Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, these are some individuals who have suddenly splashed across the pages of newspapers and TV screens. These seemingly ordinary people have upset powerful governments and are now being branded as traitors. But I believe they foretell the dawn of a new era, an era of supercomputing. These individuals are the some of the first to reach the crossroads and point out to us how dangerous this era could be.
A supercomputer is an extremely powerful computer, capable of storing and processing very large amounts of information. Today supercomputers are easier, cheaper, and smaller to build. What used to take up a room and lots of money is now cheap and can occupy a corner. Large and powerful organisations, like the government, are finding it increasingly easy to put together supercomputers and hide them.
Our lives are increasingly spent plugged into digital interfaces that record and remember everything.
Computers make it easy to store and process digital information or data. At the same time they offer convenience and flexibility. Therefore there is an increasing demand both from individuals and companies to convert information into digital form as early as possible, so it can be stored and processed by computers. The trend is clearly seen in everyday life. Credit and debit cards replacing paper money, email replacing post, digital cameras replacing film, to name a few examples. A host of traditional physical processes have also been replaced by their digital counterparts, like online shopping, online meetings, online banking. Even if some of these processes continue to offer a physical counterpart, the physical experience is fed straight into a computer. Your purchases are scanned at a checkout in a shopping mall to produce a printed bill. When you walk into a bank to deposit cash or a cheque and the bank teller enters the transaction straight into a computer terminal, then hands you a printed receipt of your transaction. So even if you do not choose to use a computer, someone else uses it on your behalf. The popularity and penetration of computers and the Internet mean that increasingly data about people, companies, and corporations is readily available for computers to process. Our lives are increasingly spent plugged into digital interfaces that record and remember everything.
And now we progress into the supercomputer era, where this digitised information, this data, is collected and processed using supercomputers to offer up deep insights into our real lives. Supercomputers in the hands of superpowers, like the government, are joining the dots, making connections, making predictions, deriving statistics about us. They are reversing the digitisation process to gain insight into our habits, behaviours, and preferences. The individuals named before have come face to face with this new trend and have been hit by the jaw dropping possibilities and power available at the touch of a button. They have decided to expose what they have seen, but they could equally have kept quite, even profited from the information they had access to.
Are we ready for this new age, for this kind of control? How can we be prepared for possibilities we cannot even comprehend? Can we trust the government to always do the right thing? Is true democracy possible if everyone's secrets are known to the powerful few? Are we ready to play God in the information age? Who are the good guys and who are the bad ones and how do we tell the difference?
The answers remain elusive and the future increasingly uncertain.