April 26, 2012


(Image) This post is borderline science fiction. But no worries… Mankind is now attempting to mine asteroids. Need I say more? No? Ok then. Whew! I feel better already!! Now, let’s get down to business.
First, though, we’re going to need a couple of ingredients. First: a national high-speed rail infrastructure. Second: a national broadband network, capable of 100 megabit per second connections. Third: we have to jump a few years in to the future. Now, let’s cook.
The idea is this: A national high-speed rail infrastructure that doubles as a computer - a massive computer. I’ve written about this before (The World’s Most Powerful Computer?), but failed to explain the idea in any kind of detail. When I originally came up with this concept, one of the reasons behind wanting to place the Internet fiber in the high-speed rail infrastructure, itself, was to protect the fiber from an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP). Though thoroughly unscientific, I assumed the fiber would be safe by encasing it with steel (the steel tracks of the rail system). Turns out, that’s not the case. I’m not an expert on what type of material could stop an EMP, so I won’t attempt to solve that here.
For a serious breakdown of why this stuff (EMP) matters (excerpt provided by: The EMP Commission - established pursuant to title XIV of the Floyd D. Spence National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001 (as enacted into law by Public Law 106-398; 114 Stat. 1654A-345)):
The physical and social fabric of the United States is sustained by a system of systems; a complex and dynamic network of interlocking and interdependent infrastructures (“critical national infrastructures”) whose harmonious functioning enables the myriad actions, transactions, and information flow that undergird the orderly conduct of civil society in this country. The vulnerability of these infrastructures to threats — deliberate, accidental, and acts of nature — is the focus of heightened concern in the current era, a process accelerated by the events of 9/11 and recent hurricanes, including Katrina and Rita.
…to set the stage for understanding the potential threat under conditions in which all infrastructures are under simultaneous attack, it is important to realize that the vulnerability of the whole — of all the highly interlocked critical infrastructures — may be greater than the sum of the vulnerability of its parts. The whole is a highly complex system of systems whose exceedingly dynamic and coordinated activity is enabled by the growth of technology and where failure within one individual infrastructure may not remain isolated but, instead, induce cascading failures into other infrastructures.
So, why in the Hell would I even worry about an EMP? Because Vint Cerf sent me a link about the greatest potential threat to our infrastructure: an electro-magnetic pulse. And I wanted to learn more about the subject.
He wrote (via email):
As to EMP - it’s more than the Internet that would be wiped out – so would the mobile network. A 50 MT blast at 60,000 feet would be massively devastating. It would probably wipe out a lot of home electronics as well since the power system wiring would act as an antenna to pick up and propagate the signal. The power systems would also likely be blown.
Earlier this week, I emailed Vint, explaining that I wanted to revisit an old blogpost (and reminded him of his statement – “As to EMP…”). He replied, “The burst would actually do more damage simply from the blast if it were as close as 60,000 feet. However, at 250 miles, the EMP effect would be the primary one.” “As to enclosure - actually we found at MCI that putting fiber in trenches near railroad tracks invited disruption due to train wrecks! We had to trench pretty deep (more than 6 feet?) to eliminate that problem. The problem is that EMP penetrates and propagates…”
Now, I’ve thought about the possibility of train wrecks, it’s just hard to fathom that we haven’t been able to come up with a solution to prevent them yet. So, I took train wrecks out of the equation - thinking, we’d have a solution by the time a high-speed rail infrastructure was in place. Another reason for wanting to place the fiber in the rail system, itself, stems from the idea of using the motion of the train to compute. The tracks of a high-speed rail system would be designed to serve as a circuit board - or something similar. I suppose, though, with proper wireless transmission technology, the fiber could be buried and provide similar results (if train wrecks are the main concern) - if it’d be possible to accomplish a feat like this to begin with. Again, we are attempting to mine asteroids. 
So, that’s the idea. 
I’ll leave you with a line from “Maybe There Really Will Only Be Five Computers" (a blog post by John Battelle):
“We may access these brands through any number of interfaces, but the computation, in the manner [Thomas J.] Watson would have understood it, happens on massively parallel grids which are managed, competitively, by just a few companies.” 

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