LET’S BE PART OF THIS EXPANDING UNIVERSE
Abhijan Bhattacharyya, Scientist, TCS Research, Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., India
THE ‘HOLES’ IN THE ‘WHOLE’!
It was sometime towards the later part of the 19th century. A young Max Ma Planck (Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck) went to the University of Munich to study Physics. But choosing Physics as a subject did not amuse Planck’s professor as it was believed that almost everything was discovered in this subject and only a few holes were to be filled up. So, according to the professor, not much could Planck add to the existing book of knowledge. Remember that this was the time when the history of human civilization was going through the overwhelming charm (or shock?) of the enigmatic advancement of industrialization. It was a time when all the socio-economic, cultural and political dimensions of the world shook up with Europe as its epicenter while she was boasting about the modern Industrial Revolution that bred on her soil. Large part of theses advancements were essentially direct application of knowledge gathered from the Newtonian Physics (or Classical Mechanics) which modeled our environment as a macroscopic combination of mechanical interactions. This renewed the pride of the Human race as a controller of the surroundings, with a feeling of reaching the summit of civilization. No wonder Planck was advised that way; with a hidden tinge of arrogance may be!
Anyway, young Planck, with a tender yet ignited mind, remained firm on his belief and maintained his choice. That way he overcame the possibilities of being swayed away by the presumably prudent advice from an existing expert of the subject. He stuck to the basics and replied that he wants to understand the existing established fundamentals of this subject. What a turning point was this in the history of human civilization! No one could have imagined the scale of enormity destined to yield from the seed which got sowed in the womb of time when Planck vowed to serve Physics. In due course of time he ushered in an all new paradigm in Physics. It is the mysterious world of Quantum Mechanics! Needless to say that this was the beginning of new streams of electronic and atomic research and our digital journey to the smart everything owes to this very addition to physics.
Besides, Planck’s contribution opened up the pathway of ratification of ancient wisdom of the East, gained through the act of sheer reasoning, by the experimental knowledge of the West. What India’s great thinker Kanada realized as the basis of matter about two millennia ago, got formulated by Planck of Germany in the 20th century!
There is a section of experts who, somewhat, try to undermine the contribution of Kanada on the basis of the fact that there is no evidence whether Kanada could physically prove his theory in a laboratory experiment. What they miss out about is the difference between Western and Indian approach towards seeking the Truth behind the material Universe. The Western style, rather what we call as Science in modern times, is to move from parts to the whole through ways and means that is perceptible with our senses. On the other hand, the ancient Indian process has been from whole to parts through rigorous debate based on logic and reasoning. This gave rise to the philosophical schools of ‘Nyaya’ (basis of knowledge), ‘Sankhya’ (relation between the all pervading spirit and earthly matters) and gave rise to the supreme art of debate (‘Tarka Shastra’). In fact, Vedanta philosophy, which culminates India’s quest for ultimate truth, advocates for only one thing – to believe in the power of reasoning that would churn out the truth from collision of multitude of thoughts. Also, the English word philosophy, which we loosely translate to ‘Darshana’ (to view) in Sankskrit, does not express the vastness of the Indian context. In ancient India, philosophy was really a genesis of science. It was a means to transcend beyond what we could learn from our observations through the limits of our senses. The seers of ancient time believed that all the knowledge and wisdom about the ultimate ‘Truth’ is latent in the human soul. Once triggered, it flashes light from within. The contribution of Kanada should be respected from that aspect.
In fact, taking some time off from the physical system and devoting to deep reasoning with a meditating mind has an important impact in scientific and technological rigors. As can be found in many stories of invention, a sudden out-of-the blue transcendental flash in the mind of the scientist/ innovator is that very event which actually produced a new theory that helped progress of mankind.
LET’S SET THE CONTEXT
However, we are not really going to talk about quantum mechanics in this article. We want to talk about how we can be contributors to the metamorphosis of the Internet – the all-pervasive component of modern civilization. But why then we start with the story of Planck? Because we want to draw a parallel that would help us model our mode of interaction with the Internet as contributors. Let’s
dissect a bit further.
How could Planck make his incredible contribution? He must have primarily stuck to his declared objective; which was to understand the existing foundations of Physics very well. He tried to explain some new observations with the existing model, believing them to be fit-for-all. Failed! So at least he was able to shatter the existing foundation.
Finally he introduced a new theory (in an effort to explain the photo-electric effect observed by Einstein in the beginning of 20th Century) which will not do away with the existing laws, rather will coexist with the legacy of Physics as it is, yet will fill the ‘hole’ which got left out. Indeed it was a big ‘hole’ or rather a deep trench; so deep that it would one day take us close to the root of our existence – the unified theory of creation – which was felt in the deep trench of inward mind by the seers of the East as an absolute ‘nothingness’ and expressed through the mystical hymns of Rig Veda .
THE INTERNET: IS EVERYTHING DONE?
Now, what we use today as Internet is essentially a packet-switch based distributed networking infrastructure for sharing information in digital form. It originated as a research lab project in late 60s of the last century in labs of UCLA, Berkley and MIT as Advanced Defense Project Agency Network (ARPANET). The project was funded by the United States Department of Defense. The technology started to get wide adoption across the globe since the 1980’s. Internet introduced the technology world with an incredible and unprecedented loosely coupled yet orchestrated architecture connecting computing devices across the globe. During this adoption process, it was assumed that all the exchange patterns could be efficiently modeled around TCP/IP protocol suit, which remained at the core of Internet since its inception till today.
THE INTERNET: AS WE SEE NOW
The core Internet protocols for exchanging information over the Internet has remained quite steady despite several new types of applications unfolding on top of the Internet infrastructure (starting from user end last leg connectivity via local routers to ISP to the under-the-sea cables). The early days started with exchanges of ASCII texts and files – mainly between research organizations. Then in the 1990’s Internet started to become a darling of the masses with the inception of an exciting application called World Wide Web (WWW) and Web-browsers became literally synonymous to ‘Internet’ for the mass users. Thus we have become the citizens of a world connected with a virtual web which essentially connects geographically distributed computers in such a way that the end points are completely agnostic of the underlying infrastructure. The contents in the Web started to become active contents rather than being static information. We started to upload forms and get responses, put e-mails, perform real-time chats, do e-commerce. Then, since the earlier part of this century, Internet started to become a prime means to share multimedia contents on demand. Finally we experienced the outburst of “social web”. Above everything, how can we ignore the wireless Internet through our smart phones which catapulted the growth in the number of users of Internet based services and resulted in deep penetration into our social spheres and unleashed exciting possibilities.
Some important events in the ‘life’ of Internet till about last decade
However, given all that, (and this statement comes straight from the author’s personal experience) in general, an aspiring scholar willing to explore the Internet protocols as a topic of research might not have received well acceptance from the seniors. The reason can perhaps be mapped to the story of Planck. The core Internet protocols were by and large able to sustain under the changing requirements with incremental alterations and scaling up of physical infrastructures. So, no wonder, the aspirant scholar will be told that there is very little that can be added to the existing book of knowledge. What is there to do in the Internet?
THE END TO THE ROAD IS JUST A MIRAGE
While we took Internet as it is for granted a whole new type of end-user applications emerged since the beginning of the present decade. These applications leveraged the existing Internet protocols and infrastructures as the base infrastructure to communicate. The conventional Internet technologies started to fall short to cater the needs for the envisaged applications. The usual data exchange patters started to change. The mankind started to dream of smart world where every ‘Thing’ in the environment is going to exchange information over the Internet leading to a paradigm shift from Human centric Internet to Internet of Things (IoT). This brings us the promise to create an environment that would act based on our needs, to make us aware about the change in the state of the surrounding which remained un-noticed so far and to help us create a better living with predictive actions. These are triggered by the advancements in miniaturization of sensors andcommunication circuitry, advancement in big data and cloud technologies, developments in communication technologies starting from low-power wireless local networks to high capacity wireless broadband covering wide connectivity. This new kind of Internet is no longer about sending e-mails or e-commerce or watching a video on demand. It is about innumerable sensors sharing their data, rather small in size, but sporadically large in terms of numbers of participatory nodes. The Internet needs to prepare itself for this change. A large and vibrant community in IETF has been dealing with these new challenges and is proposing new means of handling the new requirements. Many of these changes remodel the way Internet protocol stack was conceived with distribution of specific tasks to individual layers.
When, the technology world is dealing with the challenges of IoT, a new sea changing concept emerged a couple of years ago. Thanks to a seminal paper from Gerhard Fettweis, the technology world has started to talk about low-latency Internet or the Tactile Internet – the Internet of touch! This is a promise to get a reaction time as fast as the touch sensation for humans and even further, the reaction time between the movement of steering and rotation of the wheels in a car. Numerically speaking the challenge is to create an Internet with just 1ms latency. That is incredible! Not only that. This is going to be an internet with carrier grade reliability, i.e., an Internet connection which would provide service perpetually without going down. The up-time probability should be more than 99%. This is too much to dream about in a ‘digitally divided’ India. While, till IoT, the focus was in data, tactile Internet brings control and actuation commands to the center spot. It is essentially promising a real-time remote control of machines over the Internet infrastructure. This would be a technology to largely augment the humans rather than replacing them. Rather than letting an automated car drive itself, one can actually drive it remotely over the Internet. The real-time exchange of information between the human to computer interfaces at your end and the remote car would with such low-latency that the performance would be as good as you being in the car itself! But this calls for a huge, unthinkable change in manyfacets of the technologies related to the Internet – communication technologies need to be redesigned, new innovations required in computation circuits, further innovations are required on reducing the delay at the Internet protocol layers and software systems, new algorithms for predictive decision making at the end devices, and so on and so forth. A whole new overhauling of the whole of the Internet stack is needed with new innovations.
If you are too overwhelmed with what you learn about the possibilities yet to be achieve by Internet, there is yet another “spooky” avatar of Internet for future. It is brooding in different lab and test environments in different countries. It is “spooky” indeed as it unleashes the “spooky” features of quantum mechanics. It is spooky because it deals with typical behaviours of sub-atomic or quantum particles which seem too unnatural against what we usually can feel with our limited five senses. This avatar of Internet would be called “Quantum Internet”. This would need a total overhauling of the physical infrastructure as the communication no longer depends on the properties of waves. Rather the communication electromagnetic happens by utilizing properties of pair of entangled light photons such that any actions on a photon of the entangled pair will show the effect on the other photon even if they are miles apart! Sounds “spooky”! Isn’t it? This phenomenon was theoretically understood during the 30s and Einstein termed this property as “Spooky action at a distance!”. Today, technology world is making that a reality. Quantum computing is already a reality. This will enable us with tremendous computing power. Similarly, when the communication part also gets quantum ready we shall have a highly secure, high speed communication. This would need a complete change in the physical access technology. The laws of electronics may be replaced with laws of photonics and devices in between may get replaced by crystals that would generate the photons. The security is high because any attempt to evesdrop on one photon would affect the other one entangled. Applications which perform sub-optimally under current infrastructures, applications that cannot be thought of may become available on the finger tip. Quantum Internet itself needs a detail discussion and we can take it up later.Also, the high-computation capacity of individual quantum computing nodes may well affect the protocol stack structures and many protocol semantics.
Metamorphosis of Internet towards future – near, far and beyond.
IT IS A PERPETUALLY UNFINISHED DEMO – LET’S CONTRIBUTE
We started the discussion with the story of Plank and the creation of Quantum Mechanics. Finally we landed on Quantum Internet. We closed a loop! So, it is evident that Internet is not a technology with a static and steady life. Internet is expanding like the expanding Universe! It is expanding in terms of what it could offer as an information sharing mechanism. The future services may be unthinkable at this moment just like people, a few decades ago, would have laughed at someone claiming that one day man will walk around talking over a small battery operated gadget in hand called mobile phone.
APPROACH TOWARDS CONTRIBUTION
So, Internet is an unfinished demo that has started to already serve us. As technologists of India we need to be part of the effort to build this expanding universe; to augment this unfinished demo. That is required for our socio-economic development. But how should one proceed?
Let’s again get back to Plank’s story. Many may hear the opinion from seniors that there is nothing much to contribute to the Internet technology. Rather there are other exciting hot areas in information technology. But, like Plank, one needs to stick to the conviction and concentrate on understanding the existing rules and mechanism that we use to fit our exchange models. Then when one finds a new exchange model and requirements that cannot be fit with the existing system, a new innovation would emerge. A new standard will be created.
India, like her natural resources, is bounty in terms of providing problems to solve for future, to make a better India. Without Internet India cannot be smart. We need indigenous ways solve the problems of our soil and that can be replicated anywhere in the world including different economically backward and remote areas across the earth. Thus our innovators can actually help make the whole World a better place to live. “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” – The world is a family.
 “Neither existence nor nonexistence was there / Neither matter nor space around / What covered it, where it was and whoprotected? / Why, that plasma, all pervading, deep and profound? / Neither death nor immortality was there and there wasneither day nor night / But for that breathless one breathing on its own / There was nothing else, surely nothing.”- Nasadiya Sukta (Rigveda).(Courtesy: https://vedaravindamu.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/origin-of-the-universe-nasadiya-sukta-of-rig-veda/)