Computational biology and more...

Month: February 2019

The Fragility of our Civilisation’s Knowledge…

In my more pessimistic moments, I consider it likely that, driven by climate change and the inevitable conflicts that will follow, our civilisation will collapse over the next 50-100 years.

The totality of human knowledge, history and civilisation used to be stored on a medium that had been shown to be stable over hundreds of years:  Paper.   Until just a few years ago, the core of human knowledge in science, the arts, social development and so on was replicated in libraries across the globe as well as in private collections.  Replication protected the backbone of our civilisation from localised disasters brought on by climate or war.  Today, the same knowledge and more is stored on electronic media that is vulnerable in ways that paper never was and is inaccessible to a human being without multiple layers of technology to read it.

Having worked with computers for over 30 years I am a bit obsessive about doing backups to multiple locations and media.  My work-related research data, writing, presentations etc are all on redundant disk arrays that are backed up nightly to tape in two geographically separate locations.  Personal stuff like my 80 or so thousand photos is stored locally and on at least one cloud provider.   I replicate my laptop to two bootable external drives in two locations.  Companies take securing their data against disaster very seriously since the data are central to the success of their businesses.   Data replication technologies are routinely used to secure against disasters in one location, so you might say all is well?  Unfortunately, it isn’t!

Clearly, the many advances that have occurred in the modern world are absolutely dependent on computer technologies.  With each passing decade, the possibilities for creativity and for understanding expand thanks to the increasing sophistication of computers and associated devices.  My entire career has been built around such developments!  Now the research outputs we produce are mostly stored and made available only through electronic media on the web.

Unfortunately, our reliance on computer technology makes the archive of human knowledge and expertise acutely vulnerable to disaster.  Yes, data are replicated around the globe, but how well this is done is patchy and often unknown to the end user of a service or repository.  For example, I have no idea how robust the infrastructure is that this blog is written on! 

Even if we accept that all the data services we rely on are robust and replicated across the world, civilisation’s knowledge is highly vulnerable to major events that might impact the network of computer systems.  Networked systems are built on a pyramid of technology from the electricity generation and cooling to the data centre, the hardware, firmware and software running on individual computer nodes and storage devices, to the high-level applications that users interact with.  Central to keeping the pyramid working is the human expertise and ingenuity that builds and maintains the systems at all levels.  This expertise is in itself dependent upon those same systems – after all, when was the last time you consulted a paper manual?

While once, a human being could leaf through boxes of dusty records or books to seek out knowledge from past generations, a future archaeologist aiming to learn of our civilisation’s treasures would be left with decaying ranks of hard disks.  Even if functional and an access device could be made, those ranks of disks would be impossible to decode without knowledge of the underlying architecture and encryption methods.   In the unlikely event that an entire data centre was powered up, the lack of knowledge about how to log into the system would defy access.

Civilisations rise and fall.  If our global civilisation does go the way of so many from the past then little will be left for those that follow us to rebuild from.


Save Civilisation – the planet will be fine

Here’s a cheery little post for a Sunday evening!

We often hear people talking about what we can do to “save the planet”. Really though, what is meant is “Save Civilisation”.  If the nations of the Earth continue in the way they are currently, then we will see a collapse in the incredible civilisation that has built up over the last few hundred years.   To the planet, the period of industrialisation, fossil-fuel burning and waste will be just a blip on a billion-year history.  The planet has coped before with catastrophes and will cope with what humankind has done to it.  Life will go on, but human civilisation as we know it won’t survive.

We know that human action has led to climate change. We know what we have to do to counter this and how urgently, but nothing is happening fast enough.  The nations of the world bicker about internal politics like Brexit in the UK and the Wall in the USA and worry about “threats” from each other for dominance in the markets but ignore the impending disaster brought on by our actions.

It is wonderful then to see children across the world reacting to this threat and showing they have a voice through marches and school strikes.   Like many others, they realise that if urgent action is not taken to tackle climate change then it is their generation that will live through the depravations brought on by the neglect of the current rulers.

As ecological change hits, then whole populations will become unsustainable where they are.  It will be harder to provide water and food for millions of people and we will see migration on a huge scale.  This will lead to humanitarian crises and conflict over resources and lands where water and good crop growing conditions still exist.   In the worst case this will lead to all-out war, with increasing desperation leading to the use of nuclear weapons by smaller nations threatened by those such as the USA with massive armies.

This won’t just be a crisis for developing nations.  Rich countries will need to cope with hugely increased demands from migrants, but within rich countries like the USA there will be critical resource issues in areas affected by drought and the loss of biodiversity.  This will lead to massive migration and starvation within the country as regions become unsustainable for crop growing and human existence. 

Rich countries around the world are currently reacting to perceived threats from increasing immigration, but these are nothing compared to what will come with ecological changes that will happen over the next 50 years.  In my lifetime, I am sad to say, I will witness the breakdown of the great global civilisation that has built up over the last few hundred years as increasingly desperate groups look to preserve and protect what they have, rather than work cooperatively to find the best solutions for the majority of the world.

The sad fact is that we are already seeing this inward-looking protectionism in Europe and the USA.  Couple this with a “head in the sand” attitude to the unequivocal scientific data about climate change that has been building for decades and we are doomed.

It is very sad to think that this apocalyptic future is all avoidable, but we seem powerless to act fast enough to have any real effect.  I’m sure that ancient civilisations had the same problems, vested interests in locations and ways of life blinded those in power to the impending disasters of drought or sea level rise. Civilisations fall, it seems likely ours will too,  but the planet will be fine.





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