. Natural language - heavily dependent on context and very ambiguous, but very easy and natural to use. Appropriate for "display" of knowledge structures.

One issue is whether natural language is really a separate level or can be used at all three of the other levels.

Another issue is that we need to be able to work with meta knowledge, to treat packages of knowledge as black boxes and networks of interconnected black boxes to be manipulated in an abstract sense, separated from the actual, true meaning of the contents of those black boxes. Possibly this is a requirement at each of the four language levels.

Another issue is multiplicity, the number of distinct languages at each level. Obviously we have many natural lanuages. Multiple scripting and higher-level languages makes sense. Having a single, common, foundation "knowledge assembly language" has a lot of appeal, but is it really viable and is it clearly really advantageous relative to having a multiplicity of low level knowledge and meaning paradigms? I don't see any clear answer at this point in time.

Is the current Semantic Web at this assembly level or high-level or scripting level? I suspect that the answer is that it is not clear. Clearly there is some amount of scripting being done in XML. Clearly there is some amount of high-level semantics being done (e.g., RSS and web feeds). And clearly there is a fair amount of very low level semantic use. But is XML more of a lexical and syntactic language than a true semantic language? It seems to me that its only current power at the meaning level comes when the people and programs a priori agree on shared meaning representation conventions, and that is precisely what we would like to see inherently embodied within a true knowledge language at any of the levels that I have proposed. In short, it appears that there is very little in the way of meaning represented within the Semantic Web, and that the only real meaning is hard-coded into the user agents that communicate via the Semantic Web. In other words, at best, the Semantic Web is everything but semantics, and that the Semantic Web simply facilitates the exchange of information that user agents can interpret as meaning using hard-wired or agreed semantics.

-- Jack Krupansky