The great flaw of Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy is that he was designed as a piece of hardware instead of as a platform. If he had been networked and built with software-defined infrastructure - if he had access to hyperscale datacenters - he wouldn't have had to be so depressed.
Smart doors, smarter robots
There was a sliding door let into the side of the corridor. Marvin eyed it suspiciously.
“Well?” said Ford impatiently. “Do we go through?”
“Do we go through?” mimicked Marvin. “Yes. This is the entrance to the bridge. I was told to take you to the bridge. Probably the highest demand that will be made on my intellectual capacities today, I shouldn’t wonder.”
Slowly, with great loathing, he stepped toward the door, like a hunter stalking his prey. Suddenly it slid open.
“Thank you,” it said, “for making a simple door very happy.”
Deep in Marvin’s thorax, gears ground.
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
Artificial intelligence before the dawn of hyperscale
Marvin The Paranoid Android is a fictional robot invented by Douglas Adams in 1978. His defining characteristic is depression. He’s way too smart for the menial jobs assigned to him. Meanwhile, he’s regularly annoyed with other artificially intelligent creatures, such as talkative automatic doors, which lack his vast knowledge base and computing power.
At one point, Marvin’s human friends accidentally leave him behind. They travel in time, billions of years into the future, only to find Marvin still active, waiting for them. He has passed the time walking in circles.
Adams was a brilliant satirist, but he miscalculated how long Marvin would remain useless and depressed. Marvin would need to wait only a few decades—until the advent of hyperscale cloud computing.
Marvin’s biggest design flaw is not the row of diodes on his left side (which have been giving him pain his entire life). It’s that he was designed as a piece of hardware instead of as a platform. He has a “brain the size of a planet,” but it’s a brain that never gets used to full capacity. That’s because Marvin’s brain is available to work on only the tasks that he happens to be assigned by the people right in front of him.
In other words, Marvin has a hardware-defined infrastructure. His capacity for compute and storage are great, but they stay exactly the same all the time, regardless of whether he needs them at any given moment.
In this regard, Marvin is comparable to a traditional performance-optimized datacenter (POD), in which a single customer has been permanently allocated enough resources to handle that customer’s peak workload, even if (as is likely) that peak is reached only a small percentage of the time. Sadly, we never find out what Marvin was actually designed for, and he never comes close to engaging all his abilities.
If Marvin had been deployed as a platform, he might have been able to utilize software-defined infrastructure (SDI). With SDI, resources are allocated only where they are needed. The 99 percent of Marvin’s brain that he didn’t need himself could have been put to use in other situations, all across the galaxy. (The galaxy is big, but with the optical backplane, messages can be sent at the speed of light.)
Marvin also wasn’t networked to other devices, which explains his unhappy interactions with so many of them. He doesn’t like talking doors. He complains that he once had nothing better to do than to converse with a coffee machine. When he does physically connect to other devices, they don’t know what to make of his vast capacity. For example, Marvin plugs into the onboard computer of a vehicle that is pursuing his friends, and the vehicle “commits suicide” when it gets a glimpse of life as viewed from Marvin's perspective; it can’t handle the scale.
The future of industry is smart
It’s been only about 40 years since Marvin was invented, but if the story took place today, he might have been happier. When Adams was writing about Marvin, science fiction readers were familiar with smart devices. But before the internet era, writers usually did not depict those devices as networked together. There were many advanced “things,” but there was no Internet of Things (IoT).
But now there is. Smart doors, coffee machines, and vehicles are part of a vast network—the infrastructure that powers the Networked Society. As that network grows, it will rely heavily on machine-to-machine communication. And that data won’t just be coming from smart doors and coffee machines.
More advanced and critical devices, such as heart monitors and jet engines—the components that make up the industrial internet—will generate exabytes of upstream data. To process that data will require AIs with compute and storage capacity like Marvin’s. And the hosting of those AIs will require hyperscale datacenters utilizing SDI.
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