Food for Thought

February 5, 2003



Nano-bio-cogno-socio-info convergence: It’s information
that matters to science, and it’s people that matter to business
by Jim Spohrer, IBM


Jim Spohrer led a thought-provoking dialog (PowerPoint) at the February 5 meeting of EOE. I listened in by phone while looking at Jim's slides. Jim, one of the most self-effacing geniuses you'll ever encounter, told the group he was looking for help in shaping up some of his thinking. Instead of laying it on us (the old "death by PowerPoint"), Jim presented us with dozens of memes and asked us to help him connect the dots.

What follows is 90% Jim and 10% my dots.

Jim began by acknowledging the pioneers upon whose work we are all building.
(By the way, their seminal essays are all online.)


These visionaries saw people moving from a natural environment to an information-rich environment constructed by humans. Humanity once looked for food but now harvests information. Feed my body, feed my mind. Change? World population has mushroomed from 1 billion to 6 billion people in the last 200 years! Exponential progress coming from all corners.


Background: The National Science Foundation is funding Mike Roco, who wants to see more investigation into nanoscience, so he invited a group of people to brainstorm and think about the issue. The agenda expanded into the convergence of many disiciplines. He brought in Newt Gingrich, an inspiring motivational speaker, who encouraged everyone to think big. Lots of interesting ideas, but not organized. Jim spends his day thinking about science and business for IBM. To pay the bills, he looks at the near-term impact of things. These ideas entail big science and mammoth business implications. (IBM is now swallowing 30,000 PwC consultants, adding to the 140,000 they already had.)

Background reading: Report from last year's convergence conference. Heady stuff: Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science. Allow me to blythely summarize the underpinnings of the 450 page report as only one as ignorant as I can do.

In the past, Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science were separate disciplines:



Now these areas are becoming connected. The NSF project and Jim's inquiry explore the impact of blurring the boundaries:

The project seeks to understand how we can channel this convergence to make
our planet a better place to live. We acknowledge the pioneers for helping us conceptualize such an audacious goal:





The concept of augmented reality has been around a while. In the early stages, you touched natural atoms, arranged by nature. Today you touch atoms that were brought here by design, this table, for example. There's a lot of information content there. Knowledge Value Revolution talks about this. What's the next stage? The information environment is exploding. Atoms take up space. All space has a history. We need to disembody information from the atoms so we can have a lot of it wherever we need it. That was the genesis of World Board. Next we'll be able to reach out and touch whatever we want. (Aren't we already there? Via hyperlinks.) "Let's put information in its place." To get to the next level, we have to get really good at thanking people. You gotta know where it came from and who built it.

The Science of nano-bio-cogno-socio-info convergence

The Question: Can we understand and control to suit our purposes the different
information encoding, processing, and replication processes across multiple
systems?


Natural Systems – Natural environment that people exist in



Information in Physical Systems (Matter & Energy Flows, Atoms Matter)

Information in Living Systems (Chemistry of Life, Molecules/Ecosys. Matter)

Information in Cognitive Systems (Brains, Neurons Matter)



Knowledge of the natural world and human made world



Human Made Systems – Human Made environment that people exist in

Information in Social Systems (Organizations, People Matter)

Information in Technology Systems (Tools, Machines Matter)



Implications: As we get closer to a more complete answer, we can expect to realize many interesting, new capabilities that happen between the different systems:



artificial cochlea and retina (technology to cognitive)

terra-form Mars (physical to living)






(If you're getting into this, I recommend downloading Jim's
PowerPoint
slides rather than trying to decipher these screen grabs.)


How do we understand this? Why do we care?



Information is at the heart of everything. IBM epiphany: molecules are simply processors. These systems can interact, e.g. using digital tech to replicate retinas and cochleas, bringing sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. For Jim, bio and nano and info were once separate areas. Now they seem related. Cross-talk. (Reminds me of Nicholas Negroponte's dictum about "bits,
not atoms
." The heart of the matter is the bits.)




A Bit of Perspective


Jim: What's missing in this picture of evolution? What are the social steps? What's the natural evolution?


Giving people credit is the fundamental thing that makes the economy work. Joseph Schumpeter. Look at how political organizations have changed throughout history. We need to look at what's going on through prespectives other than than present-centric.



The outside/inside framework. Is this useful? How do we organize all these enhancements so we can describe what they are, and use them to look into the future? And to explain the past?







Utility Fog. " A collective of nanotechnological devices (see foglet) that link together into a a complex  network in the air, able to work together to exert force in any direction or transmit  information between each other. This would give users almost complete  control over their environment."


universal elements. self-powered. floating in the air. Cal - trying to create mechanical bumblebees. essentially you get Startrek. (This is now very speculative.) Transporters. You get covered by the utility fog and it crystallizes a remote body in Paris.

Three Sample Business Applications



Healthy: Our Bodies & Our Environment



  • Someday Personalized Pharmaceuticals (nano for sensors, delivery, design)


Wealthy: Our Material Goods (Sustainable, Cheaper, Stronger)



  • Someday On Demand Materials (nano for manufacturing materials)


Wise: Our Thinking and Perception (Access to Information)



  • Someday Learning Conversations (nano for compute performance, interface)




Good science leads to better business. Think about growing a computer. New materials as reported in Natonal Geographic.


What does this say of my role in the world?


Businesses are becoming adaptive organisms, says this IBM
White Paper
.




Digital information becomes a lingua franca that divorces form from substance. It's all just bits. More and more things are becoming connected, and almost everything seems connectible. Our only limitation is the paupacity of our imagination.


Where does this leave us? I conclude that "it's all one big thing."

If nano-tech enables us to reconfigure atoms, the building plans, then information is all that matters. Let information configure my food. "Computer, give me caviar and champagne." The ultimate convergence.


There's "no there here." Yet.



Alice B. Toklas, to Gertrude Stein on her deathbed: "What is the answer?"


Gertrude Stein's last words: "What is the question?"



I'm still noodling on this and will continue posting as the connections and
import of this become more clear.


Posted by Jay Cross at February 8, 2003 01:48 PM | TrackBack
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