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Friday, 19 October, 2001, 07:40 GMT 08:40 UK
Bringing computers to life
IBM is working on ways to help the net become more self-aware
Soon the net could be healing itself
IBM has unveiled an ambitious initiative to develop technologies that share the basic biological abilities of living organisms.

Senior researchers at the company said the growing complexity of computers and networks demands that the technology does a better job of maintaining and healing itself.

The researchers warn that without these efforts there is a danger that networks will soon become unmanageable.

The company is backing its initiative with its own research program, a series of grants to universities and efforts to make other computer companies sign up.

Grand challenge

This week IBM is sending 75,000 copies of a manifesto written by Paul Horn, senior vice president of IBM Research, that details the aims of its Autonomic Computing initiative.

Mr Horn warns that humans are losing the battle to manage the increasing complexity of computer systems and networks.

This complexity is only going to increase as computer technology shrinks and finds its way into ever more devices.

If the current rates of the expansion of digital technology are maintained, soon there would not be enough people to keep the world's computer systems running, he said.

He called finding ways of handling this complexity the next "grand challenge" facing the technology industry.

In the manifesto he said: "The growing complexity of the [technology] infrastructure threatens to undermine the very benefits information technology aims to provide."

Ideally future networks should resemble the autonomic nervous system which maintains and monitors many basic bodily functions without conscious help.

Global power

The autonomic nervous system maintains blood sugar and oxygen levels and monitors temperature. It adjusts the body's heating and cooling systems to keep body temperature hovering around 37C.

What is needed, argued Mr Horn, are computer systems that do a much better job of configuring themselves, can work around disruptions, heal any damage they suffer or fight off potential problems.

IBM is planning its own research programs to create technologies that can turn relatively dumb networks into smarter alternatives.

It is also planning to spend millions over the next five years funding 50 research projects at universities to take on the complex challenge.

The likely outcome of the project is a series of software standards that define how to build software or hardware that has these more biological properties.

IBM is working closely with the Global Grid Forum. This industry body is driving efforts to turn the disparate computing and research capabilities of the world's science labs into a shared pool of resources that anyone can plug into.

This effort is already driving the creation of software that hides the individual quirks of individual machines and instruments behind common interfaces.

See also:

12 Jun 01 | Sci/Tech
Fast chips with bigger bits
02 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Computing power on tap
15 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Half the internet is going nowhere
29 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Doing science by stealth
28 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Powering up the Grid
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