Dial M for Mother Nature

It is not by accident, or even some management fad, that modern companies are delayering, downsizing and changing business practices. Nor is it by some whim that telecommunication and computer networks are also being delayered, stripped down to essentials, low, flat, and non-hierarchical. The same forces are at work as we migrate from a reasonably […]

It is not by accident, or even some management fad, that modern companies are delayering, downsizing and changing business practices. Nor is it by some whim that telecommunication and computer networks are also being delayered, stripped down to essentials, low, flat, and non-hierarchical.

The same forces are at work as we migrate from a reasonably well understood and well behaved world of random processes, causality and hierarchies, to a world that often appears non-causal, increasingly chaotic and anarchistic.

Speed and exponential growth are the culprits. We have faster computers, with more memory and processing power, wider bandwidth networks, and a migration to everything being on-line, in a world of 13.5 billion microprocessors and only 5.7 billion people.

Look at the mobile phone, which arrived ten years ago. With the mobiles, people started to do new things. The old telephone-network model of three or four calls per customer at random times during the day has long gone, thanks to events like the TV phone-in. The mobile has taken this a stage further.

When traffic on the M25 is in free flow there are relatively few people making mobile phone calls. But should there be an accident, then within three minutes more than 1,000 people will try to call office and home. Likewise, if a flight is cancelled or delayed at Heathrow, or a train is late at Liverpool Street Station, then hundreds will be on their mobile phones within minutes.

In a well behaved telephone network the peak to mean traffic flow ratio is of the order 3:1. But on the Internet this ratio often exceeds 1,000:1. People are attracted to sites at the same time. Swarming is a natural outcome of any network activity involving societies of people and machines. Worse is to come.

Consider Web TV, computers we wear, chips monitoring everything: copiers, cars, food dispensers, medical monitoring of patients outside the hospital environment.

It is already clear that neither the phone network nor the Internet are fully satisfactory for the 21st century. In the former case, limited connectivity, structural rigidity, lack of responsiveness to change, restricted bandwidth and high costs are extremely limiting. In the latter, inability to control delay, latency and extremely poor reliability preclude real time applications involving any form of human interface, especially when lives are at risk. The world will become even more complex and our dependence on networked technology will increase.

But the way to deal with this may owe more to nature than technology. The human design of networks of software tends to create complex structures to do simple tasks. Mother Nature, by contrast, creates simple cellular animals like slime mould or jellyfish, or communities of ants, that can complete incredibly complex tasks.

Artificial life seems to be the only technology able to meet the requirements of such a world. Step on an ant, or 10,000 ants, and the colony continues to function. But change one character in one of a million lines of structured high level programme code, and the chances are that the system will collapse or at least seriously malfunction.

We have evolved to a state of near engineering lunacy in computer and telephone networks with an unimaginable mix of technologies.

This is compounded by network control and management software overheads that dwarf the hardware cost. For the future to work, software will have literally to be alive to the fast changing demands of customers, be they people or machines. Networks that fail to come to life will die.

Peter Cochrane is head of applied research and technology at BT Laboratories. This is an extract from his speech this week at the 3M Innovation Lecture at Brunel University