Sunday, November 30, 2008

Operating System for the Planet?

I found myself hiding in a bookstore while doing a little "black Friday" shopping after the US Thanksgiving holiday and stumbled on sensational book by James Martin called The Meaning of the 21st Century. I read it today and one line stuck - "The transition from a planet on a self-destructive course to a planet that is intelligently managed is the meaning of the 21st century." Martin explains how intelligent management requires dealing with mega-problems of the 21st century including -
  • Global warming

  • Excessive population growth

  • Water shortages

  • Destruction of life in the oceans

  • Mass famine in ill-organized countries
  • Extreme poverty

  • Growth of shantycities
  • Non-state actors with extreme weapons

  • Violent religious extremism
  • Runaway computer intelligence

  • War that could end civilization

  • A new dark age

One can agrue about the validity of some of these mega-problems but the list itself makes a compelling point about the sum total of the challenge. Martin goes on to discuss how these "mega-problems are multinational. None could solved by one country alone." Furthermore, the "mega-problems are interconnected, and because of this, the solutions are interconnected..." But the book gives a healthy dose of hope and points out that "innovative thinking, cooperation around the world and exciting technologies are providing answers" to mega-problems.

One potential transition path for managing and coordinating activities, and sharing limited resources is an operating system for the planet. What are the characteristics of an OS for the planet? For starters it would be based on interoperability and include information on environmental, infrastructure and cultural systems. Information would be accessible through online services based on international standards and data in open exchange formats - not proprietary formats. Good examples of such standards are SDI 1.0 and Sensor Web from OGC - I'm sure there are others.

As Martin says, "sooner or later...we have to learn to control what we are doing."

- Jeff


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