Siri and the Machine, or the Future of HPC

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series #HPCMatters

I was sitting in my hotel room this morning, working on my laptop. Given that it was just me, I thought a little music would be nice. Picking up my iPhone, I flicked it on and held down the button to summon Siri to ask her to play some music—a much simpler operation than mashing through a whole bunch of buttons to get into iTunes. I was greeted by her voice intoning:

Siri not available
connect to the Internet

My phone was in airplane mode.

It wasn’t that the phone couldn’t play me some music. I quickly ran through the several screens to get iTunes playing a shuffled playlist. But, without the Internet, Siri couldn’t figure out what I was trying to ask her.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like Siri, and have been often impressed by what advice she can give, whether it’s getting driving directions simply from a place’s name or finding a nearby gelato shop in London open at 10:00pm like I asked her just a couple of weeks ago. It’s a pretty impressive bit of out-sourced computing, googling and phone integration that can be helpful or frustrating. I think the best one I’ve heard from one of my friends was that when she asked Siri for nearby hair stylists, Siri replied with, “But, I like your hair the way it is.”


Umm… yeah… what am I suppose to do with that?

I even have to admit, with a bit of chagrin, that I’ve gotten into arguments with Siri lasting just long enough for my rational brain to get back in charge and point out the fact that it’s pointless to argue with a inanimate machine, regardless of how sentient it seems. This isn’t Skynet, people.

But, what does this have to do with HPC?

The Internet of Things (and Star Trek)

We are entering into a really interesting time of human history—something that this little experience reminded me of this morning. We are moving into the Age of the Internet of Things. In other words, we are going to tie sensors to absolutely everything, collect data and then attempt to do something interesting with that data. I suggest Siri is just one early example of this, where data collected by sensors (i.e., web crawlers and my phone’s microphone) have been meshed together to provide the appearance of a digital personal assistant on my phone.

We have other examples of this, as well. Consider the intelligent GPS systems that are capable of rerouting when congestion is detected along the route. Basically, we have the technology in our hands today to call forth current or historical data from the ether with a simple touch of a button and voice commands—real cool Star Trek-type stuff. But, the real power of the Enterprise’s computer wasn’t that it could just recall facts or do basic tests. Consider this interchange in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Home Soil”:

Doctor Beverly Crusher: Analyze: the pattern of the flashes.
Computer Voice: Not repetitive or sequential. Pattern not recognized.
Doctor Beverly Crusher: What is the source of the flashes?
Computer Voice: Unable to specify. Theoretically not possible from this substance.
Doctor Beverly Crusher: Disregard incongruity, and theorize as to source.
Computer Voice: [bleeps extensively] Life.

There’s that magical little phrase hiding in there: “Disregard incongruity, and theorize as to source.” (emphasis added).

Theorize. Extrapolate. Simulate. Predict.

Those are HPC words. My little handheld phone is not going to have the computing power to do those things. Instead, it’s going to outsource that to the cloud, just like Siri is currently doing. That’s where HPC will become the backbone of the hidden world of the Internet of Things. HPC will be used to not only crunch the massive amounts of data that our sensors will provide, but in time will back up active uses of that data, providing simulation and predictive data analysis.

In other words, we now have the tools to build the first version of the Enterprise’s computer. Cool… and honestly, a bit scary.

The Machine Stops

I’m going to add just one other related tidbit in here, mostly because I just listened to the audiobook (a great way to pass the time on long-haul flights in coach). Take it for what it’s worth—I’m not predicting any Skynet-end-of-the-world doomsday here.

If you haven’t read (or listened to) E. M. Forster’s 1909 short story The Machine Stops, you should. Here’s a brief introduction from its Wikipedia article:

Textile Machine

The story describes a world in which most of the human population has lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth. Each individual now lives in isolation below ground in a standard ‘cell’, with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. Travel is permitted but unpopular and rarely necessary. Communication is made via a kind of instant messaging/video conferencing machine called the speaking apparatus, with which people conduct their only activity, the sharing of ideas and what passes for knowledge.

Clearly, I don’t think this dystopian nightmare is likely to occur. However, we’re even on track to build the technology needed for the Machine. As the introduction notes, “Travel is permitted but unpopular….” It’s handled by automated vehicles and airships, void of human control. For a modern-day analog, take a look at the Google Car.

NCSA Archive
The Machine Stops (text)       The Machine Stops (audio)

Undoubtedly, HPC would be a major part of the working of the Machine, or the heart of the Machine itself for that matter. We’ll have to wait to see which future unfolds, I guess.

The Future for HPC

So, before I get accused of going all apocalyptic in this blog post, let me reiterate the main point:

The world is changing, we are on the cusp and HPC is in the center of it all.

Again, SC’14 is right around the corner. As I’ve mentioned before, I absolutely love the #HPCmatters theme. Be sure to come by our booth and say “Hi!”. I’ll likely be there with Siri quietly reading me The Machine Stops (or some other such nonsense).

I hope to see you there!

We have a future to build!


Image curtesy of darkday, licensed CC-By-2.0.

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