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Marcel Hidalgo Headshot

How Smart Is the Cloud?

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The fundamental question that pushed Alan Turing, the pioneer of computer science, was can machines do what we can do? Turing was said to have come up with everything that computers do today. His concerns were not whether machines could think but if they had the intellectual capacities equal to a human mind. If he were here now how would he assess the advances in the development of computer technology, especially cloud computing? Would Turing think that machine intelligence has come pretty close to human intelligence? The idea is certainly entertaining. And people like Amy Poehler, in a recent Best Buy commercial, had us all laughing when she spiritedly asked the questions: "Where is the cloud?" and "Are we in the cloud now?" The average person cannot ignore that computers have become smarter in ways that continue to amaze us.

A different question is: are computers becoming independent of the user? In other words, will the virtual machine at some point in time completely control the user or even exempt the user? Perhaps a consoling thought articulated by Turing came when he said that an equation, which cannot be solved by a machine, proves the value for human thinking. But the need for smarter computing has opened a gateway to technology that can sometimes feel like the line between human thinking and machine thinking is remarkably thin.

Understandably, smart computing has been the driving force behind the business world for some time now. The reliance on computer applications, databases and online services have been central to the operations within and beyond the enterprise's physical space. These are the nuts and bolts of any operation. As a result, companies are not only concerned about the products or services they sell, but how to manage their computing infrastructures adequately. This arduous task keeps business owners up at night, no matter how large or small the establishment. Additionally, these sets of interconnected structural elements are costly.

Yes, the cloud can streamline the computing activities of an organization without this tedious drudgery and enable business owners to sleep as they rightfully should. For those unfamiliar with cloud computing, it does this according to the advertising campaigns as an off-site, web-based third party entity that offers technology all in one place anywhere and anytime. No denying, cloud computing has offered the business world an innovative approach to modernize their practices.

The same streamlining benefits can be said for the individual. The cloud's synchronizing capabilities can, for example, link a native Microsoft program with an Apple product. In essence, in virtual space a user can share photos, files, or music regardless of the operating system. What this means for the average user is that instead of operating a PC in isolation, connectivity is a collaboration access through the Internet. But what cannot be ignored is finding ourselves in the cloud even when we have not asked to enter it. For many users who have gone onto Google, which probably accounts for a good portion of the population, are automatically in the cloud.

Ironically, some companies, although they recognize the power of the cloud, hesitate to use it. Corporations find themselves worrying about security risks, privacy policies, losing data and dealing with interruptions. The answers to some of these worries according to those who provide cloud services are not to think of the service as one-size-fits-all, but carefully tailor the service to the company's needs. Many cloud providers offer public, private, and hybrid packages that have back-up security options and defenses against the latest threats. More and more companies are changing the wording of the question from "What is the cloud?" to "How can I use the cloud?"

Yet, as the re-allocation of data from hard disks toward uploading into remote servers becomes more prevalent, it's jarring to hear people like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak warn that cloud computing is a "horrendous" invention. When transferring data onto something like the web instead of a machine this means less control of the data. Wozniak says "you don't own anything" stressing that cloud consumers are buying a license to use a service, not a product. In essence, the consumer signs an agreement tied to the legalistic terms of the provider; licensed, not sold.

The larger repercussion for the transition from a physical machine into a web-based service means that computing becomes invisible and software becomes detached from hardware. This would mean that software would have to be looked at as if it were floating around in an abstract place. In this scenario hardware takes a back seat to software while the service provider moves computing activities in an intangible space. Clouds then would be able to link with other clouds, which will require much bigger software. In this case, new software would have to be developed to deal with failures which are sure to happen regularly.

However, clouds are not as ethereal as the name suggests, providers do have a physical space. They are large warehouse datacenters stationed both in and outside of the U.S. And this presents another potential dilemma for the consumer. The fact that some datacenters are outside of the country creates an ambiguous situation for service agreements since laws within the United States may not be in alignment with other countries. This is not to mention that some service agreements may necessitate more complex software packages that may create unforeseen legal challenges.

Steve Wozniak said that Alan Turing planted the seed for everything that computers do today. And it goes without saying that hurdles are not stopping computer engineers from predicting that, by 2020, robots will be running warehouse datacenters instead of humans. Once technology gets closer to operating datacenters robotically does this get closer to confirming that the machine can do what we can do?

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