Sunday, May 19, 2024

Surviving the Great Technology Convergence

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There was much talk in the 1990’s about the convergence of video, audio and data. And what we have today certainly is proving the validity of that vision.

Video and audio, or course, can be digitized and treated as data. To put it another way, on our networks and computers today, video and audio are logical constructs that leverage information technology.

Today, we are witnessing a convergence that radically will reshape our world. This new convergence extends far beyond the world of communication and media, and enters into new physical frontiers posing challenges hitherto relatively unconsidered.

The topic at hand is the combining of information technology with the worlds of biotechnology and nanotechnology.

The Physical Worlds

Much has been written about nanotechnology. It is an area where we are starting to see benefits based on the manipulation of materials on the nanometer scale. Essentially, the manufacturing systems involved are assembling structures at an extremely low-level and this takes time, precision and often a great deal of repetitive tasks.

Biotech is often coined as ”the original nanotechnology”. Here, organic compounds are manipulated for use in new ways and often at a size level that qualifies for the label ”nanotech”. Genetically modified corn and enhanced virusesare are examples of biotech.

To look at it another way, in many cases nature’s own programming is being augmented to create new forms.

At this point, I’m sure you are wondering what the point is. Let’s look at one more area for background.

Information Technology

To date, the phrase ”information technology” has been used to refer to the use of a variety of computational, storage and communication systems to enhance data processing. Granted, that is a very simplistic definition, but let’s build on it.

The processing of audio and video is relatively simple. With a sufficient sampling rate, storage capacity and computational ability, all of existence can be modeled digitally and then manipulated and moved — often at uncanny speeds.

If we stop and ponder it, biotech and nanotech provide the substrates upon which information is used to craft outcomes. Whether the information technology used has to do with the assemblers, mixing tanks, genetic encoding manipulation, and so on, the fact remains that it is the processing and application of logic (process) and true information that makes it all possible. Whether the systems used are plastic, silicon, graphite, or DNA is a function of the media used to house or embody, the information.

The materials involved can change, but the concepts of programming and overall software and system engineering remain relatively intact.

The Challenges

There are several issues that this mental challenge brings forth. For the sake of space, we will address them in brief here:

  • Data Integrity — If data is corrupted in some potential applications, the resulting outcome could give a new meaning to the word disastrous.
  • Availability — The systems managing many of these applications will need to have high-availability to ensure that a process is not interrupted. Some nanotech processes reportedly are taking weeks to build one sample. With processing times such as this, there are significant accounting and economic costs associated with poor availability.
  • Security — Not to sound alarmist, but some of these technologies must have security both during creation and production use. For that matter, the manufacturing centers need significant logical and physical safeguards at all times.
  • Complexity — As complexity increases, the likelihood of one or more errors increases. As complexity increases, coping mechanisms must exist for testing, safeties, etc.
  • Human Error — Related to complexity, the odds of human error in these systems are very high. We already know that 78 percent of errors in IT are typically attributed to human error. What would happen if these rates are allowed to exist in nanotech and biotech worlds?
  • Law of Unintended Consequences — All too often, people plan for expected outcomes and find themselves facing unintended consequences. Essentially, this is stating that many applications have outcomes either in place of or in addition to what was planned.
  • Process Design — At an overall level, poor quality, safety and security are symptomatic of poor process design. The risks clearly warrant attention to process design to mitigate exposure.

    Meeting the Challenges

    First and foremost, these are not new issues.

    Information technology practitioners have been confronting these challenges for decades. Innovation is an interesting beast. I’ve listened to people who argue that it can be managed and others who lean more towards creative spontaneity. And there are all kinds of positions in between.

    The basic premise I am setting forth is that there must be processes in place to manage the relevant risks. Groups involved in the development of these new technologies must recognize that IT has faced, and currently faces, many similar issues. Thus, they should leverage them.

    There are far too many examples of brilliant engineers in one discipline or another who, for some reason attempt to perform IT-related tasks without involving professional developers, software engineers, test engineers and so on… with very bad consequences.

    Nanotech, biotech and information technology are converging and this movement is very apt to have the greatest ramifications to humanity of any other confluence to date.

    The first two fields are the physical manifestation of the third. Without a doubt, there are many challenges that will confront people in these areas. They need to recognize that they are dealing with the application of information, which means that there is a tremendous body of experience in the world of information technology and its practitioners that can be leveraged to manage risks and maximize opportunities.

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