Won't someone PLEASE think of the hard drives?!

Publication date: 21 July 2009
Originally published 2009 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


People tend to think that the time and place in which they happen to be living is, well, normal.

Whatever they normally do during the day - fetch water from the well, walk the fence to check for wombat holes, coordinate the Resistance against the Machine Empire - is an unremarkable thing to do, and anybody who wants to change things will be considered as crazy in a hundred years as they are considered today.

So in the future, our descendants will look back on these crazy people who say you shouldn't own slaves, or these hysterical suffragettes who say women should be allowed to vote, or these filthy deviants who say homosexuals should be allowed to marry, and laugh.

Or not.

Sometimes I amuse myself by trying to figure out what things are normal today, but will in the future be considered as strange as sacrificing a bull to ensure a good harvest, or stomping cloth in fermented urine to clean it.

I think cars, as we know them today, will seem very strange in the future. The complicated engines and gearboxes of current cars will probably seem a bit weird when one or another kind of electric car has taken over, but that won't be the thing that'll really freak people out. People in the future will, instead, be amazed that these huge metal things were zooming around under the direct control of human beings.

Under the control, moreover, of human beings who quite routinely get drunk, try to swat insects on the windscreen, fumble with the car stereo, have sneezing fits, or just calmly and confidently instruct their vehicle to do something that results in it spinning off the road or veering into oncoming traffic.

Result: More than a million deaths, worldwide, per year.

The current "road toll" here in Australia is around 1500 deaths per year, trending downward, for a death-rate per 100,000 people of about 7. In 2006, Great Britain scored 5.4, the USA scored 14.7, and China was roughly even with Australia - but since China only has a double-digit number of cars for every thousand inhabitants, their fatality rate per distance driven is appalling.

(To digress still further: About 1500 deaths per year means, of course, an average of about 29 deaths per week, or about 4.1 per day. Bear this in mind when you see news reports about the horrifying "holiday road toll". If 56 people die during the "holiday" period defined as the start of the 19th of December to the end of the 2nd of January, that's 15 days, over which period you would expect 61.6 people to have died! Such reports aren't completely fallacious, because the death rate per distance travelled over the holidays, when people aren't commuting to work, is significantly higher; the roads really are more dangerous during the holidays. But the actual number of deaths is unremarkable.)

It is, as usual, much easier to point out this sort of problem than it is to solve it. In theory, the safest and most elegant solution would be an "intelligent transportation system" that manages all the cars on the road in the same way that centrally-controlled driverless railways work, only much, much, much more so. But such a system would be very expensive and difficult to integrate with the vast numbers of normal automobiles, and could easily also be an immense invasion of privacy.

So, instead, autonomy is sneaking into cars in a piecemeal way. It's been doing this for years - I think the automatic gearbox technically qualifies as an autonomy technology, as do anti-lock brakes and stability control - but real self-driving features are starting to turn up now. Lane-departure warning systems, Brake Assist and other pre-crash and anti-collision systems, autonomous cruise control and other speed-adaptation systems - oh, and automatic parking, too.

Thanks to all these things, not to mention crumple zones and better roads, it's amazing how safe human-directed cars are today, just as it's amazing how reliable internal-combustion engines now are. But people are really not well-suited to driving cars. In the future, when you just tell a car where you want to go and it takes you there, people will, if anything, be surprised by how seldom fatal accidents used to occur.

An analogous, though rather less bloody, situation exists in computing. (You knew I was going to say something about computers eventually, right?)

I think people in the future will be very surprised that computer users used to store important data - often all of their important data - locally.

Local storage gives you the convenience of access to your data that isn't limited by the bottleneck of your Internet connection. But this is like saying that the cinema gives you the convenience of seeing moving pictures without having to set up a projector and screen in your house, change reels every 11 minutes, and carry all those huge, expensive cans of highly flammable film around.

Obviously, going to the cinema was greatly preferable to that alternative, in the days before television, if you weren't a millionaire. But then TV came along and everybody could watch movies, and umpteen other shows, at home.

Likewise, local storage is greatly preferable to, say, sucking a gigabyte of data through a 100-kilobyte-per-second DSL connection every time you want to play Fallout 3. And consumer hard drives get bigger and cheaper by the week.

But local storage is also endlessly troublesome. It's practically a cliché that people don't start making proper backups until they lose some valuable and irreplaceable data. And even after people do start making backups, they often do the job in a dangerously sloppy way, especially if the last time they lost data was a couple of years ago.

Umpteen people - and umpteen corporations, come to that - have insisted that Real Soon Now we'll all be back to the old mainframe client-server model, where your "computer" is just a terminal that sends input to, and gets output from, a big computer that lives somewhere else. (And dinner is protein pills, and you fly your personal helicopter to work.)

I think the key change that'll make real "cloud" computing possible, beside faster Internet connections, will be the dispersion of the old mainframe into the same sort of fault-tolerant distributed system that makes Gmail trustworthy today.

There are already Internet backup services and Web-hosted applications, but normal computer users still keep pretty much everything on their home machine. If they make backups, they probably keep all of those in their house, too. Moving data online won't make it impossible for you to lose it, but it'd really be quite difficult for it to be as unreliable as what most people use today.

One problem facing ubiquitous cloud computing is the same one that faces automated cars. If you introduce a new computer technology that conclusively prevents a huge amount of data loss, or a new transportation technology that unquestionably saves a vast number of lives, you're still going to get sued by anybody who loses data because of a failure of the new cloud data storage system, or sued for rather more money by the family of the first person who dies because of a failure of the new transport technology.

The computer-data version of this problem is smaller, if only because data loss doesn't usually kill anybody. It's also a lot easier to deploy a cloud-computing data-storage setup than to automate a nation's roads.

Whenever ubiquitous reliable non-local data storage arrives, it won't be a minute too soon. The world now buys hundreds of millions of hard drives every year, so I bet a lot more than a million drives now die every year.

The kids of 2050 will wonder how we could tolerate such carnage.

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