New Year – New Planet

Startling discovery sheds new light on evolution

Yesterday, NASA sprung a surprise on the world’s news media by proclaiming the discovery of what they term ‘a silicon planet’, or SP-1 for short.

On SP-1 life has evolved, not on the basis of carbon, but on the element silicon, extremely prolific on that planet.

This is a planet inhabited by more than 50 billion machines that exhibit all the characteristics of what we would call ‘life’. The most complex of their species dominate the chaotic hierarchies that seem to spread like unstructured networks through every corner of this planet.

These silicon forms of life need neither light, nor water, nor air in order to sustain themselves. Based on this, you may be tempted to call this the Dark Planet.

Communication isn’t verbal or written, just a frantic ubiquitous digital soup that flows invisibly through the electronic veins of this planet and permeates every available space.

This planet, while not very far away, doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of place you’d like to spend your next summer vacation, but you will.

For this planet, SP-1, is our Earth today.


ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be

Life on a carbon planet:

On our planet, Earth, life has evolved on the basis of carbon. Over billions of years the most beautiful and bizarre life forms have evolved – in brilliant diversity and sobering complexity – an ecosystem of staggering interdependence.

Today, around 6 billion representatives of Homo sapiens sapiens represent the pinnacle of evolution. We remain the only one of Earth’s species to be able to contemplate the future and to act on it.

Now, consider life on a silicon planet:

Think of an imaginary planet on which life has evolved, not on the basis of carbon, but on the element silicon. A planet inhabited by more than 50 billion machines. The most complex of their species dominate the chaotic hierarchies that seem to spread like unstructured networks through every corner of this planet. Communication isn’t verbal or written, just a digital soup that flows through the electronic veins of this planet. These silicon forms of life need neither light, nor water, nor air in order to sustain. You may be tempted to call this the Dark Planet.

This planet clearly doesn’t make great tourist literature. Perhaps it doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of place you’d like to spend your next summer vacation, but you will. For this planet is our Earth.

Man and machines:

Over the last 100 000 years, Man’s ability to build tools and machines, and to apply them in the form of technology (which literally means ‘the use of tools’), have given us the edge over all other species. Already we are outnumbered 10 to 1 by the machines of our creation.

For many, especially the young, this is truly a technological romance. In 2005, 2 billion of the world’s 6 billion population had a mobile phone. This year, in 2009, that number will exceed 3 billion. Viewed this way you may come to the conclusion that markets for mobile communication will quickly become saturated.

However, this is not a world of decreasing returns – a connected world is characterized by powerful network effects and they will kick in with a cloudburst of new applications. This is the world of increasing returns. As more and more people become connected so the value they receive and perceive increases exponentially, fuelling further price decreases and exponential affordability. This is the classic ‘Falling Price Boom’.

As this happens, the biggest opportunity will become connecting man with the silicon life forms on the planet. Vending machines, aircraft, cars and home appliances. Computers and networks of all shapes and sizes.

Man and embedded machines:

Since 2000, the silicon machines that surround us, we often celebrate them as ‘consumer appliances’, have increasingly become ‘invisible’. These machines are integrated onto silicon wafers so small that the only sensible place to put them is under our skin. The sheer thought of placing them inside boring grey plastic boxes with an integrated keyboard seems very outdated, ludicrous in effect, and simply too clumsy and expensive.

Embedded machines are commonplace, routinely implanted in people and pets, and all criminals (to maintain contact while out on parole).

Some of these embedded machines already connect to your nervous system (your very personal in-body local area network) and, in future, to all the sensory organs you choose. You can already read your e-mail and watch videos directly through your visual cortex, just by thinking about it. You’re linked to the world’s digital skin through a wireless connection, and can communicate just by wishing it to be so. Today all that still seems a little clumsy (like the original text and SMA messages on mobile phones) – but it will all get much easier and natural.

Once we were just connected – now we’re becoming interconnected:

When everything digital becomes so connected and smart, it can truly be called interconnected. A peer-to-peer network in which packets of data can flow freely and powerfully through a multiplicity of fractal paths. The world’s digital skin will begin to resemble a biological living system: shared by billions of powerful individuals and machines; without hierarchy; with a high level of stability that can only come from the pure chaos of complex dynamic systems; and ubiquitous wireless connectivity. This is a kind of benevolent ‘Matrix’.

From scarcity to opportunity to plenty:

Remember when we thought that bandwidth would become scarce? Do you remember when, in the 1970s, we believed the world would run out of oil? The reality is that the world’s optical fiber networks now have the capacity to carry more than a thousand times the current volume requirements and prices are still falling. We have discovered a variety of new oil sources and new fields. Discoveries over the past few years have effectively doubled the known oil reserves. Thanks to technology we are now producing, refining and delivering oil at ever lower costs. It may be difficult to see past the current high oil prices to a future where oil will be the ultimate ‘commodity’.

The reality is that whenever we exclaim that something is becoming scarce – scores of entrepreneurs everywhere proclaim this to be a period of massive opportunity. Soon after the scarcity turns to plenty and prices fall.

The emergence of one-to-one networks:

Just as central fixed line bandwidth is being commoditized and prices are falling rapidly, centralized mobile networks will soon suffer from a similar kind of ‘falling price boom’. Already many mobile network operators realize that the infrastructure is in the middle of a falling price boom and that in future profitability will come more and more from value-added services rather than just selling the bandwidth.

Think of the spare unused capacity on your own cell phone. How much of its potential power and communications capacity do you really use? 10%? 20%? Less?

Now we live on a planet connected by almost 3 billion smart mobile phones. Just imagine the vast unused, spare capacity in all those phones. Several mobile service provider studies have found this spare capacity to be a huge potential threat. Their studies showed that almost any of the 3 billion users would be able to connect to any other simply by using this spare capacity – bypassing the traditional mobile networks.

Today the successors to the 1990’s Bluetooth protocol are starting to enable individual users and devices to connect directly to each other without using the central wireless network. We have at last found a common standard to facilitate local connection and data movement.

These new one-to-one protocols allows ‘Ben’ to connect to ‘John’ just by broadcasting a message such as “Are you John?” to all mobile phones within range, one to one. All those phones that are not ‘John’ will simply re-broadcast the message until one of these messages encounters ‘John’ and his phone connects back to ‘Ben’. All of this done in less than 2 seconds using just the spare capacity in the global swarm of 3 billion wireless devices.

Soon, cars, computers and lamp posts will join in the game. We will have a fractal one-to-one network in which the centrally managed networks have less and less relevance – except for mass high-speed data transmissions. Prices for traditional bandwidth will plummet further. The high ground for the large mobile providers would become new user services and corporate applications such as transaction processing, information and entertainment services. Anything that customers see as value added. As prices for the basic infrastructure drop so the number of possible value-added applications will explode.

It will become increasingly difficult to make profits out of the infrastructure and ‘content’ has become the centre of the business universe. Centralized networks will become endangered species as one-to-one fractal networks take over much personal communication. The very nature of these systems (chaotic, biological, flexible, fast and cheap) will make them the de facto choice for billions of people and millions of businesses – just the way the Internet and mobile phones charmed their way into our hearts during the 1990s.

Are Machines Alive?

Our greatest challenge is yet to come. Last year the first computer scientist was charged in the European Court of Human Rights for destroying an AI software programme that had been ‘living and learning’ for the past five years. New legislation is starting to give some similar ‘human’ rights to machines, under certain specific conditions. In the long-term it may be impossible to distinguish living machines from other forms of life. There will certainly be increased calls to consider their rights.

The Opportunity in Uncertainty:

As power moves continually from the centre of the world economy to its periphery – from governments and large corporations to interconnected individuals – the true nature of this complex dynamic systems will emerge to dominate our thinking. Some will see this as the ultimate in uncertainty and unpredictability. Pure economic chaos and consumer anarchy. Not the sort of place you might like to spend your summer holiday!

Others will learn to thrive on this chaos, to see the markets through new eyes, they will see new patterns emerging and pounce on them quicker than the foxes of yore, delivering unprecedented customer value. These new entrepreneurs will see this world as a planet of outrageous opportunity. The opportunities will be many, but very different. Their consumers, customers and clients will love them for it!

Personal choice is essentially what makes us human. And, personal choice thrives on uncertainty. If everything were perfectly certain, you would no longer have any choice left. Be careful when you strive for more ‘certainty’ – you may just achieve it, and you’ll hate it.

Buddhist philosophy reminds us that uncertainty presents that moment of perfect freedom. That moment in time when you can exercise your essential ‘humanness’. The opportunity to thrive on chaos.

In this warp-speed world it is no longer enough to learn from experience – you must learn to learn from the future. Your future is truly a matter of choice, not chance. Take it!

That way human evolution will continue to dominate – no matter what the silicon planet throws at us!

This MindBullet is based on an extract from Wolfgang Grulke’s opening keynote address at the World 3GSM Congress.

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

Despite appearances to the contrary, Futureworld cannot and does not predict the future. Our Mindbullets scenarios are fictitious and designed purely to explore possible futures, challenge and stimulate strategic thinking. Use these at your own risk. Any reference to actual people, entities or events is entirely allegorical. Copyright Futureworld International Limited. Reproduction or distribution permitted only with recognition of Copyright and the inclusion of this disclaimer.