Written by Dr. Philip Emeagwali
BEYOND THE LAST COMPUTER By Philip Emeagwali
Excerpted from a lecture delivered by Philip Emeagwali at the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago on June 8, 2008.
When the 30-month war ended on January 15, 1970, I was discharged and reunited with my parents. Together with one million returning refugees we walked for three days, avoiding landmines along fetid rainforest footpaths. Eventually, we reached our hometown of Onitsha. It was badly battered by the war.
There my thoughts returned to a love abandoned three years earlier—mathematical physics. This love affair blossomed when I was a refugee in Biafra, —shortly before July 20, 1969—the day man first walked on the moon. While running an errand, I stopped to gaze through a classroom window and saw a physics lecturer writing on a blackboard. It was Newton’s Second Law of Motion: “Force equals mass times acceleration, or F=ma.” Unaware that I had just been introduced to the most important law in physics, I was, nevertheless, awestruck. Newton’s Second Law of Motion is far more important than Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. “E equals MC squared” may be sexier on a T-shirt than “F=ma,” but Encarta lists the three laws of motion as the third most important scientific discovery of all time.
I felt the hard, cold steel of a gun against the back of my head. I spun around and saw my assailant’s finger shaking on the trigger: “Don’t run or I’ll shoot you he said. I was just 14 years old, and death was a stranger to me. It was 1969, and Nigeria was embroiled in civil war. As a teenage refugee conscripted into the Biafran Army, I was forced at gunpoint to carry weapons to the Oguta front. It was a 24-hour, march through mosquito-infested mangroves flooded by the River Niger.
Three hundred and thirty years later, we still do not completely understand F=ma But it is the only formula that is integral to computing’s 20 grand challenges and mathematics’ seven millennium problems. I devoted many years devising a solution to one grand challenge. While conventional wisdom suggested it would be almost impossible to harness the power of 65,536 processors my grand challenge was to prove otherwise.
Initially, the challenge seemed deceptively simple; but in reality, there were so many different tiers of complexity that I sometimes forgot why I was programming those 65,536 processors. In hindsight, I did just about everything wrong before I finally got it right. Research is a high-risk game, but, as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
The complexity of the grand challenge renders it as incomprehensible to laypeople as pages of hieroglyphics or Greek symbols. Concisely, the challenge used the Second Law of Motion propagated along a virtual 16-dimensional hypercubic network to be executed by 65,536 processors. These processors are the beginning of the end. I started at the end because the end is devoid of the complex proofs and dense mathematical language that are unfathomable to non-mathematicians.
This grand challenge earned its name: it was a super problem that required one to think in ways that merge the laws of physics, logic, and numbers in 16-dimensional mathematical space, and to solve the problem by attacking it from three perspectives.
Walk with me as I tell a story that will take you from the Second Law of Motion to the blackboard, to the motherboard, to the mother of all motherboards: a one-of-a-kind computer powered by 65,536 processors. Every scientific discovery begins as a thought. The strategy for harnessing these laws of physics, logic, and numbers has to be conceived and thought out before becoming reality. I visualized the grand challenge problem as a complex game with complex parameters, which I solved using three simple rules. First, I harnessed the power of processors to perform myriad computations. Second, I followed a minimum number of communication pathways to perform a minimum number of communications. Third, I enforced the Second Law of Motion in models of all that flows underneath the Earth. In all, I had 65,536 processors and over one million pathways. The processors-plus-pathways make a computer a supercomputer, and a planet-sized supercomputer an Internet.
I have been asked: “What gave you the confidence to tackle one of computing’s grand challenges?” My answer — fifteen years of putting into practice the athlete’s five P mantra: Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.
In the 1980s, I was a mathematical physicist logged on 24/7 to a 65,536-brain supercomputer on think.com —the third registered dot com ever. It was an unpaid labor of love. I was tormented by self-doubt, a maniac who pushed his supercomputer to its breaking point.
Each one of us must learn to move outside our comfort zones. We learn with each step we take into the unknown. When I was five, my father discovered that I was slow in mathematics. He decided to teach me to solve 100 math problems in one hour. Thereafter, my ability to do rapid calculations earned me the nickname “Calculus” and set me on the path to become a supercomputer scientist who solved one of the most difficult problems in mathematics.
Crossing the frontiers of knowledge to conquer tomorrow’s grand challenges will demand revolutionary techniques. In my new technique, my 65,536 processors perform computations side by side, linked by 16 wires, each corresponding to the 16 sides of a 16-dimensional hypercube. This is the essence of “higher” mathematics: go beyond calculus and mine infinite dimensional spaces.
My multicolored drawings of the hypercube are a feast for the eye; programming them is a feast for the mind. The hypercubic circuitry of the supercomputer left me breathless. I was awestruck by its 16 unique information pathways coming from each processing node. Has there ever been any technology as gorgeously complicated as the hypercube supercomputer? For me, it was love at first sight. It was hypercubic elegance that engaged me emotionally, imaginatively and computationally.
One day, the Internet will become our shared planet-sized supercomputer and individuals will become nodes on the Internet and the Internet, as we know it, will become obsolete and “disappear” into our collective memory. By definition, both the supercomputer and the Internet consist of connected nodes working in harmony. In fact, the supercomputer is more about communication than computation. The supercomputer and the Internet link computation and communication into a congruent whole – two complementary sides of a coin.
As the computer evolves into the supercomputer, and the supercomputer evolves into the Internet, and the Internet evolves into humanity, all that will remain will be a HyperBall superbrain – an electronic, organic Web 10,000 miles in diameter encompassing the Earth. The nodes will be people, embedded in an interconnected network of humanity working as one.
If history repeats itself, the supercomputer of today will become the ordinary computer of tomorrow. This core technology could evolve to become iconic, a masterpiece, a legacy, a legend, and a contribution to civilization. Each new “grand challenge” met becomes another beacon guiding humanity forward into the age of information.
Philip Emeagwali has been called “a father of the Internet” by CNN and TIME, and extolled as “one of the great minds of the Information Age” by former U.S. president Bill Clinton. He won the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize, the Nobel prize of supercomputing.
Africa Must Produce or Perish May 11th,2008May 11th,2008
By Philip Emeagwali
Excerpted from a speech delivered by Philip Emeagwali to the African community in Valencia, Spain on May 11, 2008. The entire transcript and video are posted at emeagwali.com.
The article continues: “The last patch of rainforest will soon be empty land scarred by oil pipelines, pumping stations, and natural gas refineries. Wholesale pollution will be the environmental legacy for future generations.
“Africa’s offshore oil reserves will ebb away. Abandoned oil wells could well become tourist attractions, and oil-boom settlements will be transformed into derelict ghost towns.
“In a world without oil, air travel will disappear, and people will voyage overseas on coal-powered ships. Farmers will use horses instead of tractors, and scythes instead of combine harvesters. As crops diminish and populations soar, famine will grip the globe. With no means to power their vehicles, parents will be housebound, without jobs, and children will walk to school.”
This scenario could become a reality, because we no longer have an abundant oil supply. We know oil exists in limited quantities and that most oil wells dry up after 40 years. It is as certain as death and taxes. Rather than debate the exact year when we will run out of oil, I prefer to imagine that we have already run out. It may come sooner than any of us expect. Our heirs will thank or curse us for how much oil we left for them. Instead of asking, “When will Africa run out of natural resources?” we should ask, “When will Africa be unable to export raw materials, either for lack of our own oil or because foreign markets have themselves dried up?”
A $100 bar of raw iron is worth $200 when forged into drinking cups in Africa, $65,000 when forged into needles in Asia, $5 million when forged into watch springs in Europe. How can this be? European intellectual capital – the collective knowledge of its people – allows a $100 raw iron bar to command a 50,000-fold increase! It could be said, therefore, that a lack of intellectual capital is the root cause of poverty.
Without African intellectual capital, iron excavated in Africa will continue to be manufactured in Europe and exported back to Africa at enormous cost. To alleviate poverty, Africa needs to cultivate creative and intellectual abilities that will allow it to increase the value of its raw materials and to break the continent’s vicious cycle of poverty. Poverty is not an absence of money, Rather, it results from an absence of knowledge.
In oil-exporting African nations, multinationals such as Shell (selling rigs for a 40% royalty on exported oil) are getting rich, while the oil rig workers remain poor. Instead of addressing the underlying causes of poverty – minimal productivity resulting from a lack of intellectual capital – Third World leaders have focused on giving false hope to their people.
We need less talk about poverty and more action to eliminate it. So how do we do this? Education has done more to reduce poverty than all the oil companies in the world. So it is disheartening to realize that few leaders believe that their people’s potential is far more valuable than what lies beneath the soil.
Intellectual capital, not higher wages, will eliminate poverty in Africa. If we all demand higher wages, we will end up paying the higher wages to ourselves. Intellectual capital will result in the creation of new products derived from new technologies. The end result will be not just a redistribution of wealth, but the creation and control of new wealth.
And Africa’s power to reduce poverty will open the floodgates of prosperity for millions of people. One catalyst for such prosperity could be telecommuting. If 300 million Africans could work for companies located in the West (just as millions of Indians do), then both regions would benefit. The strategy would be to recognize the labor needs of the global marketplace, and enable Africa to fulfill those needs.
For example, tax preparation experts living in Africa, where labor is cheaper, could fulfill the needs of US-based accountants. Furthermore, the time difference could allow for a fast turnaround in service. It is clear that knowledge and technology is crucial to alleviate Africa’s poverty.
Africa will perish if it continues to consume what it does not produce, and produce what it does not consume. The result will be a depressing cycle of increasing consumption, decreasing production, and increasing poverty. We are missing a golden opportunity by not using the trillion dollars earned by exporting natural resources to break Africa’s cycle of poverty.
We are at a crossroads where one signpost reads “Produce” and another reads “Perish.” We risk becoming like the driver who stops at an intersection and asks a pedestrian,
“Where does this road lead?”
And the pedestrian replies, “Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know,” the driver replies.
“Then it obviously doesn’t matter which road you take!” replies the pedestrian.
If we adopt the same attitude as the driver, Africa will have lost its chance to “choose” its future.
For decades, power in post-colonial Africa rested in the hands of those with guns, not those with brains. We were not always at war with our neighbors, but we were always at war with poverty. And we spent more on guns than on books and bread.
Africa’s choice is clear: produce or perish. However, it is important that we do not blindly choose the lesser of two evils – producing what we cannot consume or consuming what we cannot produce. We can avoid this. My wish is that by the end of the 21st century high-end products in New York City will sport the label: “Made in Africa.”
We cannot look forward to our future until we learn from our past. Five thousand years of recorded history reveal that technology was ancient Africa’s gift to the modern world. Forty and a half centuries ago, geometers in Africa’s Nile Valley region designed the Great Pyramid of Giza, the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. That man-made mountain remains the largest stone building on Earth. It is an icon of engineering, and testifies that Africa was once the world’s most technologically advanced region.
It is absolutely imperative that Africa regain its technological prominence, which will enable it to produce what the world can consume. When we do that, Africa will finally be eating the fruits of its own labor. When Africa has regained its technological prominence, the world’s leaders will seek it out. And, like a rainforest renewed, Africa will flourish again.
The Graves Are Not Yet FullApril 6th,2008
By Philip Emeagwali
Excerpted from a speech delivered by Philip Emeagwali at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia at the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The entire transcript and video is posted at emeagwali.com.
Walk with me down memory lane. The time: 1968. In 30 months, one million dead. The setting: a dusty camp in Biafra where survivors waited and hoped for peace. The survivors: Refugees fleeing from the “Dance of Death.” My mentor: One of the refugee camp directors, whom I called “Teacher” out of respect.
“Martin Luther King has been killed,” Teacher said, with a pained voice and vacant eyes. I looked towards Teacher, wondering: “Who is Martin Luther King?” I was a 13-year-old refugee in the west African nation of Nigeria, a land then called Biafra. Martin Luther King. What did that name mean?
Eight out of ten Biafrans were refugees exiled from their own country. Two years earlier, Christian army officers had staged a bloody coup killing Muslim leaders. The Muslims felt the coup was a tribal mutiny of Christian Igbos against their beloved leaders. The aggrieved Muslims went on a killing rampage, chanting: “Igbo, Igbo, Igbo, you are no longer part of Nigeria!” In the days that followed, 50,000 Igbos were killed in street uprisings.
Killing was not new to us in Biafra. I was 13, but I knew much of killing. Widows and orphans were most of the refugees in our camp. They had survived the Igbo “Dance of Death” – a euphemism for the mass executions. One thousand men at gunpoint forced to dance a public dance. Seven hundred were then shot and buried en masse in shallow graves. When told to hurry up and return to his regular duty, one of the murderers said: “The graves are not yet full.”
A few days later, with only the clothes on our backs, we fled from this “Dance of Death.” That was six months before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Teacher and I were eventually conscripted into the Biafran army and sent to the front, two years after our escape.
After the war, Teacher – who had taught me the name of Martin Luther King – was among the one million who had died. I – a child soldier – was one of the fifteen million who survived.
Africa is committing suicide: a two-decade war in Sudan, genocidal killings in Rwanda, scorched-earth conflicts in Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, and Liberia. The wars in modern Africa are the largest global-scale loss of life since the establishment of the Atlantic Slave trade, which uprooted and scattered Africa’s sons and daughters across the United States, Jamaica, and Brazil.
Africa’s wars are steering the continent toward a sea of self-destruction so deep that even the greatest horror writers are unable to fathom its depths. So, given our circumstances, Martin Luther King was a name unknown, a dead man among millions, with a message that never reached the shores of Biafra.
Neither did his message reach the ears of “The Black Scorpion,” Benjamin Adekunle, a tough Nigerian army commander, whose credo of ethnic cleansing knew nothing of Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement: “We shoot at everything that moves, and when our forces move into Igbo territory, we even shoot things that do not move.”
As we heed Martin Luther King Jr.’s call, and march together across the world stage, let us never forget that we who have witnessed and survived the injustice of such nonsensical wars are the torchbearers of his legacy of peace for our world, our nation, and our children.
Technology is the Root of All Evil According to history books, gun-wielding European slave traders kidnapped one in five Africans and transported them across the oceans to the Americas. A less visible, but no means less drastic technological tool of suppression, is the compass, a device used worldwide for navigation. In the same way that Britain used its maritime knowledge and the US harnessed its intellectual capital to rule the world, the early slave traders used the simple compass to wreak havoc on civilization.
It is a sad fact that the innocuous navigation tool originated during and was fuelled by the Atlantic slave trade. The technological development of the innocent compass, invented in China for religious divination 2,000 years ago, allowed Africa to be ravaged in unspeakable ways.
It was the compass that created the Atlantic slave trade, enabling the early colonial navigators — and their blood merchants — to chart an accurate course from Gorée Island, off the coast of Senegal, to Brazil; paving the way for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which began on August 8, 1444. This trade in human merchandise covered four continents and lasted four centuries, and serves as a shameful beacon for the depravity of human greed and conquest.
The compass became the de facto weapon of mass destruction, which led to the de-capitalization and decapitation of Africa. It created the African Diaspora with one in five people taken out of the motherland. It was the largest and most brutal displacement of human beings in human history.
Today, it is hard to imagine that such destruction and the wholesale abduction of a race could result from a tool as common as the compass. Yet, as a people who survived the slave trade, we must draw our strength from lessons learned from the past and draw our energy from the power of the future. And the power of the future lies in “controlling” technology and harnessing it for the benefit of mankind, not for his destruction.
The people of Africa must take note that the Internet is our modern-day compass, and within it resides our own clay of wisdom. As we prepare for our great journey into the cyberspace of the future, with its technological promise — its clay of wisdom — we must understand the strategic value and potential of this all-important tool. Our image of the future inspires the present and the present serves to create the future.
Africa’s lack of substantial technological knowledge of the Internet and its potential may lead it to be assaulted or manipulated in unexpected ways, just as it was devastated generations ago for the lack of a simple compass. We didn’t recognize the power of the compass then; the danger is that we don’t recognize the power of technology today. While Africa merely contemplates the future, the West, the quickest off the mark to wield technology’s weapons, actually makes the future.
This fact, and how the power of technology can be wielded against the poor, was brought home to me clearly when I received the following email recently:
“About a year ago, I hired a developer in Africa to do my job. I am paying him $12,000 a year to do my job, for which I am paid $67,000 a year,” the sender wrote. “He’s happy to have the work and I’m happy that I have to work only 90 minutes a day. Now I’m considering getting a second job and doing the same thing.”
Technology in the hands of others has been used to exploit Africa for centuries. But now it’s time for Africa to grasp technology and finally embrace the modern age’s clay of wisdom and advancement. Africa has the chance to show the world how technology can be used for good, not evil. And the people of Africa can use today’s technology, not to mimic their own exploitation, but to right the wrongs of the past and empower themselves with the same tool that has been used to oppress them in the past. Africa can provide a shining example for the world in using technology for its own upliftment and the benefit of mankind.
This time, it is our choice.
Nigerian-born Philip Emeagwali won the 1989 Gordon Bell Prize, the Nobel Prize of supercomputing. He has been called “a father of the Internet” by CNN and TIME; extolled as “one of the great minds of the Information Age” by former US president Bill Clinton; and voted history’s greatest scientist of African descent by New African.
Technology Widens Rich-Poor Gap
Excerpted from a keynote speech delivered by Philip Emeagwali at the African Diaspora Conference in Tucson, Arizona on September 29, 2007. il has made us billions and fuelled our economic stability, but oil has also become the bane of our existence. For some, it is a curse that has caused poverty and corruption, but for others it is an essential source of untold wealth and power. But as the gap between rich and poor countries continues to expand, it is clear that intellectual capital and technology rule the world, and that natural resources such as oil, gold, and diamonds are no longer the primary determinants of wealth.
Surprisingly, nations with few natural resources demonstrate greater economic growth rates than OPEC countries. Japan’s economic growth, driven by technological superiority, outpaces that of Saudi Arabia; South Korea is growing faster than oil-rich Nigeria; and Taiwan’s economy has moved well beyond that of oil-rich Venezuela. The United States and Norway are also rich in oil, yet their staggering economic growth comes from intellectual capital.
In reality, it is not money but intellectual capital that drives prosperity. More important, perhaps, is the reality that poverty is driven and sustained by a lack of intellectual capital. The intimate relationship between intellectual capital and economic growth is as old as humanity itself, and is well illustrated by this parable from ancient Babylon (modern-day Iraq). A man asked his children:
“If you had a choice between the clay of wisdom or a bag of gold, which would you choose?”
“The bag of gold, the bag of gold” the naïve children cried, not realizing that wisdom had the potential to earn them many more bags of gold in the future.
Seven thousand years later, Iraq — the cradle of civilization — has its own private bag of gold as it sits perched atop the world’s third largest oil reserves. Meanwhile, Israel, tucked away in the hostile terrain of a barren desert, has the clay of wisdom — the weightless wealth of intellectual capital embodied in the collective mind of its people.
The striking economic gap that persists between rich and poor nations has increased sevenfold over the past century to what is now an all-time high. The accumulation of intellectual capital by rich nations has helped broaden this gap because it has enabled them to control technology and collect hidden taxes from less affluent nations. For instance, Nigeria pays a 40-percent “royalty” tax on its petroleum revenues to foreign oil companies that are ripping out its family jewels — the huge store of wealth in its oilfields. These oilfields started forming when prehistoric, dog-sized humans — our common ancestor with the apes — walked African grasslands on four legs.
It’s a shocking reality, but the deep oil reserves laid down by Mother Nature millions of years ago and nurtured through the millennia in Africa have been whittled away within decades. And, for the dubious privilege of surrendering its natural resources forever, Nigeria is required to pay half its petroleum revenue in the form of “royalties” to the rich kids on the global block, the United States and the Netherlands. That oilfield has been exchanged for a bowl of porridge, and the black gold that should serve the underserved in Nigeria is helping wealthy Westerners get wealthier.
Today, half the world’s population — three billion people — live on an average of $500 a year. In contrast, Bill Gates earns $500 every second. By controlling technology and taxing computer users, Gates has become wealthier than each of the 70 poorest nations on earth and using his financial might has conquered more territory than Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great combined.
While Bill Gates is the new millennium’s Prince of Technology, he is by no means the first to have taken on the huge potential offered by the realm of technology. The Romans used roads and military technology to expand their empire. And, for centuries, Britain ruled a quarter of the Earth due to its unparalleled ability to command maritime technology and conquer the Seven Seas.
Britain undoubtedly established itself as the world’s first superpower through its rapid and ruthless colonial expansion program. The British raised the Union Jack over Canada and Australia, India and Hong Kong, Egypt and Kenya, and countless other countries — even the United States. The Union Jack cast its shadow in every global time zone, giving rise to the saying, “The sun never sets on the British Empire,” a fact that was cold comfort to the colonized nations.
In the same way, the United States has embraced its technological supremacy, both offensively and defensively, to build its own global empire without a physical presence in any of its “colonies.” The sole remaining superpower is at the forefront of every major technological advancement, which it has used to become deeply embedded in three-quarters of the globe. The US has accomplished a virtual economic colonization manifesting its presence throughout the globe by harnessing the power of technology and capitalizing on its clay of wisdom.
Africa’s inability to realize its potential and embrace technology has left it at the mercy of the West. The time has come for Africa to seize the day and resist the efforts of America and others to leave their imprint and plunder its natural resources.
Numerous examples throughout history support the idea that technology can be used as a tool of oppression. And there’s little doubt that America’s technological advancement has allowed it to exploit natural resources around the world. This is particularly evident in Africa, where the US is exploiting oilfields beneath the pristine rainforest — and being rewarded with a 40-percent tax at the expense of the African people. This lends credence to history’s assertion that those who control technology oppress those who do not, eventually enslaving them and, finally, wielding power around the globe.