We need to go beyond the web

Cegłowski, a web designer, wrote a beautiful essay called “Web Design: The First 100 Years“. His essay starts with a review of the aerospace industry…

  • Back in 1965, it looked like aerospace was the future. Each successive plane went faster than the previous one. At that rate, by the early twenty-first century, we would be traveling across the solar system.
  • Instead, we hit physical limitations. Faster-than-sound planes cost a lot to run and they were noisy. The market went instead with slower, shorter, safer and cheaper flights. In the last few decades, the real-cost of air fare went down by half despite ever rising fuel costs and taxes. There is also about twice as many flights as there were in the 1970s. We do not fly fast, but there is over a million people in the air at any one time.

This outcome was a bit surprising to many of us. As a kid, I would have expected the space industry to be quite large by 2015 and I would have expected really fast planes.

As a trade-off, we did get something that was largely unexpected: functional telepathy (a.k.a. the Internet). The Internet has connected us to each other in ways that no science fiction author from the 1960s could imagine. In fact, I cannot stand old school science fiction because they typically depict a world where we spend a great deal of time flying left and right, but where there is no distributed multimedia computer network. Even old Star Trek episodes are annoying: the engineer cannot be bothered to snap a picture of a defect and send it to the captain… he has to get the captain to come and see…

In any case, Cegłowski’s thesis is that information technology is following a similar path. We got faster and faster computers… but nobody cares about that anymore.

I think Cegłowski is right in many ways. I do much of my serious work on a laptop that runs at 2.2 GHz. I could easily get a laptop that runs 50% hotter. I use an iPad for much of my informal computer needs, and that is considerably less powerful than even my underpowered laptop. My web server, where this blog is hosted, runs on an old AMD CPU. In many cases, CPU cycles have gotten so plentiful that we have more than enough.

This mirrors air travel: planes are so fast today that the time required to get to the airport and pass the security checks is a significant fraction of your travel time. It takes me 7 hours to get to Europe, but I need to be at the airport an hour and a half before. Because it can easily take me 30 minutes to get to the airport… only a bit more than two third of the travel time is spent in the plane. So I would not pay a lot more to fly twice as fast.

If you travel routinely from New York City to Tokyo, you are probably missing supersonic flights. Though you make up for it with in-flight Wifi, don’t you? Similarly, there are still people who need raw power. Some hardcore gamers… people doing numerical analysis… but most people do not see computing speed as a critical feature… not anymore than we view airplane speed as critical… it is a “nice to have” feature… easily overshadowed by more important considerations.

People want cheap, power-conscious, maintenance-free computing.

And the path forward seems clear. In fact, we are already there. We carry on ourselves low-powered computers. Smart jewelry (like watches) has a bright future. PCs are still around, sadly, but not for much longer…

We still have lots of accumulating computational power, but it is located in the cloud. And the cloud is not one super powerful processor… instead, the cloud is made of millions of shared processors, none of which is impressive on its own.

Cegłowski then falls into a conservative stance: “The Internet of 2060 is going to look recognizably the same as the Internet today. Unless we screw it up.” To be fair, he makes a living by selling a bookmark service for people who will not trust Google or Microsoft with their information. His whole business model depends on people remaining conservative. He believes that life has gotten worse for most people in the last 30 years. He writes that “we’re running into physical and economic barriers that aren’t worth crossing”.

Cegłowski would keep the technology as it is… “Why do we need to obsess on artificial intelligence, when we’re wasting so much natural intelligence?”

Technology is fine today. Let us work hard to keep it as it is.

I could not disagree more. We urgently need to improve our technology. The web as it stands today won’t be good enough in 30 years. Sadly, this means that services like the bookmarking service offered by Cegłowski will look antiquated. We have no choice. We need to move forward.

  • Though Cegłowski rightfully complains that we are wasting a lot of natural human potential right now… he fails to see that this is very much a technology problem. Schooling is a technology. And our schooling technology is stuck in the 1920s… And no, we are probably not going to fix it with animated HTML sites featuring multiple choice questions. I routinely meet with people who graduate college but they still can’t write a decent report or write a simple software application. There is a large fraction of the kids today who still do not come close to completing high school… and among those who do complete high school, most lack the skills that will be needed to get decent first-world jobs.

    Some star teachers manage to get kids to succeed despite the odds, but this approach currently does not scale: we do not know how to reliably produce great teachers, and to keep them great.

    I am not claiming that AI will fix schools… I am merely pointing that there is a massive gap between what we need to do and what we do today.

    It is fairly easy for a computer to track basic tests that a student fails. For example, we could easily keep track of all the words a kid can and cannot spell correctly (assuming we still care about spelling in 2015). Such tracking should be par for the course… but it is not. We could rather easily compare instruction as it happens to optimize it, the same way we optimize airplane routes… but, outside some narrow academic projects, none of that is happening.

    Smart kids are bored all day long… while weak kids are stressed out. It is such a waste!

  • In 2060, a quarter or more of the population will be over 65 in many countries. Many of these people will be overweight, sick, frail and in decline. I am not particularly anxious about us spending 90% of our GDP on health care, but do we really want to have half our population burdened with elderly care?

    We need technology so that older people can remain maximally healthy and productive till the very end. This means better medical technology, but also better computing. We need exoskeletons. We need real-time health monitoring so that cancers can be caught and stopped early.

    Already, computers can do better than radiologists in many cases, yet we still rely on these expensive human beings. We could easily collect vital signs from all of us and use machine learning to identify problems before they happen, but, instead, we rely on random doctor appointments.

    Where are we today? Well, in Montreal, we do not even have electronic medical records. Though some hospitals have electronic systems, sharing information is still done on paper. We have “brain games” that pretend to keep your mind sharp as you get older (I suspect that they are waste of time), but nothing to support failing memories. Routinely, older people suffering from dementia get lost and we have no inexpensive way to locate them. We have not even begun to investigate how wearable computing can keep us healthy and productive.

Fifteen years ago, people dreamed of software agents that would act on our behalf on the web… track the information we need, find the new medication that can help us, automagically connect us to clients… Instead, we got Twitter, Wikipedia, Uber and Amazon. Close by no cigar.

Cegłowski writes, with a mocking tone:

If you think your job is to FIX THE WORLD WITH SOFTWARE, then the web is just the very beginning. There’s a lot of work left to do. Really you’re going to need sensors in every house, and it will help if everyone looks through special goggles, and if every refrigerator can talk to the Internet and confess its contents.

I do not think that software, by itself, will fix the world… but the reason software is put forward is that it is cheap. New planes are noisy. Software to optimize how we use planes costs much less. Biomedical technology to reverse aging is expensive and risky. Software to keep elderly workers productive is going to be much cheaper. Training great teachers is hard and expensive… building software to help people acquire demanding skills is going to be much cheaper over time. Simply put: software is cheaper than either human beings or hardware once it is made.

Eventually, we are going to need pills to make learning faster… we are going to need better treatments so that 90-year-old engineers can be as sharp as younger programmers… we are going to need planes that fly on half the fuel they do now… we are going to need batteries with ten times the capacity they have right now…

But our jobs, as software people, is to maximize what we can do with the hardware we have… and there is still a lot we can do beyond the current web. We are not even within a factor of ten of what is possible.

14 thoughts on “We need to go beyond the web”

  1. The key difference is we are not going to be “looking” at the web as much. Most of the time the web will answer our questions without prompting – Google already floats a screen on my phone telling me how long to my next destination based on my travel habits (commute or visit my in-laws on the week end). It is uncannily prescient at times. It could (if I enabled it) tell me audibly.

    There will be interactions between sensors, and my fridge will notify my phone to buy milk, and my phone will alert me as I approach a supermarket on my way home.

    I will be chatting with my wife about a desire to buy something, or embark on a project – and my phone could eavesdrop and suggest that Home Depot are having a sale on such and such. All this is the web, but it doesn’t “look” like anything. All the pieces are already here, and it is rapidly assembling itself as we type.

  2. @Dominic

    I agree.

    In some sense, Cegłowski is right that the web, as is, will still be around in 2060. I do not plan to upgrade my blog to something much different. What he is missing, however, is that this is already a quickly diminishing part of the Internet.

  3. Regarding schooling — I feel that’s very much a cultural issue. Russia (and Eastern Europe) has excellent schools for ex. They’ve a harder curriculum and they’re able to do that because they have higher expectations from students. In the US (and maybe Canada as well?), schools feel like they’re more for hanging out and sports rather than learning…

  4. @dhaus

    My home country (Canada) either matches or surpasses all Eastern European countries and Russia in Mathematics, Science and Reading:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PISA_2012

    Kids in Russia are no better in Math than Americans… and they are quite a bit worse in Science. Russia is generally below the OECD average.

    But that is all beside the point because getting through high school is almost irrelevant as far as acquiring the necessary skills to succeed in the XXIst century.

    China is building tens of millions of industrial robots as we speak. In 20 years, there will hardly be any job as cashier, factory worker or cab driver…

    There is a good chance that half the jobs in 20 years will require skills that nobody has currently.

    We need to build a new generation that is an order of magnitude smarter than any other generation.

    We are going to need people have extensive and up-to-date skills… and we are going to have to help people get these skills not in decades but years at the most…

    Getting kids to read books, Wikipedia and watch YouTube won’t cut it.

  5. In large part, I agree. But only in part.

    I think we are nearing a “knee” in the curve, in some aspects where future changes will be more incremental than revolutionary. Also keep in mind I am focused on the leading edge, and obvious-seeming changes can take decades.

    The text/visual web will change, but my guess is this will be more incremental. Take books as an example. Bet you still have paper books. Your online books are in organization largely the same – a format that works.

    Maybe direct mind/computer links will someday supplant books. My guess is this will take *much* longer than 30 years. The human mind is well organized for the connected narrative.

    The leading edge, nebulously described as “cloud computing”, has been rearranging my neurons of late (from the programmer’s perspective). I can cheaply tap into a severely non-linear increase in computing resources, at steadily decreasing cost.

    Still sorting out what this means to me…

    I want fast-update displays, sometimes many and large. Enough local CPU to drive them, and a fast/constant web connection.

    The progression from full/fat virtual machine, to container, to on-demand function … means I can get massive short-term compute from the cloud for cheap. Suspect we are near the knee, where large local compute is no longer optimal.

    The shift to cloud-compute also means we are shifting to compute-cycles per watt and dollar. More CPUs in place of higher clock speeds. Lower power consumption and (eventually?) longer hardware life, in place of the highest single-CPU scores.

    Extremely small-scale devices tend to be perishable. Is perishable hardware cheaper (in power) than longer-lived larger-scale devices? (Certainly not in space probes, and perhaps military electronics.)

    We might still get regular doublings for some time, but from larger/cheaper/numerous devices, rather than speed and shrink.

    Thirty years from now, the mainstream web from a programmer’s perspective, might look very much like the leading edge of today. On-demand compute pushed to the cloud, and only sufficient compute in local devices. The scale will have changed, but not the character.

  6. Well, I can agree in general, but some points…
    I think education purpose is to make people educated, not to give them job, this is market.
    I don’t see anything wrong with not maintaining patients electronic medical records; patients are safer(better privacy).
    Early catching and treatment of cancers is failure, we know this now; there are books about that.

  7. @acdc

    I don’t see anything wrong with not maintaining patients electronic medical records; patients are safer

    You are also “safer” by not logging on computers. Nothing wrong with books and paper.

  8. @Preston

    I think we are nearing a “knee” in the curve, in some aspects where future changes will be more incremental than revolutionary.

    How do you quantify the knee part?

    Also keep in mind I am focused on the leading edge, and obvious-seeming changes can take decades.

    … like electronic medical records… or people printing their email…

    The text/visual web will change, but my guess is this will be more incremental. Take books as an example. Bet you still have paper books. Your online books are in organization largely the same – a format that works.

    Maybe direct mind/computer links will someday supplant books. My guess is this will take *much* longer than 30 years. The human mind is well organized for the connected narrative.

    I do not think that the long-form written word is natural. I consume a lot of it, but I am an exception.

    There are some writers that can captivate readers for pages and pages… but there are few such people.

    Hardly anyone reads instruction manuals.

    I bet hardly anyone reads the totality of my blog posts.

    So we have ended up with streams of 140-character posts, most of them being read by bots.

    And how efficient are the long-form messages that we do read? Do you think we learn to program software by reading books Do we learn to work with others efficiently by reading blog posts?

    I think that the future of education is in something “like” online games. And I do not think I am saying anything original. (E.g., stackOverflow is clearly a game.)

    I can cheaply tap into a severely non-linear increase in computing resources, at steadily decreasing cost.

    Right. And that is just starting… so I do not see the knee part. Expect to have access to thousands, millions of cores on demand…

    And not just to drive stupid PHP scripts…

    I want fast-update displays, sometimes many and large. Enough local CPU to drive them, and a fast/constant web connection.

    We are getting amazing displays. For next to nothing.

    In Quebec, we just got a much better mobile Internet coverage this year. Last week, we went camping in the middle of nowhere (really!) and my wife had complete (fast!) Internet access. It was amazing. We did not even have electricity or working toilets… the nearest store was half an hour away… and we had the Internet… a fast Internet where you can watch videos…

    Local CPU is never a problem for me. I find that I can be fully productive even on the cheapest devices.

    The progression from full/fat virtual machine, to container, to on-demand function … means I can get massive short-term compute from the cloud for cheap. Suspect we are near the knee, where large local compute is no longer optimal.

    I am not sure what you mean by “knee” but it is evident that large local compute has become irrelevant. The data is no longer local anyhow.

    But I suspect we will be doing a lot more cloud processing. Right now, you can get voice recognition and voice synthesis in any web site (through Google services). That is the stuff of science-fiction… which you can do today in minutes on any cheap device.

    The shift to cloud-compute also means we are shifting to compute-cycles per watt and dollar. More CPUs in place of higher clock speeds. Lower power consumption and (eventually?) longer hardware life, in place of the highest single-CPU scores.

    Yes.

    Extremely small-scale devices tend to be perishable. Is perishable hardware cheaper (in power) than longer-lived larger-scale devices? (Certainly not in space probes, and perhaps military electronics.)

    Mobile phones and tablets can be built for dozens of dollars. Compared to the food we throw away, it is not much of a burden.

    We might still get regular doublings for some time, but from larger/cheaper/numerous devices, rather than speed and shrink.

    We have Internet-enabled light bulbs at the local store where I shop.

    Thirty years from now, the mainstream web from a programmer’s perspective, might look very much like the leading edge of today. On-demand compute pushed to the cloud, and only sufficient compute in local devices. The scale will have changed, but not the character.

    I think that Kurzweil prediction (originally stated for 2010) whereas local computers would disappear from view is going to come in the 2020s. That is why I think PCs are going to disappear.

  9. Not sure if anyone mentioned it already. There was a short story by E. M. Forster, “The Machine Stops” that predicted something really close to the Internet. It is a good sci-fi story. It was written in 1909 tho.

  10. Regarding education in Eastern Europe. I am Russian born and raised who lives in New York for many years. My school education, specifically math, chemistry and physics were so much better than I still used my notes and old textbooks when I attended college in NY. I am not arguing that Russin education is better. I am telling you a fact based on thousands people personal stories. Of couse you could get a similar education here in private school or gifted/talented program.

    Regarding science. It would be interesting to see if 50 years from now you could simply “buy” extra intelligence. Imagine, company selling an AI device that is capapble of deep thinking and is either embedded into you as a microchip or carryon device.

  11. @Eugene

    Regarding science. It would be interesting to see if 50 years from now you could simply “buy” extra intelligence. Imagine, company selling an AI device that is capapble of deep thinking and is either embedded into you as a microchip or carryon device.

    We already have it, we just do not recognize it for what it is.

    Regarding education in Eastern Europe. I am Russian born and raised who lives in New York for many years. My school education, specifically math, chemistry and physics were so much better than I still used my notes and old textbooks when I attended college in NY. I am not arguing that Russin education is better. I am telling you a fact based on thousands people personal stories.

    You are not giving me facts about education per se, you are giving me people’s impressions. There is often a wide gap between reality and our impression of it.

    You can check the (objective) results for yourself :

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PISA_2012

  12. Regarding the knee in the curve, we tend to go through 4 stages in predicting a trend, for example maximum human velocity:

    1) Maximum human velocity is fixed (riding a horse or sail powered boat is as fast as you can go).
    2) Maximum human velocity is linear (we invent cars, they slowly get faster)
    3) Maximum human velocity is exponential! (interstellar commuter service here we come!)
    4) Maximum human velocity was following a sigma curve (it was briefly exponential, suddenly it’s linear again).

    For a long time computers had one core. Then I could get 2,4,8. Suddenly with the cloud I can easily purchase a few hundred. If we extrapolate an exponential curve, soon the same sum I spend today will buy me millions of cores. But we also might hit the knee, and I’ll only have access to 500.

    This is partially what makes it so hard to predict the future: we look at the trend (exponentially more computing power!) but at any point is might suddenly stop, and what we thought was linear becomes exponential (maybe computation will slow down and instead we’ll hit a new green revolution, and suddenly the population will rise into the hundred billions)

  13. @Paul

    This is partially what makes it so hard to predict the future: we look at the trend (exponentially more computing power!) but at any point is might suddenly stop.

    If all that happened was that things went exponentially faster, it would not be great.

    Though people like to think in those terms, I think it is a misleading and, ultimately, useless way to think about the future.

    Instead, you should view the future as an undiscovered country… there are things there that you cannot imagine, let alone quantify.

    Who cares about having 1,000,000 computer cores for next to nothing? By itself, that has hardly any value.

    Now… if these 1,000,000 computer cores could be faster and smarter than I am… now we are talking!

  14. Eugene,

    Regarding the superiority of the Russian educational system:

    I suspect the issue is not how tough the curriculum is, but who gets to go through it. I don’t know about present day Russia, but in the past (especially in Soviet times), only the really best students got admitted to the programs with a rigorous curriculum (and this likely included “engineering”). The rest of the population would get lower level degrees (diplomas for technicians, etc).

    So people on the outside suffer from an observation bias. They look at a typical Russian engineer and marvel at his/her technical abilities. They, however, don’t get to see the majority that simply weren’t allowed in and had to be relegated to lower jobs.

    Andrei Toom (a student of Kolmogorov) is one of numerous Soviet mathematicians who moved to the US after 1991. He’s written extensively of his observations between the two educational systems.

    Initially he complained about how lazy and ineffective American students were, compared to his experience teaching Soviet students. But after a number of years, he changed his opinions somewhat. He realized the US system doesn’t filter as heavily as the Soviet system did, and his observation became (paraphrasing): “For training the top 1-5%, the Russian system is better. For training the rest, and when you look at the average capabilities, the US system is better.”

    Specifically, what he meant was that although the typical American engineer wasn’t brilliant, the US system allows for plenty of moderately intelligent people to become engineers. The Soviet system simply wouldn’t allow it, resulting in a deficient workforce.

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