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Autonomic planet: Distributed intelligence for a self-healing ecosystem

January 30, 2014

Where global survival is concerned, no one can truly be an optimist or pessimist. That's because no one knows for sure whether the planetary ecosystem is self-healing, per the fabled Gaia Hypothesis, or whether disruptions from human and other sources could tip us all over the edge of extinction someday.

Perhaps it's best to be agnostic on the matter, while doing what's within human power to comprehend as best we can and to do what our latest science indicates might be best for sustainability on this inscrutable planet. As I've said elsewhere, one of our key tools is analytics, which I've described as "the steering wheel that humanity uses to drive the world—or at least that portion of the planet over which we have some influence. Without the sensors, the correlators, the aggregators, the visualizers, the solvers and the rest of what analytic applications depend on, we would be only a passenger, not a copilot, on this, our only home."

One hopes that the planet, with our gentle nudging, can acquire some wee bit of wisdom to improve its long-term chances of survival. A core part of this vision is the notion of an autonomic human footprint that dynamically throttles its resource demands, cleans up its own messes and reconstitutes the ecosystem to fix whatever damage we've done.

The notion of a self-healing, self-repairing autonomic planet is directly analogous to that of autonomic computing, a concept that IBM has designed into our systems for well over a decade. Where sustainability is concerned, the collective systemic footprint of all humanity needs to makes decisions on its own, driven by high-level policies that constantly check and optimize as well as adapt our activities to changing ecological conditions. 

The notion of an autonomic planet has a long vintage. About a century ago, before computers and internet had been invented, philosophers were driving at such a concept in the form of a noosphere. This refers generally to the notion that planetary human cognition is emerging that will fundamentally transform the biosphere.

One thinker described the noosphere as "the point where humankind, through the mastery of nuclear processes, begins to create resources through the transmutation of elements." According to another, it's a web of planet intelligence that is "growing towards an even greater integration and unification, culminating in the Omega Point—an apex of thought/consciousness."

If you see foreshadowings of today's paradigms—big data, cloud, social, cognitive computing, Internet of Things, mobile computing, digital convergence, etc.—in all of this, you're not off the mark. And if you're sensing a bit of the science fiction-ish "The Singularity," you're not imagining it.

Personally, I feel uncomfortable with these sorts of apocalyptic visions. They tend to generate a lot of cartoonishly overheated blue-sky speculation. And they tend to lose touch with the realities that are evolving all around us in the present day.

By contrast, the notion of an autonomic planet is not a blue sky vision. In fact, it's the heart and soul of the concept of a Smarter Planet. It's a practical framework for understanding how the spread of instrumentation, interconnection, and intelligence through all infrastructure can contribute to a sustainable existence. All paradigms play into this evolving reality. Whether there's truly any focused future "Omega Point" or Singularity" for all this planetary evolution is more of a religious issue than anything else. I personally don't think there is.

But the notion of a "noosphere" feels more practical that "Omega Point" and all that, because it aligns with what we're seeing all around us on this Smarter Planet. And it doesn't necessarily require some end-state other than continued intensification and spread of connected intelligent consciousness on this planet.

What that in mind, I'd like to call attention to the four essential layers of the noosphere, which correspond with key functional layers of connected intelligent consciousness:

  • Cognitive computing: This is the ability of automated systems to handle the conscious, critical, logical, attentive, reasoning modes of thought. Cognitive computing platforms, such as IBM Watson, are at the very heart of the big-data analytics revolution.
  • Affective computing: This is the ability of automated systems to handle the emotional or other feeling-intensive modes of thought. For example, sentiment analysis, a type of affective computing, is at the heart of modern marketing and campaign management practices.
  • Sensory computing: This is the ability of automated systems to handle the sensory modes of thought. This depends on the universal sensor grid that is fundamental to the Internet of Things (IoT).
  • Volitional computing: This is the ability of automated systems to handle the thought process that translate cognition, affect and sensory impressions into willed, purposive, effective action. You could think of "next best action" as the core of volitional computing.

Whether you're referring to an individual person or to an entire planet, these layers encompass the core of what we mean by "intelligence": representation (mediated by cognition, affect and sensation) and will. If you're not familiar with the work of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, start here.

To the extent that IoT can blend the organs of representation and will into a unified automated globe-spanning fabric, it can be a powerful enabler for a "noosphere" where the planet in fact seems to have evolved self-healing intelligence. That's my take-away from this recent article in which it describes present-day scenarios where potholes seem to call for crews to fill them, snarly traffic patterns seem to magically fix themselves on the fly and so forth. That seems like a fairly humdrum vision of what it means for a planet to be autonomic and self-healing, but I don't ask for much.

Those use cases all focus on using IoT to fix problems with human infrastructure that are inconvenient for humans. But the same IoT infrastructure could just as easily be applied to dynamically detecting, predicting and remediating issues with pollution, resource depletion, climate change and genetic diversity.

In other words, we could instrument the world to protect the planetary inheritance upon which all of God's creatures depend.

Let's do it.