Human Knowledge Retention and Growth

By Jim Ghadbane, CTO, CANARIE Inc.

Other than the really smart (and obnoxious) guy, Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, who seems to know everything, no single human can make a car. By that I mean no single human knows how to make steel from rock, how to make glass from silica, how to make rubber, nylon, cloth, semiconductors, anti-freeze, on, on, and on.

Yet the annual estimated worldwide production of cars by humanity is over 20 million – approximately 145,000 per calendar day!

Cars mass-produced 100 years ago don’t have the look, performance, or safety of the modern automobile.  Like current cars, the early cars were built on knowledge and discovery by humans who are sadly long gone.  Yet the critical information of their discoveries has been retained by humanity. Retaining past human knowledge is crucial for new discovery.

The first major leap in knowledge retention came with writing. Reading is akin to the original author imparting their knowledge directly to us. Before reading and writing, knowledge was retained with spoken mnemonics – e.g., 30 days hath September, April, June and November…  Try using that technique to pass on to your child how to make a Ferrari from scratch!

The next major break-through in knowledge retention was the printing press. Books are written by an author, or co-authored by a small set of people, yet have the ability to reach everyone – one to many. The increased volume of books, enabled by the printing press, made it possible for the unprecedented outreach of knowledge: libraries became local, literacy rates soared – the collective human knowledge grew dramatically. Its rate of growth increased as more humans were enabled to build on past knowledge.

Unprecedented Growth

We are currently experiencing an unprecedented rate of growth in information creation. That growth will fuel knowledge growth in ways we are only beginning to comprehend. The enabler for that growth is the Internet. For us techies, the Internet is the hardware – routers, DSL, fibre, radio towers, etc. that make up the systems which make the physical networks.  For everyone else, the Internet is online computing, storage, Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, Yahoo, MSN, Twitter etc. It’s this second part where all the action is, the first part is just the plumbing to get to it.

Unlike the first two revolutionary steps towards knowledge retention, the Internet allows us all to learn from the past, and to make a contribution to the collective knowledge of humanity. It enables any to any, many to many or any other ad-hoc form of information dissemination and collaboration. It also enables knowledge outreach to our desktop or to the palms of our hands – gone are the days of hoping that someone else hasn’t already checked-out the book you need – it’s already in your hand!

Will pigs fly?

Where will it lead?

Where will it lead us when all of humanity has access to our accumulated knowledge? Over time we will collectively answer that question; and the answer is almost guaranteed to surprise us. The surprise will come, in part, as a result of the wide diversity of values in the cultures which make up humanity.  When the collective world knowledge is accessible to all societies, the outcomes will be highly unpredictable.

This is not to suggest that we should fear the possible outcomes of shared collective knowledge. However, we must be prepared to live in a world where knowledge is exploited in ways we have little ability to predict or control. For example, DNA generation could be used to actually make pigs that can fly (so much for that adynaton!), just as it could be used to make trees that glow in the dark to deal with energy shortage.

Doing our Part

We at CANARIE are doing our part to ensure Canadians aren’t left behind in the most significant growth of human knowledge and knowledge retention ever. Continuing to adapt and grow the digital infrastructure is essential to keeping Canadians competitive in the knowledge economy.

Now let’s all figure out how to make traffic go away – or cars that can fly!

Dispatches from REFEDS and VAMP2012

Good morning from Utrecht, NL where I am attending as CANARIE’s CAF representative for REFEDS & VAMP2012

I’ve found that this September is an inflection point for change; back to school kicks in, summer holidays recharge the batteries and give a chance to step back and take stock. To this end, I’m going to experiment with a  more brief communication model with this blog.  There may be the occasional essay like post because complicated topics need their due depth, but I would rather have more frequent postings to avoid the TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t read) and see which ones to go deep on as people express an interest in them.


Research and Education FEDerations is one of the few locations dedicated to the interests of  CAF and our peers.  It is also a forum for advancing Federated Identity topics and collaborating on workplans to the benefit of multiple federations.  One topic that has been incubating in the REFEDS environment are recommendations for Service Providers for Federated ID sign on and discovery which are based in part on a NISO Espresso Report.  An interested and comprehensive document at 35 pages. More to come on this front soon.

As the REFEDS meeting progresses more will be posted to this blog entry.

In the mean time, I would like to point you to the 2 day VAMP2012 agenda and encourage you to post comments or questions that you would like to hear me bring forward.

A great day for digital innovators everywhere!


The sunny smiles inside matched the sunny skies outside this morning at the University of Ottawa, where Minister of State (Science and Technology) Gary Goodyear announced CANARIE’s renewed mandate and three-year funding of $62 million.

During the event, which representatives of the university and research community attended, the Minister was clear about the importance of CANARIE to Canada’s innovation ecosystem. He spoke eloquently on how CANARIE (together with its partner networks in the provinces and territories), enables Canadians to participate, and lead, in global initiatives that have a tangible impact:

“CANARIE is the bedrock for new advancements in science, health care and other important disciplines. These advancements improve our health, our environment, our economy and our future.”

The Minister also noted other initiatives that CANARIE is pursuing in order to meet the evolving needs of Canada’s innovators, researchers and educators:

“But beyond its core mandate as Canada’s premier research and education network, CANARIE has been making a valuable contribution to other government priorities, such as the economy and Canada’s global competitiveness.

“Last year, CANARIE launched the Digital Accelerator for Innovation and Research program, or DAIR. This pilot program supported a key element of Canada’s digital economy strategy—namely, helping to grow our information and communications technology industry.

“DAIR gave small and medium-sized digital technology firms access to CANARIE’s reliable, ultra-fast network to design and test their products, share massive amounts of data and accelerate innovation, giving them a first-to-market advantage.

“CANARIE is changing with the times in other ways as well. Traffic over the network has increased nearly 600 percent in the past five years. In response, CANARIE has been able to adapt and will continue to do so to meet this burgeoning user demand.”

Minister Goodyear’s enthusiasm and support of CANARIE and of the Canadians whose work it supports was obvious, and he was particularly eloquent in his closing remarks:

“CANARIE has helped Canada’s greatest minds accomplish incredible things, and we look forward to that track record of success continuing.”

Thank you Minister Goodyear, and the Government of Canada, for your continued support of CANARIE – a fundamental element of Canada’s digital infrastructure for research and education.

Read the full speech here in English, or here in French.

Innovating our policies along with our practices

Richard Hawkins speaking on innovation policy at the Tech Futures Summit.

An interesting conversation was happening today at the Alberta Innovates Technology Futures Summit. Richard Hawkins, University of Calgary Professor and Canada Research Chair in Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, presented on how to determine whether or not innovation policies are working.

He talked about how one of the challenges faced by government-sponsored innovation programs is to demonstrate impact from public investment, especially in the short to medium term. Unfortunately, that is not always enough time to collect conclusive data or tangible results.

According to Hawkins, the solution to this un-complementary fit is to re-calibrate performance expectations and broaden our measurements. These days, we should be looking at program impacts on multiple and different parts of the innovation system, including the social and economic sectors.

Also, developing more technology should be a means, not an end, he said. “There is no shortage of technology, but there is a shortage of innovation,” Hawkins said. Policies that focus on simply producing technology rather than deploying it are missing the point.

So, shifting our perspective from technology as the innovation to technology as the conduit (or “platform”, to give a pointed nod to CANARIE’s Network-Enabled Platforms Program as an example), we see that innovation and the resulting impacts are then driven by who uses the technology, what they use it for, and how that changes what they were doing before.

As innovation is built around change and disruption, it makes sense that our policies and policy-building approaches should evolve in response. Measuring short-term impacts will always be a challenge, but if we change what we’re looking at and where we’re looking for it, that can help uncover new measures of success.

What are your thoughts? Do current metrics accurately measure innovation impacts? If not, how should policies change? Please leave your comments below.