Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 03/85 item 02 - scanned

A MULTI-USER MEGABRAIN (column)

You're going to hate me for this but I'm going to write just one more piece about Singapore. Two things hit me very forcefully while I was there. The first I have already covered the sense of national purpose and clearly stated objectives for its information technology industry. The second is that I feel we are watching a new phenomenon emerging: Singapore could end up becoming a massive brain. So could the City of London, or London, or even Britain.

A neuron in the human brain apparently has one set of 'wires', the dendrites, which receive messages from other neurons while its own messages are sent out along a different set of branching wires called axons. Neurons talk to each other along these wires and groups of neurons handle different functions - sight, hearing and so on. Put together, several groups like these form a brain. It so happens that brains put together in a team or a brainstorming session generally produce ideas, plans and performance which exceed the summed capabilities of the individual brains. It is the interaction between people's different knowledge bases and experience which produces this 'synergistic' effect.

For the interactions to work properly, whether inside the brain or outside it, the information must flow rapidly and freely. A brainstorming session is unusual because it demands suspension by the participants of their normal judgement. All ideas are accepted and often built upon, no matter how wild or wide of the mark. Similarly a healthy brain is one that is reasonably free of crippling 'hang-up's.

Now to return to my suspicions about Singapore's potential to become a sort of 'megabrain'. For a start the telephone system operates on a different basis to our own. Once signed up for telephone equipment, businesses can make as many local calls as they like at no extra charge. Overseas calls are charged conventionally. Secondly, fibre optic cables are being laid as fast as possible. Given the small size of the country, this means that it will soon be wired for very high speed, 'free' local communications. People won't stop to think about phone bills they'll pay the same whether the phones are used or not. The natural reaction will be to exploit the system for all it's worth.

Of course, telephone linkages will not lead to the brain phenomenon I describe. What is also needed are computers, thousands of them, also connected to the telephone network. What you will end up with is a giant, intelligent machine which comprises the computers, their users, the interconnections and the switching apparatus. The computers will talk to each other as required, information will flow rapidly between the various machines. Invisible conversations will be taking place twenty four hours a day between mainframes, minis and microcomputers. Auto-dial and auto-answer devices will remove the need for human intervention. Because of Singapore's charging policy, use of the telephone system will be pretty uninhibited.

I hear that Bermuda operates its telephones on a similar basis. I really don't know why we don't have a go, unless it's because British Telecom simply isn't able to handle the extra demand generated by such an approach. Maybe it's using price as a way of stifling demand. Imagine what it would be like if we had to pay connect charges for communications between the neurons in our brain or between participants in a brainstorming session. To stretch the analogy further, we don't mind paying for newspapers, books and consultants which are really our mental equivalent to accessing external databases. Similarly, we will still expect to pay for the receipt of certain types of computerised information.

So the scene is set. What's going to happen out there in Singapore, I have no idea. You may remember from the last Reflections that the country is determined to create a substantial software service industry based on state-of-the-art technology. This will mean the development of artificial intelligence, or expert systems at the least. Thus, if its plans come to fruition, Singapore will establish itself as a world leader in the information systems. With its advanced telephone system and sensible pricing policies aiding the flow of information between computers, intelligent or not, it seems highly likely to me that this small Asian country will soon become one of the world's first megabrains.