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Virtualization and the Singularity

I’m waxing philosophical for a bit here… What is the future of virtualization? What role will it play in the unfolding technological evolution of our society? Is the Technological Singularity really coming, and if it does, how will virtualization be important?

For those eternally-optimistic about our species’ future, there’s a great book that incorporates incredible optimism and the predicted result of the merger between biology and technology called The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, by Ray Kurzweil (the same Ray Kurzweil who first made the electronic piano sound like, well, a piano). I’ve been reading it, and two technologies keep popping into my head to solve some of the problems that crop up when I try and wrap my mind around the many charts and predictions in the book – namely grid computing and virtualization. I highly recommend reading this little gem, although I also recommend taking a lot of his timelines with a grain of salt. More on that later…

It’s my opinion that out of all the many technologies that will push the man-machine merger that Kurzweil so eloquently professes is coming, systems-level virtualization will be the most important, followed closely by grid computing. Many of the calculations RK uses to describe the increasing power of computers are based on Moore’s Law, his own Law of Accelerating Returns, and other mathematical formulae. One item I see in the book is that Kurzweil with doesn’t take into account in the book is the impact of utilization levels, which are far, far below the exponentially increasing numbers he presents in his prediction of future raw computing power. He may have considered this and come up with the same conclusion I have (or another, better one), but it’s not in the text, so I’ll go on with the assumption that its a blank slate. We’re going to have that raw computational power, sure, but we’re not going to make the best use of it (at least until our own intelligence is enhanced by non-biological intelligence, which he predicts in the 2030s time frame) without virtualization and grid technology. Virtualization will do what it was originally marketed for – take that pile of 5-20% utilized resources and merge them together to reach as close to 100% as possible. When it comes to controlling nanofactories (which take component elements and make goods from them – like literally making a car from atoms, or for that matter making a 100% real steak without a cow, or making replacement organs from within your own body), expanding virtual reality into realms an immersive as the real world (or moreso), even expanding our own consciousness directly into nonbiological substrates, there are going to have to be computers, powerful computers, running the show. And not all of these computers will be 100% active all the time. Add in the upcoming pervasive grid computing that will eventually connect all spare computing resources, and you can see the power of virtualization. Virtualized systems on hardware to ensure portability between platforms, to maintain the integrity of a system’s purpose, and to house what is needed where its needed, as well as raw computation resource sharing via a grid will maximize the potential of our raw computing power.

The disaster-recovery-friendliness of virtualization is going to make a huge difference in bringing about the singularity as well. One of RK’s predictions, and indeed his beliefs are clear that he feels that this is our destiny, is that we will overcome our biology and become what others call posthuman (he does not use this term, seeing humanity as consciousness, whatever the underlying origin, and independent of hardware, software, or material). He forsees the gradual transformation of humanity through the increasing use of medical implants (such as are used now to replace limbs and hearts, stop seizures, restore sight, restore hearing, etc.), cosmetic implants (anyone ever seen the Tiger Man?), and eventually nanomedicine – nanoscale sized machines working in conjunction to replace entire biological systems (such as the circulatory, respiratory, digestive, and even nervous). What are we then if not the Ghost in the Shell? And what happens when a shell crashes, as it will? That’s what DR is for, and that’s where virtualization plays such a key part – suppose you have a severe blood disease and in the future you are able to replace your blood with respirocytes (tiny machines that act like blood cells). What happens when there’s a massive systems failure of the OS controlling the little things? Probably not much because that’s an application for a distributed OS on a grid system. What happens down the road when your consciousness has moved, via the natural process of extending your life by replacing failing organs, to a completely computerized substrate, and THEN the underlying hardware fails? That gets trickier. Essentially, you die. Unless of course you happen to have VMotion / LiveMigrate / FutureVirtualizationDRTool’sNameHere, at which point you smoothly slide over into the next bank of hardware and keep on living.

This all assumes you consider computerized consciousness living (I do).

Sound a little far-fetched? It does, doesn’t it. But then again, I’m reminded that if I took many mundane items back a few hundred years in time, I would be worshipped as a god for my ability to cure, kill, and perform feats that defy the “laws” of nature as understood at the time. As Arthur C. Clarke once said – “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This isn’t to say I agree with Ray Kurzweil’s timeline – I don’t. He’s a self-professed optimist, and while technology will undoubtedly advance unabated by boom or bust just as it has always done, I think he forgets about the pessimistic, particularly about greed – those who develop the technology to power the singularity first will hoard it, patent it, and sell it for exorbitant sums of money for a very, very long time before competition is able to thrive and prices come down to the point where the panacea to life’s many ills are cured. The price of immortality is immeasurable – and the rich and powerful will pay dearly for it. Dearly enough that it won’t be economical to sell to the masses of ordinary folks for a very, very long time, and for a sadly terrible long time people all over the world will have to endure disease, hunger, and death.

But when it does come about, rest assured that the Technological Singularity will be enabled by virtualization. It may not look the virtualization we know today, much like Mac OS X looks nothing like PWB/UNIX, but it will still have the underlying role as we know it today. So that’s my two cents on virtualization in the future – not much different than it is now, but oh-so-important to what will be.

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The dead link in the fourth paragraph should be to the following URL: My bad... sorry.
Working in this field, as co-founder of 3tera, I'm often asked by people what will be done with the thousands of machines our grids connect. Most people really have little idea how many computers are already working to provide what we consider mundane today. Google runs around 1 million machines today. Facebook, a few thousand. Myspace, several thousand. And the list goes on. Experiments are already under way in extending human perception. I've read of sensor belts to let you know which way is North, like homing pigeons. Another lab has a device that presents a picture from a camera onto the subjects back, allowing the blind to "see" or perhaps giving firemen infra-red vision. I've also seen videos of implants for quadrapolegics that allow them to control a mouse and keyboard. All these things are being done today in the lab, but as commercial uses are found for them the computing power required to make them useful and to tie them into web will be immense. However, I believe it will be so immense that merely trying to scale our data centers today with grid technology won't be enough. Data centers today are a throw back to the past, designed for a time when computers required constant human attention to run. Before we realize the world RK describes our notion of how to run software and the data centers we build to power that software must evolve as well.
That's a very astute observation, and thanks for the additional human-enhancement devices. I agree that today's data centers are a legacy of the past, and it will be very interesting to see where LAN/WAN/MAN/PAN designs go in the coming years - I personally foresee a merger of systems, storage, and application virtualization with distributed grid computing at nanoscale levels, where the hardware is so pervasive in everything we own, do, and are that it will be very difficult to tell where a data center really is, because it will be everywhere. The impact on information security will be immense, forcing a shift from guarding the boxes that the data is on to guarding the data wherever it is. Impacts on other areas will be equally immense, but my basic prediction is that virtualization will provide the secure sandbox for new application installations, keeping the data safe, separating home and work computing, etc. My one problem with Ray Kurzweil's book is that while he can envision a grand future and show a clear and concisely detailed path to that future, there's little in the way of hard details to that last couple of chapters (specifically Ich Ein Bin Singulatarian and beyond). These cover the risks, the changes, etc. that are inherent in the coming years before the Singularity (with one exception - he does a good job of finding the holes in Luddite-ish Relinquishment). I'd love to see another book tailored to providing the details of how this evolution is predicted to go. Of course, the vanity in me would love to put my two cents in about that in a blog, too, but we don't have all year to read my ramblings :) Thanks again for that great comment!
Robert Bach has some interesting things to say about a singularity from a tester's perspective.