Living creatures are among the most fascinating and complex information systems on our planet. During your life, nearly every cell in your body will be replaced many times over. But somehow, through a variety of processes (some well understood, others still a mystery) you remain a coherent information system, with your memories and form remarkably consistent over decades. And the mystery of how such complex systems arose is one that is still debated today.
The most common picture of the birth of life on earth conjures up steaming seas, with a a hot broth of chemicals combining and recombining, fueled by the energy of their hot environment, until the magic of life emerged. But a new theory of life has been bandied about lately, positing that the complex molecules that underpin our existence formed in cold, not heat. Remarkably, the physics that could lead those simple particles of ice that form the clouds over our heads to become crafter of a living world sound much like the physics that apply to our early clouds of computing. And those physics could lead the new clouds of computing to perform a similar function, driving new levels of connection and innovation into the world of information.
So how do ice, clouds and the future of information come together? Let's explore.
The common wisdom is that cold is the enemy of chemical reactions. Cold temperatures mean less energy, slowing down the processes that could lead to the combinations of simple molecules into more sophisticated ones (and eventually to ones that could reproduce themselves and set the stage for life as we know it). But something interesting happens when water containing those simple molecules freezes. The molecules don't stay in the ice, but get forced into ever-smaller pockets of water trapped in the ice. And as they get forced into tiny spaces, the molecules come into closer and closer contact, pushed together more times, in more ways, than ever before. With the increased density of molecules comes more chances for interaction than was afforded by the relative isolation each had experienced dissolved in the open water. So, as temperatures dropped, the simple molecules spread evenly through the expanse of a primordial sea became high concentrations of molecules in confined spaces, creating unexpected but credible conditions for life.
Is my point still seeming a bit cloudy? I don't blame you. But let's think for a moment about the physics in cloud computing. What computing clouds promise to do is take the vast volumes of information spread through the expanses of our digital oceans, and concentrate them more deeply than ever before. As they concentrate, we can only imagine the new combinations that will be attainable. Today's relatively simple combinations of information will have chances to join together to create more sophisticated ideas, insights and information systems than ever.
There's one difference between formations of ice over our heads and the sort of clouds of computing billowing on our horizon-- information clouds don't have to sacrifice energy to gain concentration. As security, privacy and information management concepts continue to mature, even the most massive and informationally intense clouds will be able to inject new energy into their own systems. More energy and more concentration will further accelerate the fusion of information into new, sophisticated and unforeseen outcomes.
So while those scientists wresting over the birth of life have to choose between fire and ice, those of us witnessing the birth of the next revolution in information productivity are in a far better place. We get to have our ice cream cake, and eat it too.