FEATURES & COMMENTARY
La Jolla, CALIF. — John Markoff reported for the New York Times Service that the Silicon Valley crowd that assembled in a San Francisco airport hotel had come to hear about mobile electronic commerce, a most immediate concern for people who spend many of their waking hours thinking about whether their latest e-business solution will merit venture-capital dollars. They learned about something very different.
Instead of talking about buying Barbies online, they listened to an astrophysicist, Larry Smarr, who came to tell them about what he calls “the emerging planetary supercomputer.”
The Internet, he explained at the session last week, has been evolving into a single vast computer fashioned out of billions of interconnected processors. Then he went another step: “The real question, from a software point of view, is: Will it become self-aware?”
To Mr. Smarr, the idea of a thinking machine that might emerge spontaneously from billions of interconnected computers is not harebrained at all. He said he was extrapolating a series of significant trends that, to him, had become remarkably obvious.
When it comes to extrapolating trends and forecasting technological revolutions, Mr. Smarr is worth listening to. Fifteen years ago – prehistory in Internet terms – Mr. Smarr persuaded the federal government to establish supercomputer centers for civilian research. That bit of brass led to the birth of technologies such as the Web browser and advanced computer-graphics programs that allow scientists to see how hurricanes work and let moviegoers stare dinosaurs in the eye. Along the way, he also helped expand a network of computers owned by military contractors, corporations and universities into what is now called the Internet.
Now Mr. Smarr has persuaded Governor Gray Davis of California to put him in charge of the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology, a new state-financed research academy in La Jolla, a seaside San Diego suburb, with the goal of envisioning the future – and making it happen. Mr. Davis announced his decision to authorize Mr. Smarr’s institute and two others Thursday.
What Mr. Smarr sees is this: the rapid emergence of a much more extensive cyberspace that will essentially mirror the physical world. He imagines bridges covered with a fabric of computerized sensors that automatically tell engineers where earthquake damage has occurred. Or a world in which intelligent buildings whisper directions to visitors on the way to their destinations.
“The emerging information grid is going to be far more pervasive than the electric power grid is today,” he said.
The idea that the Internet may transform itself into a global computational grid with a mind of its own has generally been considered far-out stuff from the pages of science-fiction novels.
And while a thinking machine may sound outrageous, Mr. Smarr’s record has made him one of the world’s most respected computer technologists. Besides creating the research center that contributed to the development of the Internet, he invented the graphical browser – marketed as the Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer – that opened the Net to the masses.
As director of the computer research institute announced last week, he is now in the position to test even his most far out ideas. The institute will be established with more than $300 million in state and private funds over four years.
Based jointly at the University of California campuses at San Diego and Irvine, it will focus on engineering new types of sensors, creating an advanced digital wireless Internet and designing a class of distributed-computing machines, which break a problem into separate pieces to speed calculations. It will also work on applying those technologies to problems in the environment and transportation, as well as to genomic medicine and new-media arts.
Several times in the past, Mr. Smarr had equally radical ideas about where computing was headed, and each time he correctly spotted the Next Big Thing. He founded the National Center for Supercomputer Applications at the University of Illinois in 1985 and helped develop a network that linked it to the United States’ other four supercomputer centers. His center also did pioneering work in scientific visualization, and one of its brightest scientists, Stefen Fangmeier, went on to become a leading graphics animator in Hollywood.
Yet those advances pale beside the fact that, seven years ago, a small group of student and faculty researchers working at Mr. Smarr’s center created the first graphical Web browser, Mosaic, igniting the World Wide Web and the electronic-commerce explosion.
The center’s advances flowed directly from Mr. Smarr’s passion over the past three decades: to use powerful computers to improve the quality of science. His goal in developing the supercomputer centers was to give tools to scientists that had once been available only to bomb designers and code breakers.
The Internet and the World Wide Web grew in part from his drive to build better computer tools to permit scientists to collaborate and share information.
“He fostered the kind of environment that I had always associated with Xerox Palo Alto Research Center or Bell Labs,” said Marc Andreessen, a Netscape Communications Corp. co founder, referring to two widely admired information-technology laboratories. “People were free to follow their instincts. He tends to attract really, really smart people and gives them the latitude to pursue their ideas.”
But Mr. Andreessen added that while he was there, the University of Illinois shared at least one weakness with the Xerox lab in Silicon Valley: It had a hard time bringing innovations to the marketplace. Mr. Andreessen was able to start Netscape by licensing the institute’s Mosaic technology, but only after fighting to overcome the university’s resistance, he said.
“What they never got at NCSA, what they never had, was a culture of entrepreneurial spin-offs,” Mr. Andreessen said of the supercomputer applications center. But he added that the culture had changed. “If he can add that at the new institute, a culture that permits people to go off and start companies, then I think he will really have something.”
In a decade and a half at the Illinois center, Mr. Smarr built a reputation as a scientist who helped to develop the use of computers by both elite scientists and millions of nontechnical Web surfers.
“Larry has had a huge impact,” said Robert Borchers, director of the division of advanced scientific computing at the National Science Foundation. “He’s a legitimate scientist, and he’s usually one step or two ahead of the trend on technology.”
Mr. Smarr’s new institute will draw together more than 200 faculty members at the San Diego and Irvine campuses to reinvent the Internet using optical fiber cables, digital wireless networks and microelectromechanical systems.
Since the end of the Cold War, La Jolla and its Southern California surroundings have evolved from a military and aerospace stronghold into a center for wireless, optical, semiconductor and biotechnology companies.
Mr. Smarr settled on this area because it was both a high-technology center and a fertile ground for “IPO capitalism,” as he calls it. “Based on the electronic commerce boom that followed the development of the Mosaic Web browser, I realized that a new model of growth was emerging,” he said. “I knew I had to get to a place where there was an explosive private sector.”
Among the companies that have already committed themselves to investing $140 million in Mr. Smarr’s new institute, dubbed Cal-(IT)2, are International Business Machines Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Boeing Co.
Mr. Smarr plans to use the institute to attack a few big problems with what he calls “megacomputers” – thousands or even millions of separate computers lashed together with optical fibers via the Internet.
The most dramatic challenge for the institute, considering its location in automobile-choked Southern California, is to build a prototype for an “intelligent transportation infrastructure.” It would use the Internet to wirelessly link sensor arrays under freeways with computers in cars, making it possible to build a giant computing grid to control traffic more effectively, Mr. Smarr said.
“When your computer knows where each car is planning to go, it is a problem you can solve,” he said.
The challenge is that a computer that large has never been built, much less programmed. Such a machine would have what Mr. Smarr calls an “effervescent” architecture. It would comprise millions of parts – processors, communications links and storage units – that come and go unpredictably.
But many people in the computer industry say that if such a machine is to be built, Mr. Smarr is the ideal person to lead the quest.
“Larry’s plan is to take the Web into the physical world,” said Ramesh Rao, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California at San Diego.