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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: It's our brains that lack bandwidth
You've been told...
In his debut column for silicon.com, world-renowned technologist and entrepreneur Professor Peter Cochrane addresses the first of many contradictions in the digital world. Why do telcos baby their customers - could it be they're waiting for us to catch up with the technology?

All of my life in the industry I have been a spectator to, and participant in, interminable discussions and debates on bandwidth. Back in the 1960s it was: "Why would anyone want 2Mb?" Later that became 8Mb and then 32Mb and then 140Mb followed by 565Mb, 2.4Gb and then 10Gb.

Today it is clear 40Gb systems are viable and we have 160Gb and higher on the horizon. At each epoch the debate rages - why do people want bandwidth?

The demand appears to be insatiable and industry response irrational. Suppose, for a moment, a telephone operating company was to sell cars. In the showroom they would have something exciting like a BMW 7 series. The salesman would come over. He would be very nice to you. He would tell you all about the vehicle. He would take you for a drive and you would be convinced it is what you want. But at the moment of signing the cheque he would stop you and ask a fundamental question: "What do you want the vehicle for?"

Should you reply: "I will be using it to go to Sainsbury's on a Friday night to collect my shopping," he would push you over to the other side of the showroom to try and sell you the latest Smart Car for a fraction of the price with, of course, a fraction of the space and performance.

No car salesman in a real garage asks you what you want a car for and what you are going to use it for but the telecommunications industry habitually wants to do just that. It is nothing to do with them. They really do need to take the attitude - if someone asks for 2Mbits, you sell it to them. If they want 8Mbits you sell it to them. You give them what they want. This is what a real business is supposed to do- JSI (Just Sell It).

Of all the things we can manufacturer bandwidth is the cheapest. Our productivity with software is still only around five per cent per annum. On hardware it's well over 60 per cent per annum and for bandwidth it's in excess of 85 per cent per annum. And the cost of bandwidth falls exponentially every year, faster even than PC RAM, hard drives and clock speed. So why do we hoard it?

Where does it all go? I look at it like this: when we communicate we do so through our eyes, ears, skin and olfactory senses, all of which are surface area related. The flow of information itself is to do with surface area. In contrast our processing of information, our thinking abilities, our reasoning is to do with the volume of our brain, which is volumetric and contains some 10 to the power of 10 interconnected neurons.

Now from your high school days, I hope you can remember that surface area is related to radius squared and volume is related to radius cubed when we are dealing with something that is spherical. For the purposes of argument and simplification I am now going to assume the human head and entity is spherical in nature. Given we are head dominated from an I/O point of view this is not a bad approximation!

So we have information flow going up as R^2 and creativity going up as R^3. As an intellectual exercise you might like to plot those two functions on a piece of paper and you will find that for R less than or equal to 1, R^3 is smaller than R^2 but once R is greater than 1, then R^3 goes up much faster than R2 and the two functions have crossed over forever.

Why is this important? What can we infer? Well it goes like this - there comes a point when our communication ability limits our creativity. Our creativity becomes bottled-up and constrained. This applies to all intelligent entities and networks when the volumetric thinking capability is far, far greater then the ability to communicate.

If we were to put in a few seconds delay into a human conversation it soon becomes stilted and worthless. If we constrain the bandwidth of a speech path, a la the telephone, we remove the emotion and the value of a conversation is diminished. Our rate of thinking is related to our rate of communication. Slow down communication and you slow down thought and creativity.

Today that is what is happening in industry, education, office and home, and it is beginning to cripple society. Comparing different countries and cultures there are clear and remarkable differences in their ability to create wealth and adapt to new technology.

Only 10 years ago we were waiting for the next slice of technology as our abilities were clearly limited by technology. Today the converse is true: the technology is waiting for us. Waves of new technology are now arriving faster than we can subsume and adapt and we have become the limiters of progress. Bandwidth is not just the exception it is a primary cause!

This column was typed on an Apple G4 Laptop and sent from a coffee shop on 55th Street NY over a publicly available 11Mbits wireless LAN costing $20 for 200 minutes.