Grids for Kids: Building the Foundation for Innovation

By By Tom Gibbs, Contributing Author

August 7, 2006

If you asked many industry/economic analysts around the world to name the most important variable in future economic growth off the top of their heads, the knee-jerk answer today would be the price of oil. Of course the cost of energy will be a major factor in all of our futures, but C-level industry executives will tell you that their most important resources are the gooey blobs nestled in the skulls of their wonderful employees.

The key to economic growth for companies and the countries and regions they call home is the educational level of their workforces. Many world leaders who recognize this also recognize the importance that Internet Communication Technology (to the point that it's an acronym — ICT) has as a tool for both education, as well as implementation of completive business process in the near future. Grid computing and communications as a metaphor for large-scale distributed computing and communications will be a cornerstone of the growth of ICT, and hence will play an increasing role in this growth, particularly as Grid evolves from Grid 1.0, which was focused on large-scale simulation, to Grid 2.0, which is focused on large-scale collaboration.

On a macroeconomic level, the quality of living as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in those countries that opted in has been trucking along at about 2 percent per year since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Education will be a key in increasing the ability to innovate on a global basis. Put simply, innovation is the key to finding an energy source to replace oil before it runs out, and that will require lots of smart people around the planet.

If anyone questions the hinge factor that education provides, I recommend a fabulous Web site: www.gapminder.org. If you haven't tried this site before, the tool it developed to show changes in multiple parameters compared against each other is outstanding. If you go to the charts for “world education,” which show GDP over time for multiple countries around the world as a function of the school life expectancy for a given country, it's unequivocal. GDP putters along in the poverty doldrums — unless the country sits on top of huge oil reserves — until the school life expectancy hits about eight years, and then it takes off like a rocket and stabilizes when the expectancy is about 13 years. Essentially, unless the average school life of the next wave of business leaders is the equivalent of a U.S. high school diploma — to paraphrase the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes — life many not be desperate, brutal and short, but it will be poor.

World-leading institutions — from the World Bank to the UN, and a slew of non- governmental organizations — have concluded that proficiency with technology, which includes widespread access to ICT, is a critical aspect of both education and basic infrastructure if a country or region is going to be able to stimulate growth in the global economy. If we accept that as even partially true, the situation is pretty grim, as only 40 million K-12 students out of a population of roughly 1 billion have regular access to a PC and the Internet. Educators and political leaders from Singapore to Western China to New York City are grappling with this reality and see the Grid as an interesting way to address this issue.

The first wave of discussion on this topic started a few years ago and centered on Grid 1.0 usage, primarily exploring ways the cost could be amortized across a wider base. Essentially, the PCs in the classroom would be made available to business and scientific research and the multi-use could help spread the cost. For a very slick example of how this works, I'd recommend going to the site www.tryscience.com. Organizations like the North Carolina Research and Education Network (NCREN), which can be found at www.mcnc.org, have been successfully engaged in this class of ICT-supported education and economic stimulus for nearly 20 years. In fact, Wolfgang Gentzsch, who headed MCNC's Grid Computing and Networking Services division from 2004 through 2005, is a huge proponent of the use of Grid computing for K-12 students.

The opportunity with Grid 1.0 is to make high-performance computing available to young scientists and, in most cases, to try and use the infrastructure to support local technology businesses to compete with larger multi-nationals. When you look at the applications that are considered, such as computational fluid dynamics or monte carlo simulation, the first reaction is: “Hang on!” What high school student is even going to understand this stuff? Well, it's not the general population, of course, but it is likely the technology innovators of the future. For example, the title of one of the scholarships awarded at the  Intel International Science Fair this past year was “Real-Time Remeshing with Optimally Adapting Domain: A New Scheme for View-Dependent Continuous Levels-of-Detail Mesh Rendering,” which was done by Yuanchen Zhu  of China. Another was for “Petrology, Morphology and Geochemistry of the Southern Juan de Fuca Ridge,” which was done by Sarah Rose Langberg from Florida.

OK, so I wasn't doing this level of work in high school, and neither were most people, but that doesn't mean we should hold back the technology superstars. Heck, the petrology work just might keep the oil flowing. When Sam Cooke crooned “Teach Me Tonight,” I'm sure we wasn't looking for his date to help him discover a massive new oil reserve under a salt dome in the ocean, but at current prices he might reconsider his objective. Go, girl, go!

The challenge, of course, with using Grid 1.0 for K-12 is the issue with Grid 1.0 overall: the potential user base is just too small if you take the population of K-20 students and include all those who graduated who can actually do the level of science that requires large scale simulation. However, this doesn't mean it's a bad idea or that we shouldn't do it. It just means it's hard to justify.

If we expand the usage from Grid 1.0 to Grid 2.0, things get very interesting. Grid 2.0 is all about enabling mass collaboration. Students around the world in the critical grades for economic growth (8-12) have opted in with their fingers and eyeballs to large-scale, albeit shallow, collaboration though Web 2.0 sites such as MySpace, which boasts more than 40 million users.

I believe that extending Grid 2.0 collaboration into multiple disciplines — from history to sociology to good, old-fashioned science — offers tremendous opportunities. I discussed the online reality game Second Life in a recent article. This game is being used by researchers in a number of areas, from economics to sociology, to try and better understand human behavior. Moreover, the world economy is moving from locally isolated business to a complex web of connected businesses where labor moves to its most efficient delivery point. Companies that succeed, and the workers who make it so, will have to be very comfortable working in an environment where digitally supported collaboration is as common as e-mail is today. Workers will need to be very comfortable and literate with using these tools in the coming decade.

In the beginning (of the Internet, that is), DARPAnet and NSFnet were typically used by scientists to communicate with each other. E-mail at the time was a huge step forward from the alternatives. Today, the tools are Wiki sites, blogs and other similar online forums that allow multiple participants to actively engage in idea formulation and dialogue. These tools all run on distributed environments — grids.

Companies and local economies that need to bootstrap their workers and citizens into the global collaborative world can share their local education grids as a way to share both the wealth and the expense. This opens up a much wider usage model to a much wider set of businesses, and will help with the knotty justification arguments that need to be addressed to kickstart widespread deployment that will be needed if we hope to sustain the continued rise in the standard of living we hope all can come to enjoy.

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