Transcript van Splunter

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CN: So here we are, on the 27th of April, with Sander van Splunter, at the Free University of Amsterdam. So Sander, welcome, thank you for talking to us. Can you please explain me first what you do?

SVS: I am a researcher at the IIDS, I am finishing off my PhD on the reconfiguration of services.

CN: Can you put it in a voice so we can understand it?

SVS: So basically, I have been investigating how complex software can adapt by itself. In current approaches, if you want to have self adapting software you have to put all the adaptations within the software as a pre-programmed. We wanted to see if we could extend the range of it, and if the software could think on itself on how it should change and how it could decide which adaptations would still fit in the intention of the software. And also to see whether a local small change has an effect on the whole system. That’s what we’ve been looking at. We have been applying it on crisis management, and now we are looking at the energy market; to see how it handles dynamic situations in that perspective.

CN: So before we go into the autonomous systems, can I ask you, you have been working in technology for a long time? Like many hours a day in front of a computer. So what happened to you? How did it change you?

SVS: It made electronic communication a lot easier, much more dependable, basically you have the tendency to prefer electronic communication more than before. But on the other hand, if you are confronted with this communication that much, you would like to avoid certain kinds of communication. The instant messaging can be like a …

CN: Intrusive.

SVS: Yes, so it is also about finding a balance between creating a digital working environment for yourself and having communication enabled. So some people do really like to have Skype and all kind of chat programs on all day, but I am a bit distracted by that.

CN: So did it change your internal structure? If you remember yourself before you worked with computers.

SVS: Well, before working with computers, I was already in contact with computers, so it is not something completely new. But, yes, it has changed internally.

CN: I am trying to pronounce how the material changes you, you change the material, but the material also changes you. So how does technology change us? So what happened to you, you must have thought of it like when you were eighteen or so.

SVS: You start doing research in informatics. It is mainly focused on interaction with the computer itself. I think what has changed is searching for a balance between computer work and other ways. Sometimes it can be easier to work something out on paper than watching at a screen and trying to get some sense out of it there.

CN: So are you saying there was a first fascination, but then you learned to balance it?

SVS: I am still learning, I think, to balance it.

CN: So it is something that attracts you, that sort sucks you in?

SVS: Well, I mean it’s also the end result of what you’re doing, and it is what I am doing, often it should be in the computer. Either paper or a programme, you want to question data and surely you want to have it somewhere electronic. So the end result should be in the computer. Where as structuring the content would be best done on the computer. It might probably be easier to talk to someone and see what they think and structure your mind by just talking, instead of drawing diagrams. It is not always, I mean I have the tendency to go to the computer but it is not always the best option.

CN: So can you describe to me, like I come from Mars, what is the world of a computer? What happens when I am in the world of the computer? Of the technology, what kind of world is it?

SVS: It is relatively a simple world, but the problem is, well, if you go to a regular computer, then basically you have a number of programs with which you can interact, you have documents en there is Word, and basically you have a standard set of options. If you are working with technology a bit more, and computers, you could get the tendency to know more programs and know more options, so you get sucked into it more. You find out what is the use of programs, like ‘Oh I can do this or that’ and you get a bit more control. So the problem is actually from a relatively top down device as humans want some interaction, and there are a number of people on the computer and they just use them and you learn to change more. You get adaptation out of the computer and through your own work environment and I think if you see my colleagues Thomas and Martijn, they will all have their own desktop and way of working, which is more part of them than, I mean, they can’t live without it.

CN: And if you compare working or programming, or designing stuff, in the technology and you compare it to cooking? Is it the same?

SVS: With cooking I follow the rules, to the disappointment of my wife.

CN: So you don’t follow rules while you design technology?

SVS: Well, I am more experimental with the computer than with cooking, which is good for the result.

CN: So let’s talk about this world of technology. So there are rules, and the rules you can break, you can explore, change, so I would like to understand the tuning. There is a tuning between you and the machine, that is happening, and I would like to discuss the four dimensions. So let’s start with time. So you, as a human being, you have a rhythm. So what is the rhythm of the technology? Or what is time in computers?

SVS: Well basically time is a mainly, well, it’s a problem, it is a-synchronous. If you distribute your programs, time can be an issue, because you can’t keep track of time. Well basically, you have two locations in the history, you can’t always be certain that you keep track of the same time. There will be a discrepancy between your concept and perception of time. For computers, of course, time is not as influential as for humans, as in day- and night rhythm; they are always available, which is also one of the issues in my research. We are humans and we are not always available. That kind of adaptations would be interesting. So that the computer could keep on functioning, if humans are not available. So for computers time is also much more on a smaller scale. I mean, we have a meeting for an hour, if the computer is busy with one job for an hour; it is a very big job. Well, what other aspects are there?

CN: The experience of time. No for example pain, if we have pain, one minute is huge, when you are in serious pain. While when you’re waiting for the bus, one minute can be very short. Or if you have to finish a task, it is very short, one minute. So one minute has different identities. How is it in the computer?

SVS: You have of course also different identities for computers, I mean, some people can get really bugged by a longer short time than one minute, if we went into the waiting for a few seconds to start up your new programs, getting your page up. For programs itself the interaction with other computers you can also have time response issues. When we drew a conclusion that another computer is dead, you have to guess, if you don’t get a reaction from another PC then you’ll probably not connect anymore.

CN: So time is actually the sign of life.

SVS: It is one of the things on which you assume life.

CN: And this response time and this a-synchronicity, that’s developed because of distributed work, can you imagine that this becomes a rhythm? When you make a rhythm, it’s OK. Like if I have a slow beat, I don’t mind because I know the beat will go on. It doesn’t ask for attention anymore. While when I am waiting for a program to open, or to connect, it is not a rhythm, so it is endless.

SVS: Well in many cases it has a rhythm, for example, if you want to know whether another computers still lives, you send a message every once and a while to say ‘I’m alive, I’m alive’, as long as it functions correctly, you’re in that rhythm. When you are out that rhythm and you don’t get the message back in time then the problems arise. You could say the computers are indeed rhythm based for regular transactions and if something disrupts the rhythm then either something new happened, or something went wrong.

CN: And how does the rhythm of the machine connect to the rhythm of a human being? I don’t feel the computer has a rhythm, only in the old days when I had the modem with the bliepjes. I was very happy when the bliepjes went ‘bliep bliep bliep’

SVS: Yes but you still have the start-sound of the computer, which is some kind of a rhythm. But how does it connect to the human? Well as an individual it might connect less.

CN: As an individual system or human being?

SVS: As an individual human being. You can also see that your interactions, and if you look at the large scale distributed systems like the Internet and look at a request of Google, which interacts with other white pages that does connect with a human rhythm. At least the news sites, they have a certain rhythm. They are sort of back and forth requested. Where certain hours are more popular, at those times you get more serving though these sites by employees who just want to know what happened. Those interactions do have some kind of rhythm, which connects to a larger scale.

CN: With your energy project, and please describe it in 2 sentences, rhythm is also an issue.

SVS: Yes always

CN: Can you describe the project?

SVS: We try to look, if you have distributed solar panels and windmills, distributed energy which is produced and also consumed also by computers, in the current system we have big central energy suppliers, it is just a push-based model. They just provide and we consume. If we have more distributed production of energy there is much more inflow throughout the whole system and we want to see whether we can also consume it local. To do that, you also want to see the rhythm of the whole system. And see whether there are local patterns that you can provide locally.

CN: So if the whole street drinks coffee at 8 in the morning and all the coffee machines are on, so you can anticipate this moment.

SVS: And the other perspective will be that if you know the whole street would like coffee at 8 AM, could there be some kind of negotiation between the coffee machines tem selves and for example all start between 7.30 and 8 AM so you distribute the peak load.

CN: If you think about the rhythm of a human being and the rhythm of the machine or the system. So you have three things: a human being, a machine and the system. What instrument would you pick? Is it s harmonica, is it drums, what kind of rhythm is it?

SVS: Total chaos I would say. As humans we have a rather stable rhythm. The users of computers are also relatively stable. The computer itself? Normally it functions quite well. Maybe it is a boring rhythm.

CN: It is a boring rhythm?

SVS: Well normally it will function OK. When things go wrong then, and that is more my preference to see when things go wrong in a situation.

CN: So what is the sound then?

SVS: Well when computers function normally it would be the sound of a fly.

CN: Like a fly?

SVS: Yes and probably it flies fast. The system could be a colony of bees, which of course have these fluctuations and they kind of group together. The human would be something slower, more regular, the harmonica might be it.

CN; I think this rhythm question is very interesting because the moment the rhythm is there, energy flows. So I try to understand it. Once I worked with an Indian tabla player, and any a synchronicity between two places – we did experiments- he just changed the rhythm, there was no delay. For him it was never delay, it was just a different beat. And this is very interesting, if you can now the bridge between the beats, you can design system between human beings and autonomous systems.

SVS: If you have an experienced tabla player, who is used to improvising, he listens to the rhythm and adapts his interactions. If you have a group, also as a group they have their interactions. You need, you assume some kind of roles. If everybody starts adapting at the same time, may be something new is created, but also it might be too much change at the same time. How do you keep a nice piece of music in the end?

CN: But what is very interesting of what you say is that there is a source where the music is heard, where the delay is heard and from that source the adaptation starts. His ear is very different developed than mine, so he can hear rhythm. Can a computer hear rhythm?

SVS: Only if we learn it to do so. The problem is we do not know because we can relate to a tabla player, a human tabla player, by assuming that his experience of the world is similar to ours. We can also hear his music, we might not understand the rhythm as good as he does, but we have a sense of it. With computers we have to create their sensory environment and that is something that is really difficult. Because if you talk to the tabla player, you can explain at least to some level, how he experiences, how he feels. You can say, he has an aggressive rhythm. With the computer, something like ‘aggressive’ is hard to relate to.

CN: If you say aggressive, sorry I interrupt you, you mean vital to live, what do you mean with aggressive?

SVS: With an aggressive rhythm you may have drums and base or something like that. But it is very difficult to get something on the sensorial level of a computer. The computer has a modem for example, it has information flowing in, the CPU, the hard disk, that is the body of a computer. It is difficult …

CN: The question is whether that is the body of a computer? We can argue about this. I can also say that the tabla player is 70 % water and we call him a tabla player and not a 70%water thing. So maybe we should not call the computer a CPU, it is may be the 70% water identification of a human being. So maybe the computer is not the CPU. Because, because of its capacity, it is going into a different realm of beings.

SVS: This is a nice philosophical statement. It is difficult to know what kind of entity it then is. Because it is difficult to relate to that entity. And how much do we model that entity by our selves and what is actually in it.

CN: OK let’s go to the place dimension. How does place function in computers, in machines and systems?

SVS: Place used to be limited, the place of a computer was defined by the localilty of its input. With a mainframe you had a bit of distance, with a personal computer you had it on your desk and type in there and so. That was the place of the computer. In a network environment it is less evident. We can now access computers on the other end of the world and even onwards. You do get experiences of delay; you have to have some sort of communication. How does place influence computers? They can be reached fairly easy.

CN: They affect place.

SVS: They do affect place

CN: Many places are very affected by computers. So there is always a story of the computer has no more place, the network is everywhere, but actually the network is present in many places. So place also changes the network.

SVS: Indeed. The other problem is the availability of data. Google has these large containers with a lot of computers in it, which need to be located together because there is a lot of parallel processing going on at the same time. And they have to go through a whole lot of data, which present at that location. If you wan to have the same interactions somewhere else, where the data is still stored in Groningen and Utrecht, and the manipulation is done somewhere in America, you have to get all this data over the network and that may not be efficient. So the availability of data might also be one of the aspects of location.

CN: Data are located. They are not somewhere in the air, they are always somewhere.

SVS: Yes, and also with privacy and sensitive information, location might also be important. In distributed environments it might even be more important. You might have trusted environments and non-trusted environments. In trusted environments you might have other interactions, which are ‘trusted’ at trusted hosts, than in un-trusted environments.

CN: And how is trust connected to place?

SVS: Currently it is just a list of places, which says trust or no trust.

CN: How do you mean?

SVS: Currently you either have a trusted third party, for example McAfee, they have site filters and sites are flagged with ‘evil site’, so to not trust. But basically it is based on a list of locations, checked whether it is trusted or not. In peer-to-peer environments, where computers communicate without a regular structure, there you have more experience based trust. You have given a file to me and then I can give a file to you. And if you give me so many good files, then I will trust you. So then it I more experience based. The problem is for humans it goes quite well. If I have a lot of good interactions with you, it is an investment of your time. If you do that just to frame me, at least it is a lot of work for you. For a computer it is not so much work. You can send a few files and then turn evil.

CN: Place is the beholder, whether it is a real place or an imaginary place, it is the beholder of culture. What would be the culture of systems and computers and what are the values in this culture?

SVS: If you say place is the beholder of culture, it is so in our environment. As humans we are very location oriented. If we build something it is on a specific location. If you design something on a computer and you do it in the right format, you can send it off to others. I don’t know if …

CN: May be you can see it as the culture of the cloud of the network, the culture of he swarm of the bees. For example feedback and response is very important.

SVS: I mean that is something to keep the network together. And there is some level of trust needed, if you only look at the domain names. The few top domain servers, we are forced to trust them, even though most are in American hands. So we are forced to trust them though they have the power to redirect all sorts of router information to other parties. So in some sense the computer environment is not completely autonomous by itself. It is still dependent on humans who provide the infrastructure of communication.

CN: So may be transparency is a value? What values do you see happening in there?

SVS: One of the other points is the push and pull of transparency, traceability, also privacy. All these peer issues and access of data, should everybody know to what kind of information you are looking at? Should everybody always get all the information that you have published on Hyves-networks? So the control of data is something that is some kind of cultural value that remains very difficult. And the computer network is also overgrowing national boundaries. From a law perspective it is a difficult and very interesting environment. Cultural values, which are only bound to locations and humans and safeguarded as you can always say “we do it like this over here”, we adhere to it and it defines most interactions in that location, in this country. So you have a kind of culture. In the network environment you don’t. You are always transgressing boundaries and you also get cultural clashes on privacy issues, data retention, do governments inspect where data is going? Is all communication monitored?

CN: So you actually say that the values of the system are very much defined by the political and economical cultures of where they execute their power?

SVS: Yes, I think so. But on the other hand if you say as a government you are not allowed to write propaganda, as an individual you still have access to the whole network, so also to part get around it.

CN: I really want to focus on the network itself. So you said traceability, transparency, and privacy. Are there others like this?

SVS: Well, security is one thing.

CN: I there also a sort of simplicity? I always hear things like this person really writes beautiful code and this person does not at all.

SVS: simplicity is mainly understandability. If it is too complex you can’t handle it. From an adaptation perspective maybe simplicity might be something. You want to understand the relation of your program, or small subset, to its environment, which is difficult to grab. So simplicity might be one of the things you at least abstract from a program. These are the main points that are designed and what are the basic aspects we need to retain. What are the degrees of freedom?

CN: So how would you call that as a value, this making of distinctions that you do? It is like hoofd en bijzaken. You always decide this is important this is not important.

SVS: That is so bound to the user and the environment. Sometimes what could be really an important item for a user has so many consequences from a technical perspective, which are also then very important issues and it is difficult to relate these to this human preference through all the technical preferences. If you have adaptation you have to have both the human and also the technical side. The mapping between these two dimensions can be quite difficult because it means that you also need to have the implications of the human preference through all the technical aspects.

CN: So lets go from here to witnessing. The human witnesses the system. How do we witness? If you take the assumption that we have communities of practice among systems and people, how do we witness and what is the witnessing capacity of the system?

SVS: If we start first with how humans witness the system, it is all by the grace of the designers of the system. Maybe it is a bold statement, but on a very low scale, level you either have the pop up on the screen saying ‘something went wrong, sorry’, you have the error-logs, some observations of the system should be transformed into something the human can understand in either files as in our case, messages on a screen.

CN: But I mean witnessing is like pre-linguistic. So for example one of the other people we interviewed, Jogi, said because of the mobile phone I don’t make decisions anymore. He recognized the concept that changed in him because of using the technology. It is like Kuhn’s statement that we have to recognize spatiotemporal trajectories, which are pre-linguistic, before you go into interaction, how could we understand this with machines? Between humans and machines?

SVS: If you mention the mobile phone, there is also one thing which is the changing of the capability of the equipment. It is easier to get email via your mobile phone ad therefore get interactions with machines and observations of machines. You can get messages, like you get new mail when you are at home. That has changed.

CN: So it becomes more one world

SVS: Yes, how acceptable is it to turn of your mobile phone or not check your email? In some environments it might not be acceptable. There is also a need to witness.

CN: Yes and when is that?

SVS: It depends on your environment. On the one hand it can be expected to witness, and it might also be fun to witness, that is the other part. If the system itself keeps adapting in a dynamic system, it might be interesting to keep witnessing even though looking at it might not give new information. It is just the observation of the dynamics, which is also fun. Because then you get into the rhythm and if I go back to the first part, if there is an interesting rhythm to observe, then it becomes fun to observe it. If you can also have some interaction, a way to react on the rhythm …

CN: Very nice. Lets take the next one: action. Words act in our lie of business. Words are deeds, comments are deeds, a lot of code is written in languages, which become deeds. What is the difference, what is it when words are deeds?

SVS: Well in the computer environment it is one of the ways to communicate with the computer itself. Through instructions it is a natural way to communicate with the computer itself, but it is not always as much interaction but you expect it will be done. The computer is not assumed to be too autonomous. So in that way words are assumed to be deeds by the computer itself.

CN: So the computer receives them as deeds. It is not my idea; it is the computer who receives them as deeds.

SVS: It is a very command structure of interaction on a basic level. If you get to a more agent based system, you also assume autonomous software programs then there might be a slight distinction between words and deeds itself. Then you can also have beliefs, desires and intentions, which you can state for a program; what view it would have and what it thinks the world is like.

CN: So you actually define what kind of actions are related to what kind of words. So you have small deeds, and big deeds and large deeds.

SVS: You could make that distinction, but it is not regular. And it would be nice to be able to do so.

CN: But for me as a human being, I am still in this community, just to talk is like being alive. I talk just to be in interaction. There are other moments where I have to really say something. It is a very different feeling and it is also a very different language. Actually I like talking for interaction and I don’t like talking for deeds.

SVS: Yes

CN: Where you spend most of your time using language for deeds?

SVS: With computers, Yes en No. If you are writing down your research, it is also… it feels like interaction.

CN: Yes

SVS: While actually it is just getting your ideas out, which could be the same for programming for some people.

CN: With what do you interact? Or with whom do you interact?

SVS: If you try to create a concept and if you are writing down research, you are trying to capture all your ideas in words on paper to give it to others. The same goes for programming. You want your ideas on how things interact in a program for others to further interact with them.

CN: So would you say it is more engineering or it is more linguistic?

SVS: What would be the difference?

CN: Well the difference would be that the system is like I can make a pot in pottery, so that I communicate with you because of the thing I make. Where if it is language it is a different level of communication, a different level of abstraction.

SVS: Yes. So the root would be engineering within computers.

CN: So it is the pot of the pottery.

SVS: Yes I do think so. But I think that also in engineering you get a layer above it. If you are constructing it is not just the mechanical act of construction. It is also the interaction with the material and to try to create some ideas with it. You always have a creative layer on top of it. And that might come close to something like to express by which you could get more to the linguistic aspect. If you communicate just for communication, if you say something like “I am here” or “this is me”, this also could be a result of something in engineering.

CN: Can I tell you a little story of Jogi? There is the story of the potter and the potter is centred because if he is not centred he cannot through the clay on the wheel. And the wheel also centres the potter. So the potter and the wheel make a centred pot. The pot gets centred by the wheel and the potter. And then the pot goes to the woman and the woman carries the pot on her head and the pot centres the woman and because there are all the centred women with centred pots there is a centred community. And he argues that being centred is necessary tot sustain life. So where would centeredness be if you imagine you make the system? Because you say there is the level of engineering and there is a level above, or maybe within

SVS: This is something we are still trying to reach. If you write emergent computer programs with emergent behaviour which create a rhythm by itself and you also have the human society with a rhythm, and try to interact, and if you would like to make this centring because then those two environments can come together.

CN: So what is the centre then? That is the point where it comes together?

SVS: It might not be the point where it comes together, but the point where coming together makes sense.

CN: What does a system have to do to get there?

SVS: Basically it requires a bit of understanding of both sides. On the one hand we need to know what the needs of society are. On the other hand I need to know how this interaction of systems, and previous systems, how does it interact to get to this needs of the society. And how can it get some kind of rhythm in there. So can you in an emergent system, you basically want to have a dynamic system which is being handled by itself, this is something that can be difficult to model. One aspect is a control problem on the systems side.

CN: But the interesting thing is that the potter and the clay, it is really hard to model clay, come on, to make a pot out of clay, it is really hard and it can also carry water and all those things. So apparently there is another value, which centre the pot and the potter. It is like you said, there is appoint where coming together makes sense and that is actually dependent on what both need.

SVS: Yes.

CN: So lets go to the last dimension, we have only a few minutes left, the dimension of relation. There are all kind o relations between people. The potter is an example of how things and material also change people. Do you have any idea about the levels of relation? I mean in computers everybody, and you also, try to group relations and how to do all that. What have you learned?

SVS: Indeed, you have relations on many levels and the same goes for computers. We have relations because of work; we have relations because of interaction, maybe because of religion, maybe nationality, all kind of relations.

If you want to reason about relations you have to make them explicit, that is one of the challenges wit the system part. I have to say it correctly. If systems want to reason about relations, the system has to have the right specifications. We can think about relations for the system, but the system needs to make them explicit. So what is difficult for a system to do is to think of relations themselves. If we can define some kind of function to it, it can assess relations. For example if you send a message and you directly send it back, you have a response time. Because of the response time you can have an assumed location. You can say this machine is close to me and this machine is far from me. It needs a function to assess a relation.

CN: Let me ask you the question differently. Is there anything that is not a relation in a computer?

SVS: You could smash everything down to relations. Indeed, you can program statements, have some kind of syntactic structure, so basically you have a relation of terms. And instructions are coupled to specific hardware directions. From that perspective, it would be all relation based. Indeed. But where does that bring us? The difficult part is that we can understand some kind of syntactic relationships, we can reason about that. But if you want to abstract from that and get the previous reasoning on a higher level and performing tasks by itself, it also need to understand these tasks and it needs to understand how relations to perform a task relate to itself, to syntax and that is difficult to obtain in a system.

CN: We have two more minutes. So you go from syntax to performance. What happens in that route from syntax to performance?

SVS: Performance is always based on and limited to the application and we have a human who assesses. There is some kind of dimension-defined performance. If you are searching for a certain book than the result is more important than the response time.

CN: So there is no inner quality to performance?

SVS: It is always bound to specific. Indeed, no inner. But for humans there also isn’t any.

CN: Well, we can talk about that. So now you have the last few minutes to say what you like to say about this.

SVS: I mean, of course, as a human I can say I have a feeling with it, but still it is bound to a person. And you could say that an environment could have some kind of assessment for, for example, an artist, this is a good artist. But still taste differs. If you want to have the same computer environment, how do we get this sense for something is good or worse? This is also something, which is interesting to try to look at.

CN: So you say performance is always bound to good or bad?

SVS: Basically it is always bound to a specific instance. You can make local assessment of performance. But if you look at it from a different perspective than other attributes might be more important. And how do you abstract a general idea from that? Hat would be the opinion of the overall system?

CN: And also, like a child, children perform for fun. You said witnessing can be fun, and with performance there may also be an inner drive?

SVS: If you go to emergent systems, this kind of drive could be key for modelling it.

CN: Thank you

SVS: Thank you

CN , Sander van Splunter