Networking Faster Than Light: Alex Wissner-Gross at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

We live in a physical world. We also live in a physical world that’s in a process of merging with the digital world. As a consequence, increasingly, aspect of the physical world such as, say, the fact that it’s geographically distributed, are starting to impact our digital experiences. This is a worldwide property, and it’s due to the fact that we live all across the surface of a planet that has a finite diameter.

So, for example, in virtual worlds, if you have one party on one side of the planet, and one party on another side of the planet, that are interacting via a virtual world, such as Second Life, the experience delays due to the fact that light takes a finite amount of time to travel around the Earth’s surface in order to connect them. And this problem isn’t in any way specific to virtual worlds or entertainment. It’s a problem that’s keenly felt in industrial sectors, in financial sectors.

Financial sector in particular, is very well incentified to make sure that the time delays for transmitting information between financial exchanges is minimised. One more example, telerobotics and telesurgery. As we move towards an era, where a physician in one location on Earth can perform surgery on a patient on the opposite end of the Earth, the delays involved in manipulating remote machines become increasingly essential to performance. And so how if we try to combat this thus far? This is a map of submarine cables strewn all around the Earth’s oceans and on land. We are literally wiring up our planet surface in order to efficiently allow information to flow from any point on the Earth’s surface to any other point on the Earth’s surface.

You might imagine we are relatively close to solving this problem of information delays. But of course, as with all physical properties, there are limits. Here’s one very important one. What you’re seeing here are 2 maps of some of the state-of-the-art Internet connections connecting locations. On the left, a New York to Chicago connection.

On the right, New York to London. Interestingly, if you look at the amount of time it takes to send information back and forth, through these pipes, and you compare it with the theoretical physical limit to how fast you could send information round trip using light through optical fiber, you’ll notice that we’re literally approaching the physical limits allowed to us for sending information around the Earth between these important cities. This is the problem for the reasons I’ve mentioned that’s only going to become more exacerbated with time.

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Why is this a problem? Well, the way we’ve architected many of our global transactions right now on the Internet, and our networks in general, requires round trip transactions. So, you have location A, and location B, and you want to coordinate processes between these two locations, they have to send information to each other about their current state, and wait for the other party to react to that new information, and send back an execution signal.

In other words, for most transactions today, you’re stuck with round trip delays on the Internet. Now, biology, as has historically been the case, has come up with a solution to this problem. So, if you as a human, touch a hot surface, you’ll note, that your hand pulls itself back before you feel the pain in your mind. And the reason is that the pain signal isn’t travelling the entire distance from your finger up to your brain, and then back to your motor neurons, to pull your hand back. Instead, it’s just travelling to an intermediate location, your spinal column, where it’s immediately recognized as actionable information, and signals are immediately turned around for a more rapid response.

It’s called a reflex arc. So, biology is handing us the solution. We can do reflex arcs for global networking. So rather than doing round trip transmission of information, let’s instead position server infrastructure at well selected intermediate locations between two different geographic locations that need to be coordinated. So, this is a problem that I’ve been thinking about for a number of years: how best to position these intermediate locations in order to literally get around the speed of light by not being forced to wait for this round trip transmission? And recently, I identified and published the optimal solution.

So, what you’re seeing here is an equation that describes the theoretical optimal solution for where to place yourself in between two different locations in order to optimally coordinate processes happening at either end. And so, just for fun, I’ve taken this equation, and applied it to a financial task. So, what you’re looking at here, is literally a treasure map. The large red dots represent the world’s largest stock exchanges, and the small blue dots here represent the calculated optimal intermediate locations for coordinating, trading, on pairs of these exchanges. And you’ll note, that many of these optimal intermediate locations are in network sparse areas, and on oceans.

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And so, this presents us with what may perhaps be the first excuse to literally boil the oceans using computation. Now, how do we go about to deploying this new infrastructure? So, I’ve shown here 3 different modalities for deploying these new servers that would be responsible for creating global reflex arcs, in order to help us get around speed of light limitations. So, on the left, you see microwave towers, we see balloons in the middle, and we see microwave buoys, microwave relay buoys, to the right. These are just 3 modalities by which one can envisage, getting around the speed of light due to the Earth’s finite size. And so, I think, stepping back, we’re faced with an opportunity at this point in time, to not just bump up against the finite speed of light, as a pretence to telecommunications on Earth, but to use this as an opportunity to create lots of new infrastructure in locations that previously had none, and in particular, I’m especially fond of this analogy, the Silk Road, or the Silk Route, the trade of silk was responsible, in the first few centuries CE, for creating economic growth at intermediate locations between opposite ends of a trade route.

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