Friday, December 31, 2010

The Sum of All Knowledge

When I was a kid I used to fantasize about future technologies, even before computers were widely available to ordinary folks. I would fantasize about owning a robot that would accompany me to school and help me with my lessons. I would fantasize about building electronic gadgets and wonder at the marvels of how electrons flowing through a circuit could do all manner of things not dreamed of 100 years before.

A couple of things I imagined when I was in my early 20s have actually come to fruition. While listening to a stack of 33 RPM albums on my stereo I imagined how great it would be to have all my music stored in a home library that would be randomly accessible through push-button technology. I still thought in terms of vinyl discs, but this super home jukebox idea would allow me to access any track on any album just by pushing a couple of buttons. I also imagined building a playlist of songs, similar to the way a jukebox plays all the songs that have been paid for in order.

Shortly after the widespread acceptance of the CD and as it was in the process of replacing vinyl, I imagined a new kind of music storage. I thought, one day, instead of going into a music store or Walmart and picking out a CD or vinyl record, one could pick out a memory chip, already loaded with an album of one’s choice. That led me to think, why not take your own memory chip in, plug it into a sort of kiosk, and order up a smorgasbord of music from different artists. Yes, that was in the days before the Internet became a must-have utility.

Today, of course, people store their entire music collections on a tiny music player or on their computer. People can buy their music track by track or in complete albums over the Internet. No music store is necessary. Media player programs can play back playlists of anything you own in any order, just as I imagined back in the ‘70s.

These days my musings about technology center around the instant retrieval of information from a database containing the sum of all human knowledge. Such a database is actually the goal of information technology giants such as Google and Wikipedia. And, in fact, the sum of all digital knowledge is pretty much already contained in their databases.

As a school child, and indeed until about 15 years ago, if I wanted to do research, I would have to trudge to the library and thumb through the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature or one of the several sets of encyclopedias. I don’t think it ever occurred to me how nice it would be if all the information I was tediously seeking could all be kept in one place where a simple search for a word or phrase would bring up everything I wanted to know about any subject. Today, of course, the Internet comes close to providing that ability right in my own home, or even while I’m relaxing on a park bench or dining in a restaurant. I can always pull out my smartphone and look up almost any information on any subject within a matter of seconds. Everything from the current weather radar image, to the traffic report for my trip home, to what recent tweak has been added to M-theory. It’s all right there at my fingertips. I can even pull up a scanned copy of, say, Popular Science magazine from the year and month I was born to read about what the big science news of the day was. It turns out that a $40 bomb shelter in your basement might save you from an A-bomb attack on your house. Well, it was the early ‘50s after all.

But as much information as is out there, there still is far more that is nowhere near being indexed yet. Can I read every book that has ever been written? Can I listen to every musical composition that has ever been performed and recorded? Can I view every work of art that has ever been painted or sculpted? No. Until very recently, I couldn’t even find any legitimate copies of “Please Please Me” by the Beatles.

Google has come under attack by those who are more interested in not showing their faces on the Internet than encouraging the spread of human knowledge for wanting to provide recent images of every stretch of road in the world. If someone said ten years ago that they wanted to get online and look at a picture of any storefront or any house in the world it would have elicited nothing but giggles and snide laughter. But the forward-looking folks at Google are making it happen. And over at Wikipedia they are inexorably working toward describing everything we, as humans, know. Between these two Web giants we may, indeed, one day be able to access any piece of information that has ever been created by mankind. And when it happens, will anyone even notice?

Advanced technologies have become so seamlessly entwined in our lives that we often don’t stop and just marvel at what has been accomplished. Young people have known nothing else. They have grown up in the information age. But to us older folks, to me at least, the information we are able to access at any time and from any place is nothing less than awe inspiring.

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