The Great Knowledge Divide

Yes, my posts look like editorial columns in a newspaper. That is because unlike most people, my life is pretty boring. But the inside of my head is always a lot more interesting. So, here goes another tl;dr article.

A normal day in anyone’s life would start like this:

Wake up, check phone for messages, mails, IMs etc. Brush teeth. Finish bathing. Sit on laptop for sometime. Go to work. Sit again in front of a computer for sometime. Come back. Loaf around. Connect and update your social networks all day with photos and status updates. Check other people’s posts. Watch some movies from your laptop or external HD. Sleep.

Sounds pretty normal. Obviously, you know where I’m going with this. That’s right .. It ain’t all that normal. When you are an Engineer (yes, I’m actually one of the few guys who’s proud to be one), you realise the absolute enormity of computing that goes on around you.

For instance, I will take the phone part of my previous example.

I am taking a smartphone for added emphasis. Your phone consists of a processor that would put something that sat on a big cabinet on your desktop around a decade ago to shame. The antenna it uses to receive messages and calls is a tribute to the finesse with which human machines manufacture electronic products. Let’s say you get a message from Person A.

1) Person A picks up his smartphone and clicks a button. The button closes an electrical connection which is connected either directly or indirectly to your processor which tells your screen to switch on the backlight and start displaying the information it sends to it (or the GPU sends to it depending on how advanced the phone is).

2) A goes into the messaging app and stars typing a message. All the while, his processor is screaming along at 600 MHz (nominal for today’s smartphones) to display images, interfaces, power the touchscreen etc. Then, A types on his touchscreen which sends appropriate coordinates of point of touch to the processor which again sends it to the application which in turn decides what key you pressed.

3) A finishes typing the message and hits send. His DMA controller (or its more advanced version) sends it to the antenna which then transmits it after applying a few mind boggling signal processing algorithms to account for errors on the receiver side.

4) The tower receives the data, contacts the central server and sees which area your phone has logged itself into. Then, it redirects the message to the tower in your area.

5) The tower sends it to all devices in the area as part of the link transmission. Your SIM card recognises the message as being meant for you and tells your processor that you have received a message.

6) The processor in turn directs the message to your SMS application which asks the processor to turn on the screen and let it display the message to you.

7) You read the message.

I have actually skipped a few steps here but you get the picture. Also, don’t even get me started on the laptop.

What am I getting at? I believe the amount of collective human knowledge on this planet far exceeds comprehension of any single individual.

For instance, mathematics has steadily progressed since the 15th century or so. Today, the level of mathematics is so advanced, people devote their whole lives to studying just one specialised field.

Communications and electronics (which are intricately linked these days) have progressed so much in the last 50 years or so, specialisations started almost a decade ago. The microprocessor industry is also in a similar state.

Physics has branched out with the astronomy fellows studying stunning phenomena in deep space while quantum buggers dig deeper and deeper to somehow find the very secrets of the fabric of time, space, reality and human perception in general.

There is no way that one human can comprehend, study and assimilate all this knowledge in one lifetime. Is that a problem? I believe so. Why? I shall presently explain.

I believe all human knowledge is linked. One fine example would be how people are trying to prove/disprove the Riemann hypothesis using energy levels of subatomic particles in quantum physics. How did this clash happen between pure mathematics and quantum physics? Apparently, a mathematician and a physicist were discussing the problem when it struck the physicist that this was possible. Nope, I’m not kidding.

But this is just a stroke of luck. What if there are several branches of knowledge which are intricately connected but would need an individual well versed in both to figure it out? It is a dilemma, is it not?

Arthur Clarke (or Isaac Asimov, I really don’t remember which of these 2 sci-fi greats) wrote a story in which a professor seeks to look back in time by exploiting some property of a neutrino (stupid, yes, but it was written in the era when neutrinos had just been discovered and no one knew its potential). It takes a student with knowledge in 2 very specialised fields to realise that it was easy to build the machine which until then could only be used in some top secret facility controlled by the government. Of course, the moral dilemma of looking back in time settles in and the professors wife gets addicted to watching their long lost son/daughter (don’t remember which) through time. A government agent finally comes into the picture and salutes the 2 men congratulating them for finally sinking all progress of humanity since cases like the professors wife would become more prevalent when the machine became public knowledge as the story was released to the press.

Yes, the last part of that anecdote was pointless but what I meant to say was that it required a student highly specialised in 2 fields to construct a machine. With the diversification that is presently happening, will not all human knowledge one day go completely out of reach?

In that sense, if there were 2 broad yet diverse fields which could solve some major problem and these 2 broad fields became more and more specialised, there would be no way of attacking that problem since no one would see the connection.

I’m guessing you got my point now. If not, read “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov. Arguably, the best short story in sci-fi. It deals with a computer which is sentient and expands without human help at such a pace that at some point, no single individual knows how it works. That isn’t the main plot of the story but it reiterates my point anyway.

I believe we have to solve this dilemma if the human race has to progress enough to become a type 3 civilisation one day (you know, master of all resources in our galaxy and all that).

I have come up with 2 solutions.

1) Let humans choose to specialise in any 2 diverse or even similar fields. Assuming free will is somewhat close to a gaussian random variable, we will be able to see every combination there is and most or all of them will yield results.

2) Force humans from birth into some combination of specialised fields. I believe all talks to aptitude are just hogwash. You have an aptitude for what you chose to like. I have an aptitude for math because that’s what I’ve been learning since childhood and my parents encouraged me into it. I quickly learned that specialising in it is not my cup of tea. I find communications mildly interesting and believe I can specialise in the cellular communication techniques since I find it very interesting. This suggestion may seem a little too 1984-ish but really, free will is how you make it out to be. Yes, I know, I’m a despot, tyrant and an otherwise very disturbed individual. Or I could really be the guy with the most sound logic.

Streamlining the knowledge and the way humans learn it may increase our progress exponentially. Only time can tell. Or it cannot. Who is gonna read an obscure blog written by a jobless intellectual and even consider the options listed here?

You? I don’t think so 😛