Having read yet another discouraging article on the state of our planet, a group of French filmmakers embarked on an optimistic globe-trotting quest for climate change solutions that took them to the UK, USA, Denmark, France, Switzerland, Finland and India. The result is a 2015 documentary entitled “Tomorrow” that is now playing in US theaters. The movie is meant as an antidote to the fatalism that can stem from familiarity with the scientific consensus on global warming.

Shot at a time in which prospects were not as dire as they appear today after the latest policy shifts in the United States, the documentary finds hope in innovative sustainable approaches to agriculture, energy production, finance, democracy and education. A common underlying element of  all the surveyed solutions is their reliance on social, local and decentralized mechanisms. Including the inevitable interview with Vandana Shiva and an expected visit to a Finnish elementary school, the film uncovers a heartening set of initiatives, such as permaculture and the adoption of local currencies alongside conventional government-backed money.

Conspicuously missing from any of the solutions discussed in the movie are information and communication technologies (excluding the fleeting appearance of a smartphone used to pay in a local currency). This may not come as a surprise given the measurable decrease in “closeness, connection, and conversation quality” among people in local communities that has resulted from the widespread adoption of mobile phones. A city of the future ruled by smart devices seems indeed destined to be a lonely place, incompatible with the development of meaningful social programs. If we also factor in the energy footprint of producing digital devices and running telecom networks, the case for considering communication technology as a contributor to climate change appears to be well motivated.

Nonetheless, communication technology has a potentially important role to play in combating global warming. Smart phones are already used for emergency preparedness and coordination to respond to the effects of a changing climate. And, as discussed in a recent report of the Brookings Institution, the upcoming fifth generation of wireless networks may prove to be a significant asset in key areas such as water management, air quality control, energy production, transportation, and building design.

Take water management. It has been reported that two thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages by 2025. Thanks to Internet-of-Things (IoT)-enabled sensor and actuator networks, the efficiency in the use of this scarce natural resource may be improved via monitoring (e.g., of the concentration of dangerous chemicals), leakage detection, measuring home usage, adaptive irrigation tailored to measured moisture levels, and smart chillers for industries.

Leveraging the benefits of connectedness for a more efficient use of natural resources while at the same time building more resilient and sustainable communities may prove a delicate balancing act, but one that could prove critical for the future of our planet.


Internet of Thoughts

1999_1Brain-computer interfaces have been a staple of cyberpunk plots for decades. They have also been the subject of serious scientific research since the 70s, leading to impressive recent prototypes that allow humans to remotely control artificial limbs through their thoughts.

In the last few days, two headline-grabbing announcements appear to presage an era in which brain-computer interfaces will be standard components in commercial communication devices. First, it was reported that Elon Musk  launched a company that will invest in research to make tools “that may one day upload and download thoughts”. Other companies are also in the works that have similar goals. And then Facebook revealed its plans to develop technology that would make it possible for users to compose outgoing messages via their thoughts and to “feel” incoming messages without reading them.

In this plausible scenario in which brain-computer interfaces are integrated into communication devices, humans will be able to literally communicate through their minds. We would therefore experience a transition from the upcoming Internet of Things to a next generations of communication networks supporting an Internet of Thoughts.

This idea was fictionalized in “Lock In“, a 2014 novel by John Scalzi. In Scalzi’s world, massive funds are allocated by the government on brain-computer interface research in the aftermath of an epidemic that left millions of Americans locked in, that is, unable to move and communicate. The plot revolves around the fact that networked elements are prone to hacking given their reliance on software (not unlike “Ghost in the Shell“). Hacking a brain, it turns out, may have quite unpleasant consequences — and not only for the hacked.

It has been reported that even the most experienced software programmers have a rate of error of 0.05%, so that, on average, programs have an error every 2,000 lines. This implies that there are thousands of bugs in a typical modern application, since, for instance, Android has 12 million lines of codes. The fact that only one error may be enough to compromise the security of a system highlights the significant challenges of securing a software-based networks from hacking.

The ongoing softwarization of everything from computing to telecommunication networks may well one day (perhaps not too soon) extend to our minds. One can only hope that breakthroughs in software security will outpace threats from hackers as this process unfolds.

Information Without Representation

Shannon’s information theory (IT) provides a rigorous framework to quantify the amount of information that a system Y has about a system X, irrespective of what the information is about.  IT metrics count the (logarithm of the) number of different states of system X that system Y can distinguish based on Y’s available information (or, conversely, the missing information on X’s state). This information can be translated into a binary file that represents the information that Y has on the state of X.

Shannon’s information measures hence concern the representation of information, while purposefully disregarding its significance to the recipient. In IT, the information system Y has regarding system X is the same whether or not Y can extract value or meaning from its ability to differentiate among some of the states of X.  In cognitive sciences, instead, the focus is on semantic information, that is, on the meaning that the information carries for the receiver.

Robert Anton Wilson proposed to measure the amount of scientific information (a subset of semantic information) by adopting as a unit of measure the amount of scientific information known during the lifetime of Jesus.

To use D. M. MacKay‘s words, semantic information is “difference that makes a difference” for the receiver. Accordingly, not all distinguishable states contribute to the amount of semantic information. Daniel Dennet in his new book gives a recursive definition of semantic information as “design worth getting“. Design refers to the use of “semantic information to improve the prospects of something by adjusting its parts in some appropriate way“. In other words, semantic information is defined by the fact that it can be leveraged to determine the form, or the design, of something for the benefit of the recipient. Semantic information hence depends on the receiver, and it need not be represented or saved to have an impact on the receiver’s design. Semantic information is valuable, and misinformation and disinformation are its perversions.

Information, Knowledge, Wisdom and 5G

bestdoc-535x300One of the most compelling conceptual visions for 5G contrasts the user-driven information-centric operation of previous generations with the industry-driven knowledge-centric nature of the upcoming fifth generation. According to this vision, the evolution from 1G to 4G has been marked by the goal of enhancing the efficiency of human communication — with end results that we are still trying to understand and manage. In contrast, 5G will not be aimed at channeling tweets or instantaneous messages for human-to-human communications, but at transferring actionable knowledge for vertical markets catering to the healthcare, transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, education, automation, service and entertainment industries. In other words, rather than carrying only information, future networks will carry knowledge and skills. Whose knowledge and whose skills will be amplified and shared by the 5G network infrastructure?

Two options are typically invoked: learning machines (AI) and human experts. AI is widely assumed to be able to produce actionable knowledge from large data sets solely for tasks that require systematic, possibly real-time, pattern recognition and search operations. Typical examples pertain the realm of the Internet of Thing, with data acquired by sensors feeding control or diagnostic mechanisms. AI is, however, still very far from replicating the skills of human experts when it comes to “instinctive intelligence“, making multi-faceted judgements  based on acquired “wisdom“, innovation, relating to other humans, providing advice, offering arguments, and, more generally, performing complex non-mechanical tasks. Therefore, human experts can complement the knowledge and skills offered by AI. A scenario that is consistently summoned is that of a surgeon operating on a patient remotely thanks to sensors, haptic devices and low-latency communication networks.

By sharing knowledge and skills of AI and human experts, 5G networks are bound to increase the efficiency and productivity of learning machines and top professionals, revolutionizing, e.g., hospitals, transport networks and agriculture. But, as a result, 5G is also likely to become a contributor to the reduction of blue– and white-collar jobs and to the widening income gap between an educated elite and the rest. This effect may be somewhat mitigated if more optimistic visions of a post-capitalist economic system, based on sharing and collaborative commons, will be at least partly realized thanks to the communication substrate brought by 5G.

Tomorrow Never Knows


It is unquestionably a time of uncertainty, and visions of the not-too-far future come in all flavors. Here is a partial list:

  • Friedmans, or techno-optimists: New technologies for communication, computation, energy production and transportation will raise productivity and reduce costs, breaking the logic of scarcity and ushering in a new economic system based on sharing and cooperation;
  • Merkels, or business-as-usuals: Capitalism, liberalism and democracy will naturally prevail and progress will continue unimpeded;
  • Mandibles, or stone-agers: The over-reliance on networked devices will lead to a catastrophic breakdown of the communication and financial infrastructures as a result of cyber-wars, making advanced economies unable to provide for themselves;
  • Hararis, or techno-pessimists: Intelligent machines will take over jobs and functions of “regular” humans, and a new minority of super-human cyborgs will emerge beyond the point of technological singularity;
  • Realists, or climate catastrophists: There is really no future for humankind on Earth;
  • Cixins, or escapists: The future for humanity is in space — at least if you can pay the ticket.

It from Bit

6261055049_26244e9348_bIn most classes on information theory (IT), the relationship between IT and physics is reduced to a remark on the origin of the term “entropy” in Boltzmann’s classical work on thermodynamics. This is possibly accompanied by the anecdote regarding von Neuman’s quip on the advantages of using this terminology. Even leaving aside recent, disputed, attempts, such as constructor theory (see here) and integrated information theory (see here), to use concepts from IT as foundations for new theories of the physical world, it seems useful to provide at least a glimpse of the role of IT in more mainstream discussions on the future of theoretical physics.

As I am admittedly not qualified to provide an original take on this topic, I will rely here on the poetic tour of modern physics by Carlo Rovelli, in which one of the last chapters is tellingly centered on the subject of “information”. Rovelli starts his discussion by describing information as a “specter” that is haunting theoretical physics, arousing at the same time enthusiasm and confusion. He goes on to say that many scientists suspect that the concept of information may be essential to make progress in theoretical physics, providing the correct language to describe reality.

At a fundamental level, information refers to a correlation between the states of two physical systems. A physical system, e.g., one’s brain, has information about another physical system, e.g., a tea cup, if the state of the tea cup is not independent of that of the neurons in the brain. This happens if a state of the tea cup, say that of being hot, is only compatible with a subset of states of the brain, namely those in which the brain has memorized the information that the tea cup is hot. Reality can be defined by the network of such correlations among physical systems. In fact, nature has evolved so as to manage these correlations in the most efficiency way, e.g., through genes, nerves, languages.

The description of information in terms of correlation between the states of physical systems is valid in both classical and quantum physics. In thermodynamics, the missing information about the microstate of a system, e.g., about the arrangement of the atoms of a tea cup, given the observation of its macrostate, e.g., its temperature, plays a key role in predicting the future behavior of the system. This missing information is referred to as entropy. In more detail, the entropy is the logarithm of the number of microstates that are compatible with a given macrostate. The entropy tends to increase in an isolated system, as information cannot materialize out of thin air and the amount of missing information can only grow larger in the absence of external interventions.

In quantum physics, as summarized by Wheeler’s “It from Bit” slogan, the entire theoretical framework can be largely built around two information-centric postulates: 1) In any system, the “relevant” information that can be extracted so as to make predictions about the future is finite; 2) Additional information can always be obtained from a system, possibly making irrelevant previously extracted information (to satisfy the first postulate).

The enthusiasm and confusion aroused by the concept of information among theoretical physicists pertain many fundamental open questions, such as: What happens to the missing information trapped in a black hole when the latter evaporates? Can time be described, as suggested by Rovelli, as “information we don’t have”? Related questions abound also in other scientific fields, such as biology and neuroscience: How is information encoded in genes? What is the neural code used by the brain to encode and process information?


The Library


Imagine a library — a real one, with actual books — with an unusual rule: no novels, essays or magazines are allowed, but only private journals, diaries, thoughts, rants, speculation, accusations, and any “true, authentic documents reflecting the real spirit of the people.” The library is open to the public, and each document can be read by any visitor, who can also request for a small fee to be informed about the identity and the address of the author.

This scenario, which is eerily prescient of today’s social media, was imagined by an Italian novelist in 1975, at the height of the Years of Lead. The novelist, Giorgio De Maria, writes in “The twenty days of Turin” that the appeal of the library derived by the prospect of being read by others, ideally creating a social web of connections and relationships.

But the social impact of the library turns out to be quite different from these lofty expectations, as the library ends up fostering a community of paranoid, resentful and isolated prosumers of information. As per Max Weber‘s prediction, in De Maria’s Turin, progress in communication technologies pushes the individual away from public life and into a “subjectivist culture” of “sterile excitation”.

The denouement of the novel sees old ideas and myths, in the form of monuments, come back to life, somehow resuscitated by the energy channeled by the community’s desperation. A bleak vision, ominously close to our present.

Spiking Neural Networks and Neuromorphic Computing

Brain_Chip_Wide.jpgDeep learning techniques have by now achieved unprecedented levels of accuracy in important tasks such as speech translation and image recognition, despite their known failures on properly selected adversarial examples. The operation of deep neural networks can be interpreted as the extraction, across successive layers, of approximate minimal sufficient statistics from the data, with the aim of preserving as much information as possible with respect to the desired output.

A deep neural network encodes a learned task in the synaptic weights between connected neurons. The weights define the transformation between the statistics produced by successive layers. Learning requires updating all the synaptic weights, which typically run in the millions; and inference on a new input, e.g., audio file or image, generally involves computations at all neurons. As a result, the energy required to run a deep neural network is currently incompatible with an implementation on mobile devices.

The economic incentive to offer mobile users applications such as Siri has hence motivated the development in recent years of computation offloading schemes, whereby computation is migrated from mobile devices to remote servers accessed via a wireless interface. Accordingly, user’s data is processed on servers located within the wireless operator’s network rather than on the devices. This reduces energy consumption at the mobiles, while, at the same time, entailing latency — a significant issue for applications such as Augmented Reality — and a potential loss of privacy.

The terminology used to describe deep learning methods — neurons, synapses — reveals the ambition to capture at least some of the brain functionalities via artificial means. But the contrast between the apparent efficiency of the human brain, which operates with five orders of magnitude (100,000 times) less power than current most powerful supercomputers, and the state of the art on neural networks remains jarring.

Current deep learning methods rely on second-generation neurons, which consist of simple static non-linear functions. In contrast, neurons in the human brain are known to communicate by means of sparse spiking processes. As a result, neurons are mostly inactive and energy is consumed sporadically and only in limited areas of the brain at any given time. Third-generation neural networks, or Spiking Neural Networks (SNNs), aim at harnessing the efficiencies of spike-domain processing by building on computing elements that operate on, and exchange, spikes. In an SNN, spiking neurons determine whether to output a spike to the connected neurons based on the incoming spikes.

Neuromorphic hardware is currently being developed that is able to natively implement SNNs. Unlike traditional CPUs or GPUs running deep learning algorithms, processing and communication is not “clocked” to take place across all computing elements at regular intervals. Rather, neuromorphic hardware consists of spiking neurons that are only active in an asynchronous manner whenever excited by input spikes, potentially increasing the energy efficiency by orders of magnitude.

If the promises of neuromorphic hardware and SNNs will be realized and neuromorphic chips will find their place within mobile devices, we could soon see the emergence of revolutionary new applications under enhanced privacy guarantees.

White Light/ White Heat

0508-bks-ferriscvr-master768-v2The latest novel by DeLillo may be about the fear of life and the fear of death and about the role that technology plays in activating and/or defusing both. In a previous novel, a character opined that

This is the whole point of technology. It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other.

The key mechanism behind the disruption and distress caused by technology in “Zero K” appears to be virtualization:

Haven’t you felt it? The loss of autonomy. The sense of being virtualized. The devices you use, the ones you carry everywhere, room to room, minute to minute, inescapably.

Virtualization refers to the realization of something — typically an operating system, a server or a network — on a different physical substrate, so that the virtual copy retains the main features (virtues) of the original and is indistinguishable from it. In (my interpretation of) DeLillo’s vision, the virtual copies of our selves stored on digital devices have become more real and relevant than the original.

In “Zero K”, escape, at least for the wealthy, is found in a cryogenically induced isolated state of pure thought after death. This state may be just another form of virtualization, but one that is out of time rather than ticking at the speed of Twitter updates. Waiting for the end of the world to bring better times.

My Generation


As the 3GPP standardization body continues its work towards the specification of the fifth generation (5G) of cellular systems, it is instructive to take a look at the current coverage map for the previous generations.  As of the end of 2016, according to the map above, a number of countries, including Ukraine, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Yemen, Syria and Libya, had only 3G coverage; while others, such as Central African Republic, Chad, Niger and Eritrea were only served by 2G (GSM) operators. Will 5G deepen the chasm between straggling economies and more technologically advanced nations, or will it instead provide shared benefits across the board?

The argument for the first scenario is clear: 5G is mostly envisaged as a platform to connect things, such as vehicles, robots and appliances, hence catering to vertical markets but neglecting the more basic needs of countries with limited broadband connectivity. The second, more optimistic, scenario is instead backed by the idea that “developing” countries could leapfrog previous “Gs” by leveraging novel architectures based on technologies such as wireless backhauling, small-cells and energy harvesting. This would allow them to benefit from the 5G-enabled connectivity among things for applications as diverse as smart transportation systems, e-health (e.g., remote surgery), remote learning and sensor networks for water management and agriculture.

It was suggested that, in addition to the three basic services currently defined for 5G, namely massive Machine Type Communication, enhanced Mobile Broadband, and Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communication,  an Ultra Low Cost Broadband service should be made part of the standard. Apart from isolated efforts by companies, such as Google X’s Project Loon and Facebook’s Aquila project, this laudable idea seems to have been mostly forgotten as of late, although the “frugal 5G” concept recently announced by the IEEE appears to be finally moving in this direction.