Friday, August 22, 2014

Gulliver’s Travels—A Book That Influenced Me by Philip Emeagwali

The first novel I read was "Gulliver's Travels." Jonathan Swift wrote it in 1726 as a satire and parody of humanity. In the novel, Gulliver was shipwrecked in Lilliput, a land of tiny and small-minded people. I read it in 1963, sitting on the veranda of our house on Gbenoba Road in Agbor, Nigeria. My father had hailed it as a “classic” and persuaded me to read it.
The novel made an impression on me because it enabled me to travel in my mind to a fictional place created by a writer that had lived two-and-a-half centuries earlier. At the time, the farthest I had ever travelled was to Onitsha, my ancestral hometown, about an hour away. And Lagos, our nation’s capital, seemed as distant as the North Pole.
Over the years, although my interests shifted from science fiction to non-fiction to my own discoveries, Gulliver’s fantasy travels have remained a metaphor for my journey to the terra incognita of the supercomputer that is connected as an internet. My imagination pushed towards the undiscovered territories of computations and communications performed at unimagined speeds with techniques and technologies that were yet to enter into textbooks.

My Journey to the Frontiers of Internet
To me, those discoveries and inventions were like islands that could not be found on a map. In my mind’s eye, I journeyed to where the fastest computations and communications occur—the two-to-the-power-of-16 (or 65,536) sub-computers connected as an internet. I mapped my sub-computers onto the 65,536 vertices of a hypercube that is a metaphor for an internet in the 16th dimension.
The 6-inch tall Lilliputian of Swift’s journey represents my sub-computer. And the Lilliputians that overpowered Gulliver represent my sub-computers that outperformed a supercomputer and solved a grand challenge problem.
Communicating seamlessly and synchronously as one cohesive units, Those sub computers computed 65,536 times faster than each working alone.

My Journey to Lilliput
Today, the frontier in communications is the internet, which performs the fastest communications possible. At the crossroads of computation and communication, a unit of time is calibrated at one billionth of a billionth of a second. It is called an attosecond, which is defined as one quintillionth or ten-to-the-power-minus-18 of a second. Gulliver’s journey to Lilliput is my metaphor for computations and communications executed within a quintillionth of a second.

When I was a boy in Africa, I travelled with Gulliver in my imagination to Lilliput and Brobdingnag. Growing up, I became an explorer in the “fictions” of new ideas. At the frontiers of science and technology, the discoveries and inventions are Lilliputian or Brobdingnagian proportions. Fantasy influences invention and innovation, just as ideas precede journeys of discovery. In the 1980s, hypercubic supercomputing in the 16th dimension was a science-fictional fantasy, a genre that encourages the technologist to go where no one has thought to go before. For me, performing a calculation or sending an email within an attosecond was a destination that began with an idea as fantastic as Gulliver’s travels to Lilliput.

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