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Question: What is cloud computing, and what do you believe its future will be?

David Gelernter: The idea of the cloud is that I compute on many platforms in many places.  I use many different machines, either because I have a machine at home, a machine at work, because I have a couple of laptops, maybe I have a cell phone which itself is a computing platform, a pod, a pad, a Blackberry or whatever it is, there are a lot of different platforms.  I travel; I need to compute in a lot of different places.  So, for practical reasons, rather than taking my information and putting it in the file system on my new laptop, or on my machine at home, or on my cell phone or something like that, it’s much easier for me just to let the information float off somewhere so it’s always sort of overhead, or some intangible place around me and I can tune it in, in the sense that I can tune in C-Span from any TV, cable connected TV, I want to be able to tune in my information and be able to see it from any internet-connected computer.  It’s important in terms of portability; it has other major pragmatic advantages, some of which have not yet been fully realized.  It still is an enormous nuisance to buy a new computer, which is absurd.  Why, when I get a new computer it sits in my front hall for three weeks while I work up courage to install it.  I usually wait until one of my sons is home so he can do the work for me because, although it should be trivial, what I want is to get a new computer, take it out of the box, plug it in, take a sledge hammer and smash the old one to bits, and I’m online.  But because the cloud doesn’t really function the way I want it to yet, one has to copy, painfully, the entire file system from one computer to the other computer, even if one rigs up a special connection that’s a nuisance.  One always winds up missing things. 

So, anyway, you need a cloud because you have a lot of computers.  You need a cloud because you often get new computers that are born empty.  Maybe most important, you need a cloud for security.  More and more of people’s lives is going online.  For security and privacy, I need the same sort of serious protection my information gets that my money gets in a bank.  If I have money, I’m not going to shove it in a drawer under my bed and protect it with a shotgun or something like that.  I’m just going to assume that there are institutions that I can trust, reasonably trustworthy to take care of the money for me.  By the same token, I don’t want to worry about the issues particularly with machines that are always on, that are always connected to the network, easy to break into.  I don’t want to manage the security on my machine.  I don’t want to worry about encryption; I don’t want to worry about other techniques to frustrate thieves and spies.  If my information is out on the cloud, not only can somebody else worry about encryption and coding it, not only can somebody else worry about barriers and logon protections, but going back to Linda and the idea of parallelism and a network server existing not on one machine, but being spread out on many, I’d like each line of text that I have to be spread out over a thousand computers, let’s say, or over a million. 

So, if I’m a hacker and I break into one computer, I may be able to read a vertical strip of a document or a photograph, which is meaningless in itself, and I have to break into another 999,999 computers to get the other strips.  You know, or it may be more computers than that.  The cost of computers is going asymptotically to zero, of course it will always cost money to connect them and keep them running and stuff like that, but not only for matters of convenience, which are very important, I need to be able to get my data anywhere on any platform, but even more for privacy and security when people talk about a cloud, they mean information that’s available on any platform managed, not by me, but by responsible—by an organization in whom I can place as much trust as the institution as my community or my city that patrol the streets, that bank my money, that generally keep civilization running.  They need to do the same thing with respect to the information landscape and privacy and security and so forth.

Recorded on April 1, 2010.

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