My friend keeps empty boxes. His basement electronics lab is filled with them. Frayed and old, they once held things like radios, power supplies, and parts, but now they hold just old doughnut wrappers, or act as very inexpensive furniture.
We were sitting down there one day, surrounded by the boxes, drinking some of the beer I had brought over, and just breathing in that peculiar smell that electronics parts always seem to have, which is like a combination of burning plastic, metal, and dust.
“You know, I'd like to see a really smart phone someday, not just one that keeps your day timer in it, and lets you surf the web,” my friend announced, as he tried to balance his beer bottle on his cardboard end table. “I saw an article about it somewhere.”
“How smart are we talking about?” I inquired.
“Well, the article said--well, I forget what it said, but, you know, really smart. That would be so cool,” he said as he looked up at an old Heathkit shortwave he had in pieces up on a shelf, with about a quarter inch of dirt on it.
He took another swig. “I remember now. It was about radios, not smartphones, but a smartphone is just a fancy radio, right?”
“Um hmm,” I agreed, while finishing my bottle.
“It's supposed to--I'm not kidding--think!” he said with his eyebrows raised really high.
“Well, then they'd be able to make the phone calls for us, no?” I asked.
My friend leaned over to his laptop, which was perched on top of an old cardboard box that said “Henry Radio” on the side. He spilled a little beer as he leaned. “Let me Google it. Here. This is from the FCC website. Let's see what they say,” he said. Up popped a PowerPoint presentation. “Cognitive Radio,” it read, alongside a big DARPA logo. Under that, in big gold letters, it said,
“Network Complexity is Beyond Human Planning.”
We looked at each other.
“Maybe that explains why the IT Department at work always has so much trouble.” I said.
“Somebody ought to tell Verizon about this, or Comcast. Okay, let me try another,” he said, and clicked again. Up came another chart, this time from General Dynamics. Across the top it said,
“Cognitive Radio Means 'Smart' and 'Alert.'”
“Smart and alert,” I repeated.
My friend looked down at his lap as he began to notice the spilled beer there. He shrugged, clicked the mouse again, and read from the laptop display:
“Cognitive Radio Knows Where It Is.”
“Got me beat already,” I said.
He continued reading:
“It Knows What Services are Available. It Knows What Services Interest the User.”
“Starting to sound like Google,” I remarked.
“Starting to sound like a great date!” he exclaimed. Then he leaned towards the screen, and narrowed his eyes. “It knows the....” He paused. “What's this?”
“It Knows the Future Likelihood of Needs of the User.”
“It can tell the future!?” my friend gasped.
“That would be cool, wouldn't it?” I asked.
He just stared at the screen. He was a Trek fan and this kind of stuff got him excited.
“They're full of it,” he retorted.
“Maybe it's got some kind of giant brain,” I said.
“A giant brain in a tiny smartphone? Or even in a big radio? Won't a giant brain get really bored running just a radio? I mean, in the 80's, even little brains were getting bored running radios,” he said.
“Well, maybe it's just a big brain instead of a really giant brain,” I replied, opening another bottle on the stand holding up the soldering station.
My friend leaned back and mused, “I guess when you think about it, there are a lot of things that try to predict the future. Weather simulations, stock market simulations, credit default predictions--lots of stuff.”
“Or elevators,” I said.
“Elevators?” he asked.
“Yeah. Don't you remember The Restaurant at the End of the Universe? Douglas Adams? He imagined elevators that could predict which floor you wanted. They were so smart, they got depressed from boredom and needed psychiatric care.”
“Depressed radios,” he muttered, putting his empty beer bottle inside a Ramsey Electronics box.
“Wait,” I said. “Look at that link there. It says Cognitive Radio Dissertation. Click on that.”
One click and we were there. It was by Joseph Mitola.
“I've heard of him. He's at Stevens Tech now,” I pointed out.
“An august and revered institution,” my friend said, raising a fresh bottle of beer in salute. I picked up a bottle to match.
“Hold on,” he said, squinting more closely at the screen. “I'm not reading that, it's 313 pages!” he protested.
“Well, let's just flip though it, then,” I offered. “Look, it says chapter 4 is just about cognitive radios.”
We scrolled ahead and found a block diagram of a cognitive radio.
“This looks like a software-defined radio, like the FlexRadio 5000,” my friend said.
“What the heck do I know about a FlexRadio 5000? What's that?” I gently remonstrated.
“Well, it's a software-defined radio, which is a lot like any radio, except many of the parameters in the radio are controlled by a computer. The computer control,” he said, more slowly now, as my eyes glazed over, “means you practically get a different radio to match your changing needs, whenever you want, with just a few clicks of the mouse.” Then, he stared at the diagram for a moment. I followed the direction of his gaze. Something stood out, that even I noticed. It was a little block marked “reasoning.”
“Do you see that?” my friend exclaimed, pointing. “There it is! It's a box of 'reasoning'!”
Out of all the boxes my friend had, not one had reason in it, the way this one did.
“This thing is going to run itself! Now I know how Captain Kirk must have felt when he first saw the M-5 computer.”
“I remember that episode!” I said.
“This unit must survive!” we both started chanting in faux-computer voices.
“Boys, are you both still down there?” we heard from the top of the stairs....
Find out next time, boys and girls, what we were talking about, what we found out, and even if we survived....