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Cameron and Tracey Hughes

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

Can Fifth-Generation Computer Systems Solve the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Crisis?

May 26, 2010

In the early days of expert systems there were several Fifth-generation systems that dabbled in expert knowledge, problem solving, and decision making with respect to oil, minerals, geology, etc.

There was Prospector developed at Stanford Research Institue that helped with the analysis of the mineral potential of a geological site, used to aid geologists, in the evaluation of ore deposits.

Dipmeter was used to determine subsurface geological structures. There was something in the early '80s that the French oil exploration company, Elf Aquitaine, used called the DRILLING ADVISOR. It was developed by a California-based company called Teknowledge. DRILLING ADVISOR was designed to function as an oil expert with respect to shutdowns caused by drilling problems. The system used information about the geological formations at the site, conditions of the current problem, and historical information about other problems experienced in the past. DRILLING ADVISOR then (so they say) performs a diagnosis of the problem, produces a recommendation to correct the problem, and further provides advice for changes to current practices to avoid the problem in the future. It seem like we could use DRILLING ADVISOR right now in the Gulf of Mexico.

Then there was a little system called LITHO developed at Schlumberger (Clamart and Montrouge, France), that was used in the interpretation of various data recorded during the drilling phase, cores, cuttings, geographical data, seismic information, X-ray measurements, plugs, drilling parameters and logs of data.

These were -- are (a-hemm...) -- systems endowed with knowledge and in some cases expert level knowledge that enhanced human performance, analysis and problem solving. These systems were pretty typical of the early Fifth-generation computing systems. They were problem solvers, planners, analyzers, interpters, decision makers. These early Fifth-generation systems offered a potential sneak peak at the promise of artificial intelligence.

What happened? Where is the modern day Prospector? DRILLING ADVISOR? Why isn't Fifth-generation computing being used to solve the oil spill crisis off the Gulf of Mexico? (Or is it?) If there ever was a job for massive parallelism and the most powerful computers available, this oil catastrophe is one. The current estimate is 5000 barrels of oil a day. In the first 30 days, 150,000 barrels at 42 gallons per barrel, upwards of 6 million gallons of oil has been released off the coast.

There are two critical questions and problems that we would like for our Fifth-generation computer system to answer and solve:

  • How do we safely and efficiently stop the current release of oil into the Gulf?
  • What is the impact of 6 million gallons of oil on our eco-system and what do we do about it?

Well, there are a few immediate mathematical models that come to mind:

  • Computation models that deal with microbial populations
  • Natural gas and oil flow models
  • Coastal models of hydrodynamics, wind fields, soil slick trajectories
  • Ocean current models, and other oceanographic models
  • Oil burning and smoke cloud modelling
  • Habitat and food chain contamination models
  • Pollutant Fate and Transport Models
  • Oil spill models

Notice, that I didn't say come to my mind. On a good day, I would have probably suggested a few other (probably more specific models). But these are the kinds of models Tracey would get caught throwing around. Make no mistake about it though, these models are computationally intense, with thousands of variables in some cases. Where is the Fifth-generation computer system when we need it most? This oil spill has reached the level of a catastrophe for marine life, coastal waters, and the Earth's eco-system in general. After 30 days it appears that BP and other scientists and mathematicians still don't have the answer. It is not possible for a single individual or small group of individuals to digest, interpret, analyze, and then synthesize all of the mathematical models and simulations that are relevant to this catastrophe and then apply an effective and efficient solution (at least not without the help of some serious computing power). Herein lies the rub. What kind of computing power is required? How much?

What about the cloud with all those clusters of Intel 7s and AMD 6-6-core Opterons with a quintillion terabytes of memory? What about all that potential for massively parallel computation? Surely we should be able to submit our two problems to the cloud and get back an answer in a timely fashion right? What good is the cloud if it can't rise to the occasion in the cases of natural disasters, calamity, and castrophe, when humanity needs it most? Some of our colleagues have said if it weren't for the cloud we wouldn't have made the progress that has been made thus far (Progress? Could things be worse?). According to them, the cloud has allowed researchers, engineers, and scientists from around the world to collaborate and work on solutions to this catastrophe. Alas, here is where the rubber meets the road and believers and non-believers of Fifth-generation computing part.

In the early '90s (late '80s in some cases), many in the West pronounced the Japanese Fifth-generation project a failure. There was an early grab for the low-hanging fruit that the project did produce. That low hanging fruit, combined with the brand new shiny World Wide Web was enough to satisfy the sweet tooth of many that were waiting on the promises of the Fifth-generation project. So instead of intelligent operating systems, sitting on top of massively parallel intelligent hardware, the industry and the on watchers settled for the easy-to-use GUIs, distributed global networking, easier computer communications, and PCs complete with multimedia ear and eye candy. There was an subtle, implicit shift for the use of computer power. Instead of using the computer power for autonomous artifical intelligence problem solving and control, the computer power was used to make it easier for people to communicate, easier for people to solve business problems, easier for people to store and retrieve multimedia of music, movies, pictures, and ideas. The symbolic computational power and potential of the computer was traded for its storage-retrieval and communication features.

But now in 2010, we face some of the most complex problems in human history. The debate on global warming and climate change, what to do about nuclear waste or nuclear proliferation, new energy sources, catastrophes like the Mexico Gulf Spill, shortages of natural resources, disappearing habitats and wild life extinctions, space junk, South Park and the Xbox. The original Japanese Fifth-generation project was on to something. They were trying to fuse artifical intelligence, symbolic processing and problem-solving with massive parallelism and smart hardware into what was called a Fifth-Generation Computer Sysem (FGCS). Tracey and I are convinced that FGCS is the way to go.

Although the cloud facilitates communication, presentation, distribution, storage and retrieval, it does not have any reasoning, thinking, or problem solving capabilities. Therefore, while the cloud may turn out to be necessary, it will never be sufficient. It is obvious by the scope and complexity of the Gulf of Mexico oil catastrophe (happening right now as I type), that FGCS are exactly what the doctor ordered. When Tracey and I evaluate processors like the Intel 7 and the 6-core AMD Opteron, we see the potential for massive parallelism, symbolic processing, smart operating systems, and artificial intelligence fused together to build problem solving FGCS clusters. FGCS clusters that could answers questions like:

  1. How do we safely and efficiently stop the current release of oil into the Gulf?
  2. What is the impact of 6 million gallons of oil on our eco-system and what do we do about it?

We are hearing voices today from the ghosts of Icot, the ghosts of Propsector, Litho, Dipmeter, and DRILLING ADVISOR. Those voices are telling us there is enormous untapped potential in this generation of new processors that are being released by Intel and AMD. And part of the secret to releasing big chunks of that potential lies within the artifacts of the Japanese Fifth-Generation Project.

But then what do we know....

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