Information and its Technology

 

- Ajay Singh, Research Fellow, IDSA

 

Mankind has entered the information age from an industrial age that prevailed till a few years ago. This change is expected to have a profound effect on the way we live, make money, and prosecute war. A new concept known as information warfare is a product of the information age, and is a result of the enormous impact that information has on everyday lives. It would, therefore, be useful to examine the nature of information and information technology that is at the root of future opportunities, challenges, and competition.

Information has been defined in a number of ways. But, the underlying essence of most definitions leads us to understand that the concept of information is related to raw data on one end and knowledge on the other. To understand information, which is pivotal to further study, one could go to the basic level, where there are phenomena that take place around us every day, things that happen. These may be observable facts and events that are experienced. These facts are in the form of raw data that by themselves lack meaning. Raw data must be processed through application of instructions and correlation to arrive at a form that can be interpreted. The interpreted data is information.

Information as apart from raw data is coherent to the point where it has meaning. The search for information is a quest for reduction of uncertainty. Greater the information about a particular item, event, or concept, lesser is the unknown about the same. The quest for information is, therefore, an effort to fill up the blanks. We start at the beginning with an empty space that represents lack of meaning. As data is generated about an event, and is processed to the stage of information, the empty space gradually reduces, as if a dark room is gradually lit up providing greater illumination. However, an important point to consider is that the empty space (no information) does not have well defined bounds. It may not be possible to define at what stage the empty space has been filled completely, and therefore, information is not absolute. Mankind operates within a zone of nil information to more information, never with ultimate information. The decision to act at a point with particular degree of information is a result of an interplay between the time-criticality of the decision, capacity to generate information, and the capability to perform adequately under varying degrees of existing information available.

While the purpose of studying information warfare may be served by an understanding of what information is, it is necessary to juxtapose information in relation to knowledge and wisdom. Proceeding from the stage of data leading to information, it may be theorised that information when put under the filtering templates of experience, evaluating skills, and contextualisation, leads to knowledge. In other words, information, when compacted and packaged towards a particular end is knowledge. Military intelligence is a part of a larger concept of knowledge and should not need separate treatment. Further up the ladder is wisdom, which is more abstract than the earlier forms, and may be seen as arising out of refined knowledge, through the refinement of past experience and future projection.

Information possesses a number of distinct characteristics that need to be highlighted since it is quite different from other civil or military resources. Besides the fact that information is not absolute or cannot be absolutely complete, it is not a physical quantity that can be measured with accuracy. To that extent it is a virtual commodity, but one that has an effect on other physical domains on account of its ubiquity. Another attribute of information is that it can be shared without reduction in its value. This should not be confused with the effect of sharing information technology equipment, which leads to lesser information flow at times. In this case, it is the flow that reduces on account of limitations of technology and not information per se. Like other resources, information can be stolen, but the differentiating feature here is that the theft of information cannot be ascertained directly. One can, however, with some difficulty detect an intrusion into an information system that might have led to a compromise in information security. The theft cannot still be determined with assurance, since to start with, information is not measurable. The same information can exist in more than one place at the same time, and can be used by opposing sides in a conflict simultaneously. One of the most important attributes of information is its non-linearity. A vast volume of information may have little meaning or impact, while a small piece may have a great bearing or effect on the outcome.

Another important attribute is the time-criticality of information. While data is interpreted to form useful information that is the basis of a decision, it is only the right information at the right time that is of real consequence. If there are delays in collection of data or in its interpretation, the information gleaned may be of little value. This aspect is very relevant from the military point of view, where a delayed decision can often mean an incorrect decision on account of the interactive and dynamic environments in which these decisions are required to be taken. The flow of information is essentially constrained only by the limits of the capacity of information technology. Despite advances in this technology, there are greater chances of information overload occurring, that is where supply overtakes handling capability, what may termed as an infloglut. A peculiar situation exists, since supply exceeds handling capacity, but concurrently demand exceeds supply. Information hence, responds better to a pull concept rather than a push concept. Information demand is usually more manageable than information supply for this same reason.

An issue that needs consideration is that while information can be corrupted, destroyed, or manipulated to affect perceptions and decisions, more often than not it is its predecessor data, which is the subject of abuse. Incorrect data leads to incorrect information; similar to the garbage in, garbage out principle of a computer. Decisions are taken on the basis of information. The accuracy and timing of the information has a great bearing on the quality of the ensuing decision. Even information by itself, when broadcast, for example, has a tremendous impact on the decision making structure, and from that point of view, information is a resource that needs to be effectively managed to retain freedom of action and a competitive advantage.

Information technology is the technology that enables information to be collected and used. Within this broad domain, are functions such as information generation, information analysis, information transmission, information storage, and transmission of decisions in a somewhat cyclical or inter-related fashion. Besides ancillary technologies that are part of the information process, at the heart of information technology lie computers and communication technologies. If one were to break this down further for better understanding, what emerges as the core of information technology is the microprocessor, data storage devices, and data transmission elements. The microprocessor is the heart of any computer technology, and is really responsible for bulk of the status accorded to the computer in this age. It performs calculations that are basically arithmetic in nature, but draws its eminence from the fact that these calculations are performed at very high speed. In the field of the microprocessor, it has been estimated that the performance doubles every 18 months. The cost also reduces to half in this time period, and this fundamental principle is the reason for widespread proliferation of information technology. Microprocessors have application in almost all items that touch our everyday life, starting from the wristwatches to fax machines. The performance of microprocessors has improved 25,000 times since their invention little over 25 years ago. During the last quarter of a century, the number of transistors, which are basically silicon switches handling data and processing instructions, has gone up from 2,300 in the Intel 4004 chip to 5.5 million in the Intel P6 chip. The underlying rule in microprocessors has been smaller, faster, and cheaper. Besides the number of transistors increasing over the years, the design itself has undergone a change. Concepts like pipelining have been introduced, which means that the microprocessor is tasked to carry out multiple stages of a task concurrently. With the same base speed of the microprocessor, a pipelining approach ensures that the overall output of the microprocessor increases in proportion to the number of stages in the pipeline. For example if there are five stages in the pipeline being carried out concurrently, the overall output for the pipelined microprocessor will be five times that of a non-pipelined one with the same base speed. The pipelined approach has been supplemented to an extent by another design philosophy, which is known as the superscalar approach. This involves including more hardware in the microprocessors to handle a greater number of tasks in each stage of the pipeline, which multiplies the overall output of the microprocessor. Another approach known as parallel processing is being considered for application, which as the name suggests, relies on engaging a number of microprocessors at the same time in a parallel mode. This approach has problems for programmers since they have to write instruction sets that are designed to cater to multiple stages, multiple tasks, and multiple processors at the same time.

Advances in the field of computers have not been limited to microprocessors alone. Although not to the same extent as microprocessors, data storage devices have also grown in capability while becoming cheaper in terms of cost per unit of storage space. The primary data storage devices on computers are hard disk drives. The basic measurement of data storage capacity being a byte (comprising of eight characters), the capacities of hard disks are currently being quoted in terms of gigabytes (1,024 bytes=1 Kilobyte; 1,024 Kilobytes=1 Megabyte; 1,024 Megabytes=1 Gigabyte). On the personal computer front, within the last two years itself, the standard capacity of hard disk drives has gone up four times in terms of storage space, while the cost per unit space has come down more than four times. The increased capacity at a lower cost means that greater amount of data can be stored than hitherto possible. This has important implications civil as well as military fields, since it allows storage of images that usually take up a lot more space than text of a similar page length. An example is the comparison of a page of text, which would occupy about 10 Kb (Kilobytes), and that of graphical sketch, which would take about 400 Kb, almost forty times the size in terms of storage space.

A factor that merits consideration is that, while vast amounts of data can be stored and retrieved easily with computer technology, the same data can easily be corrupted or destroyed either accidentally, or purposely. While the printed page has to be torn or burnt, data on a hard disk can be wiped out by a simple command inserted via a keyboard. This raises the issue of maintaining adequate backup in case critical data is corrupted or destroyed. Fortunately, data backup devices exist in a range of options from pocket-sized floppy disks to back-up tape drives or even standby hard disks.

A single computer equipped with a microprocessor and a hard disk (besides other components) can usefully serve one person at a time. If the data or information is to be shared with another person who is at a remote location, more often than not what is required is transmission of the information to the other person’s computer. Advances made over the last few decades in communication technology has made it possible to connect with practically anyone, anywhere on the globe, and pass or share information. Communication technology is at the heart of the information revolution as it is leading to a seamless, integrated world of shared information resources. Although there are more ways than one to transmit-receive (two way operation) information, the most common is through the use of a modem connected to the computer on one end and a telephone line on the other while the recipient has a mirror arrangement. Till now, digital data was converted by the modem to an analogue form for transmission through the telephone line, and on the other side converted back to digital form by the recipient modem for use by the recipient computer.

The requirements of the user have spurred advances in communication technology. The need of any successful communication system is that communication should be a two way process, which would permit people to send information as well as receive it. This means that the system should be switched, with the ability to act in transmit and receive modes. Once this is established the next requirement is high capacity of the transmission network, which would allow sending of files other than simple text. Still image, motion video, and audio files not only occupy a lot of space on the hard disks, but also need high capacity in transmission lines. Technically, this is known as a requirement of high bandwidth. The problem with current telephone lines is that they do not have enough bandwidth for effective transmission of imagery or even sound in most cases. On the other hand television technology has a high bandwidth, but does not meet the requirement of two-way communication. Merging the television cable and the telephone line has been thought of as one solution. In fact, steps are being taken to utilise surplus bandwidth of the cable television network to carry telephone traffic. In the mean time, a number of countries are changing over to digital networks. The introduction of ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) technology for telephone lines is aimed at providing the capacity to transmit integrated information such as text, audio, and video over the same telephone line. Compared to analogue systems, digital counterparts can expand the capacity of the medium and compress the message through data compression techniques, and are therefore, preferred in the information age when there is an increasing demand on transfer of high volume data at high speed.

Besides the advances in design architecture of telephone lines, the medium is also an important factor. Till recently, copper wires have been used for communications between telephones, mainly due to cost and availability considerations. Copper as a medium suffers from inherent limitations when high volumes of data have to be transmitted at high speed. Since the late 1970s, there has been increasing application of fibre optic cables as the preferred medium for communications. In this technology, information is transmitted as light pulses through glass fibre. Its main advantages over copper lie in a higher capacity and better efficiency in handling audio and video information. Fibre optic technology networks transmit text, audio, and video at speeds 10 to 100 times faster than standard copper wires that have been used for a number of decades. In terms of capacity too, a single pair of optical fibres can handle 48,000 telephone conversations in one second. Yet, fibre optics have only been exploited to a small percentage of their potential. This is so because light pulses have to be converted to electrons before they are inserted or removed from the network. The opto-electronic conversion leads to problems in high-speed communications. Besides the added complexity of incorporating electronic equipment, opto-electronic conversion does not perform well at transmission speeds beyond 50 gigabits per second. A way lies in using all-optical networks that transfer optical signals from one end of the network to the other by using the properties of light waves to route the transmission along different pathways through the network. In this case, the signal becomes electronic only when it enters the computer at its end. Another technology that is planned for use with fibre optic networks is called asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) that allows high speed transfer by shunting packets of text, audio, and video by incorporation of broadband packet switches. Even while fibre optic cables replace copper wires as the preferred option for terrestrial telephone networks, newer and more efficient methods have emerged.

One such option is wireless networks. The same method that is used to translate text, audio, and video into digital pulses for transmission through cables can be employed to work for wireless networks. More use is being made of the electromagnetic spectrum by exploiting microwaves for example. The implications are enormous, as regions in the world that are not conducive to laying of physical cables such as dense jungles, deserts, and mountain ranges would benefit a great deal from wireless technology. Regions with inhospitable terrain, or where the cost of laying cables is too high will largely miss out on the information revolution unless communication technology obviates the need for physical cables. Fortunately, technologies such as the wireless option are available for use.

Continuing advances in wireless technology have made small and low cost communication options feasible in urban and rural areas. Wireless telecommunication networks have been in use for some time now in most countries in the cellular phone incarnation. This technology is spreading fast as a glance at the Indian case would indicate. The same technology that provides this service can be used to provide communication services in areas where telephone networks do not exist. Of course, there will have to be a trade off between cost and benefit in such areas. But, it is heartening to note that the cost of wireless network may actually be lesser than one where the infrastructure for fixed cables does not exist. Also the time required to install a wireless network is a fraction of the time needed to setup a fixed cable network. Therefore, if a remote area is to be provided with telecommunication facilities, it might be sensible to choose the wireless path. There should be little doubt regarding the advantages of connecting to the global communication network in the information age, as this permits regions to participate economically across larger frontiers, besides other benefits that telecommunication offers.

In an effort to customise and personalise telecommunications, which is a concept of the information age, there is an emphasis towards developing intelligent networks that use technology to locate and identify roaming subscribers in order to provide the services that a particular customer may desire. These intelligent networks are distinct from the communication networks used by the subscribers to transfer text, audio, and video, but are architecturally linked to these networks to be able to provide a range of services. As an example, intelligent network services available, can forward calls automatically to a subscriber’s car, office, home, or voice mail system, which greatly enhances communication capabilities. A personal communication service (PCS) is in keeping with this concept. PCS is a set of wireless capabilities built around frequencies of 2 GHz, which offer two way telephone facility linked to a an extensive network of low powered transmitters. These transmitters are generally placed much closer to each other than the current cellular network. The PCS network though more extensive than cellular networks are simpler and less expensive to operate. PCS technology is being introduced in many countries around the world, including India. It is expected that these services could be made available by the turn of the century. Many developing countries, aware of the rapid advances under way in telecommunication technology are following a route where they will leapfrog over a generation of technologies, a desire which is representative of the information age. PCS phones are likely to be smaller and less powerful than current cellular phones without compromise on end user performance. The range of these phones will be limited, and the design philosophy lies in being able to locate the subscriber and then direct the call to the person through the network. The major advantage in such a system is that the subscriber will need only one phone number, where that person could be contacted for passing a fax message or placing a voice call, instead of three or four currently used to cater to fax, office, and home telephone numbers. Although some kind of capability to locate a cellular phone subscriber does exist within the network itself, precise positioning may be possible if Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers are built into hand-held telephones. PCS phones also known as personal handyphone system (PHS) already exist in Japan. These are much cheaper, at times a tenth of the cost of a standard cellular phone, while retaining all capabilities of the cellular phone.

An interesting feature of the information age is that the two pillars of information technology – computers and communications, are moving ever closer towards each other in terms of functionality. The two are merging to provide a system where computers and telecommunications are not seen as performing exclusive tasks. One of the areas where this is evident is the fact that more computers are being manufactured with built in communication capabilities. This is particularly apparent in the development of personal digital assistants (PDA). These devices have moved beyond being treated as mere organisers for managing appointments and daily schedules. A PDA, which comes with cellular phone capability, would be able to meet most demands of information age communication such as faxes, voice mail, along with the ability to carry out computing operations. The fact that these devices are lightweight and truly portable makes them extremely useful when combined with wireless communication technology. A step up the ladder is the laptop computer with built in communication hardware. Besides being useful in civil business applications, these devices have immense military value in the modern battlefield since they provide portable information generation, reception, and processing capability. Besides the merging of computers and telephones, the next few years could also witness television technology significantly merging with the other two.

The progressive introduction of wireless networks notwithstanding, a true wireless global information network is not really possible without the use of satellites. It is estimated that more than half the world’s population has never made a telephone call. This is primarily due to unavailability of telephone facilities in remote or rural areas. Satellites provide the capability of connecting people across continents irrespective of the distance or terrain that might separate them. Although some of the advantages offered by satellites are also available through land based wireless systems; the greatest advantage of the satellite is that it serves vast areas at low cost per unit area. Apart from the time required to actually build and launch communication satellites, these are generally available for deployment and use in a comparatively shorter time frame than other communication systems in remote areas. With large-scale employment of communication satellites, information age population can reside practically anywhere on the globe and still conduct a measure of business without being handicapped by lack of telecommunications. Communication satellites also have a relative advantage over terrestrial communication networks in that they are unaffected by natural calamities on the earth like floods and earthquakes that can seriously impair the latter. These reasons make communication satellites commercially viable and therefore, towards this end, Motorola plans to launch 66 satellites in a scheme called Iridium, which will connect every point on the earth. With a hand held Iridium phone, a user anywhere, would be able to share information with any place on the planet using satellites and existing networks. It is expected that differences in cellular standards or protocols such as the current global systems for mobile communications (GSM) and code division multiple access (CDMA) would be resolved and would not pose a major problem in the future. CDMA is a new digital standard that is being preferred, and has also been chosen by India. CDMA provides 20 times the capacity of analogue systems; compared to another standard known as time division multiple access (TDMA), which provides a seven-fold capacity over analogue systems.

A feature of information technologies is that unlike in the past, where the high end of technology was introduced first in government or military sectors before finding application in the civil sector, information technologies are increasingly being developed primarily for civil business applications. The rapidity of change in the information technology field owes much to the commercial demands. Products are more likely to be introduced in the consumer market from where it would flow back into the government or military sector. A vast demand in computers and communication technologies for business applications has driven procurement costs down. Coupled with quests for higher performance this has reduced the useful shelf life of these technologies in turn shrinking the time interval between invention and obsolescence. In future, this trend is likely to intensify, and therefore, there is a need to study the state of the art in the civil sector along with the military sector for comprehensive understanding.