When business leaders think of advances in computing, they might remember the images of the early Cray Supercomputers and what came next:
… and Now
In short, they remember a futuristic machine seemingly able to manipulate the curvature of space/time evolving into something that now more resembles a space heater. The same happened with the people working for large companies in technology roles. Once considered to possess a combination of the better attributes of Sherlock Holmes, Einstein, Steve Jobs, and MacGyver, they suffered a precipitous decline in reputation over time. They became mere mortals. Then mere mortals who worked elsewhere. As the era of empty cubes began, every technology team – comms, networking, security, apps dev, architecture, etc. – shed jobs at an alarming rate partly because business leaders weren’t always confident in the value they added. For 2010 and beyond, it is imperative that technologists deliver both ‘cool factor’ and ROI at an enterprise level rather than merely in consumer gadgetry, video games, and iPhone apps. For those who work in technology groups within large corporations, the coolest deliverable could in fact be absolute alignment to the business.
The early expectation from the large percentage of business investment in technology was to create agility at light speed. Later expectations were set more appropriately after decades of diminished enthusiasm and results. Spanning the gulf between business and technology expectations and abilities often resulted in structural problems similar to the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge: the outcome was subject to wobble. Sadly, the biggest number of victims of fallout from strategic structural collapses came from realm of technologists, who had to go further across toward the business side to try to relate better to business priorities. Thus, the decade spanning 2000 to 2009 might be remembered as Galloping Gertie. The new decade has begun with something even more twisted and sinister.
Hey! Don’t clean up that men’s room… I can make a computer out of it!
Now, several R&D teams are straining the very bounds of relatability for all technologists by suggesting that advanced calculators, processors, storage devices, and robots can be fashioned from leeches, slime mold, and E. coli bacteria. Imagine being the technologist responsible for reviewing the advances in biological computing and relating them to business leadership in the enterprise… imagine at least the awards and accolades: “I’d like to shake the hand of the person who brought this company into the age of E. coli computing!” Of course, it was easier to imagine after Johnson & Johnson (maker of hugely-successful flagship product Purell hand sanitizer) bought IBM in 2015. Since we’re imagining and all….
Well, thankfully, Gartner is willing to do the so-called dirty work and has written on biological computing in a recent Hype Cycle for Semiconductors. In it, intrepid analyst Jim Tully refers to early research in DNA computing, where molecular properties of DNA can be used for storage and processing. Of course, DNA is ‘cleaner’ than leeches, slime mold, or E. coli. Even with that incentive, though, teams have yet to make progress suitable for commercial technology delivery and investment. Here’s an excerpt from the Gartner research:
“Commercialization will require standards — totally lacking in DNA computation — for representing and encoding data, inputting and outputting data, and so on. There are also unanswered questions about the scalability and repeatability of computations over a range of temperatures and other variables. In addition to these basic challenges, the technology would require a new hardware and software infrastructure, which is clearly a huge barrier to adoption.”
He closes the section by suggesting at least a five year horizon before significant advancement.
But, where’s my what if? What if Apple were to fund and then leverage bacterial research and get to market faster with a productized version of its own technology? Wouldn’t it be great to own the first E. coli iPod? What color could it be? Wouldn’t it sell even faster if it came pre-loaded with all the selections from the Jukebox in Hell? Isn’t that already a dated term? Does anybody know how bad ‘Honey’ by Bobby Goldsboro really was – even in its day? How about ‘Heartlight’ by Neil Diamond? Honey, by the way, is quite effective in killing E. coli, so that might pose a problem…. Hmm. What could ServiceMaster do with a slime mold robot?
The best thing about being a research analyst is considering the implications of technology. The worst thing about being a research analyst (sometimes) is having too many interests and not enough time. In the case of leeches, slime mold, and E. coli (oh, my) it is more a matter of making a choice between three unappetizing options and doing a deeper dive. Think ‘trendspotting’ and not ‘Trainspotting’, please. Come to think of it, I’d better go with leeches.
The fog future comes creeps in on little cat feet um….
My apologies <again> to Carl Sandburg. Had I studied the work of any other poets, I might have stolen concepts from more than just the one. Sadly, the numbers of modern students of literature have dwindled in direct proportion to those who have since overwhelming chosen studies of law, languages, or even leeches. Oh, well. Onward. Luckily, I’ve already interviewed a leech team and can share the few parts of the interview not covered by nondisclosure. The first few years of the new millennium proved to be the ‘go go’ years of Leech Computing, and I seem to recall taking a trip down south to interview one of the leading leech labs in 2000 or so. Thank goodness it wasn’t Georgia Tech, as they took things very seriously at the turn of the millennium.
Here’s the article from the 4th of June 1999 that prompted my interest in the subject:
“BBC News reports that scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a computer device made from leech neurons. Presently this biological computer can only calculate the sum of numbers, but scientists are working to enable it to make intelligent decisions. Traditional silicon-based computers require full information to compute, but the GIT scientists contend that the biological computers will be able to form their own connections from one neuron to another. The scientists speculate that the biological computers will eventually think for themselves, achieving “the correct [calculations] based on partial information, by filling in the gaps….” It will be several years before this level of success will be achieved.”
My initial reaction: haven’t these GIT guys seen any movies at all? Don’t they have an Odeon or Multiplex in Atlanta? And, why didn’t the BBC figure out it’s called Georgia Tech? For answers to these and other pressing questions, I ignored Georgia Tech and interviewed some other researchers I met elsewhere. Here’s a sample of my notes from the day:
Biological Computing Hobbyist (Me): “Didn’t it occur to y’all that if we develop computers that think for themselves, they’re certain to turn on us? The best minds of our generation to this point have all concluded (in movies like I, Robot, WestWorld, 2001, Alien, The Terminator, The Matrix, and, uh Event Horizon) that such machines inevitably go haywire. And, as if the haywire people population wasn’t dangerous enough — The Darwin Awards come to mind — you’ve decided to tempt fate further with Leech Computers?”
Dr. Wan Visage, Director (Dizzy): “This is serious research, generously funded and certified by both the government and by the private sector. Anyway, they’re more like Leech Calculators at this point. Our preliminary findings indicate that the potential for disaster is quite small. Not even considering the fact that we teach them the Prime Directive first.”
Me: “Prime Directive? You mean the same one used for Robots? “You can’t throttle the scientist who tightens the last bolt or even works for the same company as him/her’?”
Dizzy: “The very same. Moreover, the incidence of even slightly aggressive behavior is fairly low. Leeches seem to have a high degree of predictability when it comes to behavior.”
Me: “So… you’re saying that they pretty much limit themselves to bloodsucking and solving simple mathematical equations. Isn’t that what mortgage brokers do?”
Dizzy: “Precisely. That’s one of the first and most obvious implications of our research. We can imagine that within a couple of years certain segments of the human population can be repurposed as a consequence of exciting advances in Leech technologies.”
Me: “Interesting perspective, Dizzy. May I call you that?”
Dizzy: “Of course. Everyone does. Do you mind if I sit down? I’m feeling a little faint….”
The interview was interrupted at this point by the intervention of several members of Dizzy’s lab team, who rushed to his side after he swooned, the fall only partially cushioned by the many leeches attached to his arms, legs, and back.
After the mandatory orange juice break, I continued the questioning with another research fellow intimately familiar with the ongoing leech trials:
Me: “Has it occurred to anyone that maybe the leeches are to blame for Dizzy’s condition? Isn’t there another species of animal you could have studied? Aren’t any of those lipstick monkeys from the cosmetics labs still available – given this seems to be a more humane line of research?”
Dr. Casper Whiteman (Slim): “Well, you’re right. We maybe could have gotten another sample. But once you go down the leech road, it’s hard to turn back… I like to call it a slippery slope <laughs>. Our corporate sponsors seemed keen to keep them, too. Besides… you’ve got to catch a cheetah to harvest its neurons. That’s a pretty popular saying around here.”
Me: “Funny. Do you mind if we ask which companies are funding the study? And, why?”
Slim: “I guess it isn’t a secret. Hormel is looking for an easier way to get the Spam cans opened, and it appears that ‘from the inside’ has been an overlooked option. And, the Bandaid people think there may be some product tie-ins, too.”
Me: “What might this study and its results mean to any enterprise client in terms of applicable technologies?”
Slim: “Well, do they manufacture any canned goods?”
Me: “Uh… mostly, no.”
Slim: “Do they have large numbers of users who log onto a network and have to remember a username and password for authentication purposes? And, do these same users face numerous challenges for key cards and passwords based on multiple secure doorways, outside e-mail, and internet site accounts?”
Me: “Uh… yes.”
Slim: “Okay. This is good. How many people are in your typical client organization?”
Me: “At last count around 77,000.”
Slim: “Great. Now, what if we deployed a primary and a backup leech for each of their people? That’s what… 123,000 or something? See what I’m getting at?”
Me: “Uh… no.”
Slim: “It’s biometrics, baby! The leech stays affixed to the end user’s thumb, permanently identifying them for purposes of security. We could have a little leech interface card called ‘SmartLeech’ that can fit into a single USB slot. We can even run a keyless entry system if we can get the leech to punch numbers on a teeny Bluetooth pad. Just the single sign-on possibilities alone are endless.”
Me: “Any particular reason people call you Slim and not Dizzy?”
Slim: “Well, there’s already a Dizzy on this floor, and there’s another Slim and another Dizzy in room eight. Kind of a coincidence, I guess.”
Me: “Thanks for your time and trouble. It was very interesting. Thanks. Bye, now.”
… and Now
Only 6 years later, leech computing was on the skids. I revisited the lab and found that by comparison, today’s small leech team was listless. Why? Well, I believe the investigative method failed partly owing to poor hypotheses and a lack of hands-on funding sponsors. Several members defected to larger labs in the public sector. And, venture capitalists had moved on and were now putting their fingers more into slime mold and E. coli research.
Happily, the team’s Hypothesis Wiki (HypoWiki) chronicles the few successes (and many failures) of the team and now includes as a bonus a virtual comprendium of leech humor apparently born out of later lower morale – two samples: “Why did the leech cross the road? Because this side of town sucks” and “What’s the difference between Leeches and Lawyers? Leeches stop sucking you dry after you die.” Plus the inevitable recipes A-M and N-Z, including Black Bean Ragout with Leeches, JambaLeechLaya, and my favorite: Puff Pastry with Leech, Lime, and Brussels sprouts.
Potential uses for Leech Technology at the enterprise level: none seen at present. But I would be interested in building a better Jukebox in Hell on the E. coli iPod. Feel free to comment on the posting or just submit some songs. Odious seasonal selections – including Dogs barking Jingle Bells – are welcomed, too.