Monday, 10 August 2009

Run in with the Santa Fe Institute

Over a year ago, I was working in finance and strategy in New York City when I decided to change what I was doing entirely, and join the Open Source Hardware and DIY Hardware and Physical Computing movements. I had no idea it would have such an effect on how I think, and what I now think is important. It’s been a crazy ride, and it’s resulted in meeting more people than I ever could have imagined. I’ve even gotten a chance to travel to some amazing places to talk about Open Source Hardware, and the future of computing with scientists and engineers who know much more than I do.

I’m not talking about the Silicon Valley type of “future of computing”: smaller, faster, lower power x86 architecture. Don’t get me wrong, Silicon Valley is great. But it’s all about gunning for incremental improvement on the same architecture that computers have been running for years.

About a year ago, I started asking myself, I wonder what the future of computing is? Are we going to be using x86 architecture machine with motherboards and processors and ram chips and graphics cards forever? I wondered who’s actually thinking about that problem fundamentally, or differently than the mainstream group of people publishing in the old ivory tower institutions like some of the ones up in Boston, for instance.

I made a list of people and places I wanted to go, to meet with people and ask them, “what is the future of computing?” “What is the future of computation?” “What is the future of structure and architecture?” “What is new and different in computation?” “How will the future get developed: in a company? In an institution? By a community of Open Source hackers?”

My list of people to interview was pretty long, but included a few places like the Cambridge and Oxford College, MIT, Stanford Institute, Santa Fe Institute, the Army War College, Los Alamos Labs, NASA. So basically, a bunch of places out of my league. But I figured, why the heck not? So I made a bunch of phone calls, and found some very interesting people. Some of them were snotty, others were full of themselves, but almost everyone I met had one thing in common: they were defensive and protective of their ideas. It didn’t feel right.

Then I found the Santa Fe Institute. It’s a think tank in the middle of New Mexico, perched up on a hill overlooking desert and shrubs. And there are all kinds of people there who share one thing in common: asking weird questions about the future of algorithms and computing in ways that no one else does.

So I flew there, and spent a week and a half sharing ideas, talking to people about my problem, and meeting all types of researchers from different disciplines and fields of study…

And that’s how I met David Ackley. Over the next 6 months, Dave and I and the guys at Liquidware had some pretty deep, intense, and off the wall conversations about the future of computers.

And since we’re all hackers at heart, we decided to do something about it: we started a project called, appropriately, “The Santa Fe Project.”


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