Monthly Archives: January 2011

Robert Metcalfe on the Enernet

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons


Last night, I had the pleasure of listening to a lecture by my college’s first ever Professor of Innovation, Dr. Robert Metcalfe. To list Dr. Metcalfe’s credentials would probably take more space than WordPress has, but his main claim to fame is the invention of Ethernet, which is what drives Local Area Networks at some specific location. Until recently, he was a venture capitalist; as he puts it, he was getting tired of it and looking around for a new job when he decided to sell the idea of Metcalfe the Professor.

To a very large extent, he seems like the man for the job: he’s articulate, entertaining, and informative. And there’s no doubt that he has some interesting ideas. After a while I couldn’t help myself; I ended up scribbling notes haphazardly into my book.

The thrust of his presentation was that the energy problem could be solved by applying the same principles that support the existence of the internet (so Internet + Energy = Enernet). At least, that’s what I gathered. He doesn’t seem to be the most adept PowerPoint user — actually, he admits that this is the first ever PPT he’s done, despite founding the company that developed PowerPoint — because a) the colors clash horribly, b) there’s no table of contents, and c) his points are therefore all over the place. This post, therefore, is an attempt at summarizing his talk using my own (perhaps inaccurate) words.

The Blue Movement

Metcalfe opened with an introduction to the Internet era, dispensing dry wit and charm as he spoke about the early days of the Internet: a scattering of computers — “none of them in Texas!” — across the US, huge lumbering machines that spent more time communicating within buildings than between the various hub points, at least at MIT. Metcalfe described the “hardening of categories” that sprung up in the first era, a separation of video, voice and data that proved worthless later on; the Internet now, which is equal parts communication and computers; and the fatal mistake made by corn ethanol supporters, who assumed that the feed/fuel/food equation could be tampered with when they drew upon corn production to develop alternate energy sources.

Then he suggested, perhaps not entirely deadpan, that we’d have to call the Green Movement the Blue Movement: the earth is mostly water, and the Green people seem to be anti… well, everything, including solar and nuclear sources of alternate energy.

Enernet Principles

I liked the use of the nifty comparison table, which listed the corollaries between the factors affecting the Internet and those affecting the energy industry. Metcalfe likened energy and power to today’s bandwidth and information, Carnot’s thermodynamics principles to the Shannon Information Theory, and ergs and joules to bits and bytes.

But these were just the superficial comparisons between the two systems; Metcalfe introduced some other features of the Internet that he said the Enernet could borrow. One was the layering system of the Internet — the seven layers of communication systems, which starts from the physical coppers and proceeds through the Ethernet and HTML to the user applications — which might come in useful for the Smart Grid concept.

And like the Internet, where both downloads and uploads happen, Metcalfe sees the Smart Grid as being a distributed system of users who both buy and sell electricity amongst each other.

Perhaps most interestingly, he predicts that something analogous to Moore’s Law will happen. Moore predicted that integrated circuits would double in density and computing power once every two years or so. That meant that you’d have smaller computers for cheaper money. Now, Moore’s Law is beginning to strain at its limits because at the very small level, quantum side effects become hard to ignore. While we grapple with that problem, however, Metcalfe says his colleague has a prediction of his own: Sachs’ Law, which predicts that eventually the cost of solar cells will fall below the cost of wholesale coal-powered electricity. That’s a big assumption to be making, but it’s true that a bunch of interesting research has come out recently that is driving solar power forward.

It occurs to me that, simply because the Internet was forced to grow so quickly, it was limber enough to develop some standards for itself, whereas the energy industry is entrenched in the status quo (another thing Metcalfe seemed to be dead set against) and is unable to reinvent itself. Perhaps that’s where his talk was headed.

Enernet Research

Metcalfe is not a man who’s short of opinions. Amongst some of his strongest criticisms was the fact that the Department of Energy in Washington was a huge waste of time. His main gripe seemed to be that the research was dictated by politics — he was probably still sore about the corn ethanol fiasco — and the lumbering machinery of government bureaucracy. On the other hand, he suggested that the only companies who have the funds to do corporate research are those which later develop into monopolies, like Bell Labs and Microsoft.

Which, of course, leaves universities and other academic institutions.

These aren’t wholly without taint, of course — I’m sure academia has its fair share of not-quite-ethical corporate tie-ups. But on the other hand, places like UT have enough independent money (I hope) to conduct good research. Metcalfe further says that the competition amongst universities for governmental grants will improve the quality of the results.

Further Reading

Quite a few more of the slides were left out because we only had an hour, but most of the questions were relevant and interesting. It was here, though, that Metcalfe’s technical chops were tested and perhaps found wanting. I don’t mean to say that the inventor of the Ethernet didn’t know what he was talking about, but that he seemed unable to provide technical answers to questions. I don’t know why he didn’t present more technical content to a room overflowing — literally — with computer scientists and engineers. When asked about the potential of the Internet to both liberate and oppress, he seemed rather taken aback. “Is that really happening?” he asked the questioner, who seemed as surprised as he was.

But he had high hopes for nuclear and solar power. Small, distributed nuclear units, Metcalfe asserted, were on their way in, as were more efficient solar cells, perhaps those using photosynthesis methods. He also seems to believe that there will be the proverbial silver bullet when it comes to the Enernet, but he’s been forced to eat his words before, so I don’t think many will hold him to that.

I was a little let down that Dr Metcalfe hadn’t actually intended to present a new world vision or anything, but the blueprints will be interesting enough for several years. You can find the full PowerPoint presentation, in all its hideous glory, here. It’ll be interesting to see how his predictions and prescriptions play out over the next few years. And my main regret right now is that I’ll have graduated by the time he begins teaching his course in the fall. If his humor, intelligence, creativity and boldness are any indication, those should be an interesting three months.

Now if only he could handle PowerPoint.


Rushing The Research

Random sciency image of the week!



I recently read an article (Biomedical research: Don’t let bean counters rule, The Straits Times 10 Jan 2011) on the state of biomedical research in Asia and the problems it’s facing. Ironically, it’s not that institutions lack money but that they’re being pushed to produce results much faster than makes sense. Senior journalist Chang Ai-Lien quotes a researcher at the University of Tokyo, who says “Government officials are the decision makers when it comes to funding but they usually do not understand genetics. They are pressing for short-term results because they have to show progress during their term in office.”

This is a point that was brought up both during discussions in my science writing class as well as in a more personal discussion with my cousin who’s working on his PhD. It seems as though the increasing complexity of science has created both investors who are unable to grasp the finer details, as well as the effectiveness that attracts investors in the first place.

What I find particularly interesting, however, is this line: “Asian scientists grumble that they are hampered by their own governments’ red tape, unreasonable expectations and infighting.” The first and the third are pretty much given, especially in countries where there might be a lot of monetary padding, shall we say, to carry the research through. But it’s important to consider where the unreasonable expectations come from. What government officials are exposed to is the media; what the media portrays can be wildly optimistic, premature or downright inaccurate. If their information comes from the media — and they may not exactly have time to pore over Campbell and Reese — then that’s what they know.

And that’s why inaccuracy or over-optimism in the media hurts investors/governments and the scientists themselves who are trying their best.

As the article itself mentions (in passing, and almost obliquely; this appears to be a “response” to an article in Nature called Singapore’s salad days are over), Singapore has itself begun to go down this route. While before, it seemed as though money could be given to any worthwhile project (in itself a loaded assessment) without much concern as to its immediate industry applications. But now, the tides are turning and the government’s apparently obscure regulations have researchers scrambling to find industry partners and put together applications because the Powers That Be want to see results.

The thing is, science doesn’t really work this way. Sometimes it’s not clear until much later what the applications of something can be. For instance, the effects of radioactivity on the human body weren’t well understood, but that didn’t stop some enterprising people from marketing radium as tonic water, perhaps even as toothpaste. That was quackery, but now it’s being used as cancer treatment, although of course with plenty of side effects. And no amount of media reporting or governmental regulations or industry partnerships will be able to magically uncover the true and full nature of some piece of research — without the extra effort being put in by the scientists in question. On one hand, the additional attention could lead to more money and further research and perhaps earlier discoveries. On the other hand, researchers could be pressurized into publishing shoddy work.

We like to think of science as something above and beyond human pettiness, as though there were some vast treasure trove of “real truths” waiting to be discovered. That might be so. But the practice and perceptions of science are a completely different and entirely human matter. They’re influenced by the people doing the research, the politics of the institution, the money and regulations that investors and/or governments throw at them, the way the media portrays science’s successes and failures… a whole host of things, in fact.

That might make the whole edifice of science and science reporting and researching suspicious; certainly the transparency of science reporting cuts both ways. Either science is discovering a million things in a week or it’s furiously contradicting itself about chocolate or wine or coffee or all three. Or both. The confusion’s understandable. But it’s exciting at the same time, and I like to think of the possibility of working in a field that, despite everything, is always on the lookout for the next big thing.