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A Science Fiction Kind of Future?

I'd like to finish up this chapter with a science-fiction story that had a great impact on me when I was a boy. The name of the TV series was "Blake's 7", a weekly show that chronicled the adventures of Blake and his six crew-members as they whizzed around the galaxy in a futuristic spacecraft. ZEN, the artificially intelligent ship's computer, particularly impressed me. It was large like a mainframe, had a deep resonant voice, and was able to perform many duties including running the ship and getting Blake out of more than one sticky situation.

In one episode, Blake and his crew landed on a largely deserted planet and found an old man with a grizzly beard hiding in a cave. The man was a bit of a nutcase, muttering to himself that the bad guys were trying to capture him to steal his treasure. Under one arm he was carrying a small transparent box that seemed to have no great value.

Intrigued, Blake transported him back to the spaceship, and soon learned that the small box was, in fact, the most powerful computer ever built. Apparently, the old man was a computer wizard who had designed the chips that were part of every computer in the galaxy. Secretly, the man put a subspace transceiver into each chip, allowing them to communicate privately over large distances. He built the system so that only one computer, which he called ORAC, had the key to unlock this capability. ORAC was the computer in the transparent box, and when you pressed the on button, ORAC was able to tap into the combined power of all the computers in the galaxy (see Figure 1.17).

The thing that excited me was that tiny ORAC was much smarter than big ZEN because of the way it was designed. Rather than having all of its processing power in one place, its resources were millions of small chips, loosely coupled via a subspace network. That episode greatly influenced the way that I think about computers systems, and convinced me that other systems that adopt the same design approach, such as biological organisms, were a great place to learn about how to build powerful distributed systems.

Figure 1.17Figure 1.17 ORAC leveraged the power of the galactic network

The same pattern seems to occur continually. Smaller mammals replaced large dinosaurs. Client-server systems are replacing mainframes. Each generation keeps getting smaller and smarter.

I think that web services will catalyze a new form of distributed computing, more fluid and dynamic than previous generations, that will take advantage of the billions of devices that are about to inhabit the earth.

Maybe ORAC is not so far away.

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