Sunday, February 21, 2010

Interlude Three: On Technology

This being my 50th blog, it represents a good vantage point to take stock of the road traversed and the reason why we are in this journey in the first place. I started my blog describing the promise of technology and the importance of technology transformation to accomplish that promise. I moved on to a discussion on how to make the business case to start the technology transformation ball rolling. I then proceeded to cover more technical matters, such as the characteristics of Service Oriented Architecture and the various classifications of services, and then delving even deeper into the detailed considerations for SOA design and management.

In fact, we have gone so deep that I am reminded of this “gedanken” (mental experiment):

Assume there is a tunnel so deep that it reaches the center of the earth. In fact, imagine digging this tunnel until it reaches the surface on the opposite side of the Earth (the antipode). Now, let’s have a brave athlete jump into the tunnel. What would happen?

Removing all other physical considerations such a as air resistance, and temperature and pressure, as the athlete reaches the center of the Earth, she should begin to feel less and less gravity. In the center of the Earth she should be completely weightless. The force of gravity is zero down there. The reason being that gravity is caused by the Earth’s mass. At the center, the gravitational pull is offset by the Earth’s surrounding mass.

So far, so good, but now the athlete has inertia and will continue to “fall upwards” towards the surface on the other side of the Earth! As the athlete falls upward, the gravitational pull will increase (more and more mass from the Earth will be behind her), slowing her down until the “upward fall” is halted just as she reaches the surface at the antipode. At this point, our athlete will begin to fall once again toward the center of the planet until she returns to the entrance of our tunnel . . . only to fall again. In this hypothetical, frictionless environment, our athlete would act like a perpetual Yo-Yo, repeatedly falling and re-falling back to the surface.

So, imagine that this SOA blog is a bit like this athlete. It feels like we have reached the center and that it’s time to now “fall” upwards towards the surface. Next I will be covering detailed engineering considerations (remember, we are still near the SOA core!), followed by less technical discussions. These items will be related to program execution governance, project management, and organizational and people matters. That is, we will return from the detailed to the general.

Still, given that we are still knee deep in the details, it is also good to remind ourselves why we are on this journey. In the end, this is not about SOA or even Technology, but about what we can do with SOA and with Technology. Yes, there is the technologist viewpoint regarding the power of SOA. While you can certainly run non-SOA system in a Cloud Computing environment, without SOA it is almost impossible to truly leverage the power of Cloud computing on behalf of an enterprise-wide system. Then again, the labor involved in creating SOA systems has an objective beyond Cloud Computing or using Software-as-a-Service. The most exciting goals are all about shaping the future of technology. That is, our ability to make technology so flexible that it eventually becomes hidden.

Arthur C. Clarke’s famed third law states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I would add a fourth law: The best indication that a technology has matured is that it has become invisible.

Think of electricity, the water supply, or even the internal workings of an automobile. In all these cases, we operate these technologies almost obliviously in a Switch On/Switch Off basis.

For the most part, technologies follow a well-defined life-cycle that takes them from inception in a lab all the way to invisibility. The time spent within a cycle is technology-dependent, but the average time to maturity can span decades.

Many futurists believe that one of the main evolutionary aspects of computing in the future is to have it also become invisible—embedded in the fabric of the thing we call “reality”. Instead of screens, keyboards and mouses, users will interface with computers in a seamless manner.

The ultimate interface achievement will be to hide the fact that a user is accessing, or even programming, a computer. This later attribute is often confused with the famed Turing Test of Artificial Intelligence (AI). However, the Turing Test establishes that Artificial Intelligence will only be achieved when a computer is able to hide the fact that it is a computer when communicating with a human in a broad domain. AI has been long in coming, and many believe it to be still a century away; others that it is around the corner. But AI requires common-sense and pattern recognition capabilities if it is to work, and progress has been fairly slow on these fronts. I tend to agree that AI as originally envisioned will take a long time to be achieved. However once it happens, AI will not appear as an overnight invention; instead, we will continue to see improvements in computer systems that gradually appear to make them smarter and smarter.

Think about your car’s navigation system which already appears quite smart and of the novel capabilities of your digital camera, such as face recognition. Pseudo-AI behavior in narrow knowledge domains is arriving thanks to the growing computer power made possible by Moore’s law. Consider that in the beginning it was assumed that a chess program capable of beating a chess grandmaster would require a full-fledged AI system. However, this feat has been achieved thanks to the use of the brute-force represented by massive parallel processors and the ingenuity of sophisticated heuristics; not by the invention of a human mind emulator. In May, 1997 an IBM computer nicknamed Deep Blue beat World Chess champion Garry Kasparov much to the chagrin of the Grand Master who found it difficult to accept he had been beaten by a computer! To all intents and purposes, playing against a chess computer does convey the eerie feeling of competing against an “intelligent” device. The machine behaves like AI, but it is actually based on the narrow domain of chess-playing, making the computer an “idiot-savant” of sorts.

As discussed earlier, most transformative technologies are the result of synergistic combinations of various evolutionary advances. To the degree that we see continued advances in user interface paradigms as represented by gestures ala iPhone or voice recognition, combined with improved algorithms and availability of ultra-fast communication bandwidths, we will see a wealth of interesting applications; many of them with true transformative effects. For example, enhanced user interfaces in the future, combined with more advanced artificial intelligence heuristics and the merging social networking paradigms, can deliver a suite of Virtual Sidekick capabilities:

· Attaining complete knowledge of your preferences. In fact, complete knowledge of you as a person.

· Exercise controlled empowerment to take independent action.

· Have immediate access to all sources of information available electronically. The ability to alert you to those specific developments that interest you, such as breaking news or TV specials.

· Adopt different service personalities based on context.

· Monitor actions performed on your behalf in a non-obtrusive manner. Certain events will automatically initiate pre-approved actions. For example, a calendar event schedule change will automatically trigger an action from your Virtual Sidekick to initiate a flight change.

This type of automated avatar will spawn new industries just as the Internet has spawned the multi-billion dollar Google. The Virtual Sidekick is but one example of the kind of thinking that should be propelling your R&D efforts. There are others. For example, it’s logical to imagine a future in which web access devices will have become so small and non-intrusive that they can be implanted into our bodies. In a world permeated with wireless access to the Web (the” Infosphere”, I discussed earlier), imagine a scenario where you can search and access the Internet by simply thinking about it; where you can “Skype” your wife and talk to her using your own embedded phone. You won’t even need to speak to communicate. A microprocessor embedded in your brain will convert your brain waves into speech. Think of this scenario as technology-enabled telepathy! These and other interesting possibilities can be extrapolated from the intriguing technology forecasts by author, Ray Kurzweil, in his book “The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology”.

There can be no doubt that the transformative effects of such future inventions will generate heated debates about the ethics and dangers associated with their use, but that’s a subject matter for a future blog.