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Mankind's Biggest Machine

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 4/11/2015 Patrick Flynn
INTERNET © Guido Mieth via Getty Images INTERNET

What we choose to create says a lot about who we are and what we value. And we're in the midst of creating something huge -- the Internet.
Imagine if the internet went down right after you read this sentence. No cell phone, no email, no texts. How would you even know what caused the outage or how big it was? No ATMs or credit cards; pharmacies unable to confirm your prescriptions; airports unable to access the no-fly list.
The Internet touches more of our lives than we realize, in the background everywhere while we go through our daily routines. It is our single, species-wide central nervous system: sensing, transmitting, storing and processing information.
Data centers are like the brains of this species-wide nervous system. Not centralized, but scattered around the world, big and small, housing industrial-grade computers called servers.
This machine is everywhere -- a way to deliver information around the world in an instant, communicating, conducting commerce, and keeping ourselves safe and secure. With more sensors and devices, we're always adding new nerve endings. Would we appreciate its scale if we could see the (literally) trillions of zeros and ones that fly around us daily from our sensors, mobile devices and machines? Sure they're invisible to us, but that doesn't make them any less real. We are creating a single web of interconnected information machinery.
We have connected our data centers to each other, to our mobile devices, power plants, aircraft carriers and deep space satellites.
As far as we ever send anything into space, as big as we ever build anything here on earth or elsewhere, we will tether it to and wrap it in this web of interconnected information machinery. The information machine is the largest machine mankind will ever build.
The amount of energy and material going into the machine -- its carbon emission and water usage -- are immense and ever-increasing. And that's just a sense of the direct impacts.
What about the unintended consequences of this machine? To explore those, let's look at the national highway system -- another big thing we built.
How did we do with that? In many ways the highways and the Internet are alike. Last century highways were instrumental in connecting us to one another and strengthening the economy. The resources needed to design and build it were large, but we all know its unintended consequences are larger, and we still experience them today.
Highways happen to lead to traffic, smog, sprawl and the loss of community. And if a new highway took people past your town, it probably took their business with it. Would we build our transportation system the same if we could re-do it?
When our children look back on the information system we are building now, what will they think of it?
What stories will it tell them about who we are and what we value?
Anything we build tells that story -- whether a piece of art or a new tool. This project is different. Not just from unsurpassed scale, but because it has the ability not just to reflect our values and morals, but to act them out. This machine has morals. What do I mean by that?

Picture a factory floor a hundred years ago. The production equipment didn't have any means of reaction or decision. It would not stop if a life were in danger, or modify operation if pollution were getting problematic. It could not detect fire, let alone suppress it. Our early industrial machines were brutal and built for unrelenting production. We didn't know better. Over time that has changed.
Today's Internet-connected smart factories, filled with sensors and digital controls, detect problems imperceptible to humans and automatically react to protect life, the environment and property. Does a factory floor that's designed to stop production to protect your life have more morality than one that prioritizes continuous production and nothing else?
I think it does. We have created digital morals in our control and automation logic, and embedded that into our machines. They now have reflexes that mirror some of our values, they react how we would. The Internet allows us to make more and more of our machines ever more moral.
Problem is the data centers, our most modern of factories, churn out work without much regard for their physical surroundings. They act a lot like those factories from a hundred years ago. Unresponsive, unrelenting juggernauts.
Consider this -- in a given data center, 20 to 30 percent of the servers are comatose, consuming space and energy and not delivering any useful work. Not on standby or reserve, but rather forgotten altogether. Like a factory machine thumping and churning away without any raw materials being put into it. No information is coming or going but the discs are spinning and the fans are on.
What if a server were moral?
And those multi-megawatt data centers -- instead of churning away, could they be responsive? Interacting with the electric grid to make it more resilient. Symbiosis. What if a data center knew when the utility was under strain and reacted instantly, stopping some production and averting a massive outage?
Better yet, what if production wasn't stopped but simply shifted to the neighboring grid that had excess capacity? After all, it's really just one machine. It is possible today to move our demand for digital work at near the speed of light.
This is a form of energy demand unlike any other we've ever seen in human history. Liquid. Currency brought liquidity to commerce. The Internet can bring liquidity to electricity. Move load to where electricity is more reliable, or systems more efficient, or follow the sun -- an information machine whose production is in sync with our solar panels, moving around the world to be 100 percent powered by renewable energy. Following the sun. Elegant, intelligent and sustainable.
So raise your voice. Whatever department you're in, in whatever industry, ask those who know your software if the data center that supports it is sustainable. Let's have a groundswell of demand for a sustainable Internet.
And to the builders and designers, policy makers and technologists -- stay ahead of that demand. This is mankind's magnum opus. Build it beautifully and with a holistic, long-term view, thinking about direct impacts and unintended consequences.
Have it match our morals. That way as our information machine -- the biggest machine mankind will ever build -- continues to underpin and empower our lives, mostly out of view and often taken for granted, we can rest assured that we have built it to behave in a way we can be proud of. The biggest thing we will ever build will forever tell the most detailed story about who we are and what we value.

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