The Promise and Entropy of Information
Here we are again on the threshold of the future. Is it “Life After Google” or “Life After Capitalism?”
Can we even see the future if we remain in the thrall of the fashionable pathogens of materialism and paranoia?
Can we even measure our economy or fathom its amazing opportunities if we fail to come to terms with the information theory that defines computer architecture, communications science, internet topology, biotech systems, immunology, and pharmacology?
In an earlier prophecy, I wrote that the three great technological developments under way are the rise of artificial intelligence, the dominance of silicon “compilers” and “foundries,” and the replacement of serial computer processing with massively parallel processing.
If you ask me for examples today, I would cite the artificial intelligence at Google or Baidu, the silicon compilers and foundries at TSMC or TSEM, or the parallel processing graphics chips from Nvidia. Used at a thousand datacenters.
But none of these companies had even been founded when I wrote this article. I found it rummaging through a cardboard box holding an old stash of papers in my office, as I looked for stuff to throw out to make space for new dailies.
A yellowing pile of 19 pages of prose from the late-1980s, it was a product of the period when I was researching and writing my book of microchip history and prophecy, Microcosm: The Quantum Era in Economics and Technology. I typed the article on a Tandy “trash 80” portable computer from Radio Shack containing a Z-80 central processing unit designed at Zilog Corporation by Federico Faggin and Masatoshi Shima.
Lessons from my Tandy
Faggin and Shima were two immigrants to the US who had previously built the first microprocessors at Intel. Full of immigrants and with vital overseas labs and later foundries in Kiryat Gat in Israel, America’s leading microchip company presumably was a devastating force of unemployment in America.
I loved my Tandy anyway. It was the first really portable computer. On it, I could write an op-ed for Bob Bartley or Jude Wanniski on the Wall Street Journal editorial page and immediately submit it to their New York presses from my home in Western Massachusetts through a modem attached to my telephone. No printing, mailing, or post office needed.
The Tandy had a small oblong window that could display a few lines of text (perhaps 16 as I recall). In the unusual event of a print-out, as in this aged article now in my hand, it came from a primitive machine like a teletype with a fungible font that failed even to adapt to the different sizes of letters.
The article’s title was “The New Economics of Technical Change.” It began with a protest against the tendency of market-oriented economists to assign technical change to an “exogenous” domain, outside the economy.
Rather than a function of entrepreneurial creativity, prevailing economic models saw innovation chiefly as an effect of government planning. It came from research centers, Pentagon projects, and university laboratories. Independent inventors played a role defined and enabled by the patent bureau.
Recent forays into the theory of economic growth have only slightly improved on this understanding. Paul Romer of Berkeley won the Nobel Prize in 2018 for his concept of entrepreneurship summed up as “assembling and reassembling” combinations of chemical elements. Matt Ridley’s new book on How Innovation Works defines his subject as the thermodynamic conversion of entropy into order through expenditure of energy.
All such concepts strike me as expressing the “materialist superstition,” the idea that the universe can be summed up by the laws of physics and chemistry. I call it the “flat universe theory.” The corollary is that human inventions result from physical laws and material resources rather than emerge from unique human minds.
In my recent speech to Emsi corporation (Economic Modeling Specialists International) of Moscow, Idaho, I referred back to my book, Knowledge & Power, of 2013, describing a fateful exchange with Bruce Lusignan, then a professor of electrical engineering and the eminent chairman of Stanford’s radio astronomy department. A giant in the field of radio communications, he had 16 patents and had designed key transceivers for satellites and cellular phones.
I had recently come from a new company called Qualcomm corporation in La Jolla, California, where I had interviewed founders Irving Jacobs and Andrew Viterbi. They had told me of their new technology for wireless communications called Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA). It was a method of sharing and thus multiplying electromagnetic spectrum.
At the time, the reigning expertise regarded spectrum as a scarce physical resource like “beachfront property,” to be protected and parceled out in exclusive bands through Federal Communications Commission auctions.
Qualcomm’s leaders said no. Communications spectrum was a product of human ingenuity inventing new lasers, masers, mixers, radio-frequency transceivers, filters, and other devices that provided carriers for information. These carriers could be shared by the use of codes and modulation schemes which in turn could be rendered more effective through information theory.
In order to share spectrum it was necessary to digitize and scramble messages, including sounds or voices, across a wide band of frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum. Later called “cognitive radio,” this method was used in wireline, fiber optic or wireless systems.
Lusignan told me that this system could not work: “It violated the laws of physics.”
Spread spectrum communications, though, transcended physics and chemistry to operate at the level of information. In particular, CDMA depended on the information theory of Claude Shannon, who had proved that digital systems could use spectrum at least twice as efficiently as analog did.
Irving Jacobs projected that CDMA could uses the spectrum thirty times more efficiently than the existing time division systems (TDMA) could.
In a hierarchichal universe of information, ideas and designs come first, not physics and chemistry. Physics and chemistry are the low entropy predictable carriers — the boundary conditions — for the projects of entrepreneurs and the creativity of inventors.
The materialist superstition of a random and material universe devoid of mind is an enemy of creativity and enterprise. Investors have to transcend the boundary conditions of materialism and grasp the promise and entropy of information.
Editor, Gilder’s Daily Prophecy