Starkey Research & Clinical Blog

The Power of the Cloud


In “The Fabric of Tomorrow,” I laid out a rather high level road map for the ensuing discussion. Now it is time to start digging a bit more into the details and more importantly, understanding how these developments can be leveraged effectively by what we do at Starkey Research.

Let’s start with the Cloud! First the inputs: Ubiquitous computing and seamless interconnectivity are like the peripheral nervous system to the Cloud. Through them, the Cloud receives all its sensory data – the “afferent” information about the world. Data that covers so many more realms than that of the human senses and with a precision and rate that eclipses the sum of all information in previous human history.

Second the outputs: This peripheral nervous system also takes the “efferent” signal from the Cloud to the machines and the displays that will effect the changes in the world – the physical, the intellectual and the emotional worlds we inhabit. We will come back to the peripheral nervous system and its sensors and effectors later – for the moment let’s focus on the Cloud.

People’s expectations and predictions about technology are replete with fails seen in predictions like:

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.

“640K ought to be enough for anybody.” — Attributed to Bill Gates, 1981.

The future is indeed, very hard to foresee. On the other hand, for what we do in Starkey Research, we need to temper our enthusiasm or optimism to properly position our work to deliver in 5 or 10 years time into the real and not the imagined. In contrast to the unbridled excitement of Ray Kerzwiel’s visions of the future, in Starkey Research we have to build and deliver real things that solve real problems!

So with those cautions in mind, what can we say about the Cloud? Electronics Magazine solicited an article from Gordon Moore in 1965 where he made the observation and prediction that the number of components on an integrated circuit board would continue to double each year for at least the next 10 years (he later revised the doubling period to two years). Dubbed by Carver Mead as “Moore’s law”, this came to represent not just a prediction about the capacity of chip foundries and lithographers to miniaturise circuits but a general rubric for improvements in computing power (i.e. Moore’s Law V2.0 & V3.0).

The Cloud, while still based on the chips described by Moore’s law, presents as a virtually unlimited source of practical computing power. The single entity computational behemoths will likely live on in the high security compounds of the world’s defense and research agencies, but for the rest of us, server farms provided by Amazon (AWS), Google (GCE), Windows (Azure) and the like can provide a virtually unlimited source of processing power. No longer are we tied to the capacity of the platform we are using. As long as that platform can connect to the Cloud then the device can share its processing needs with this highly scalable service.

But this comes at a price and that price is time. Although fast, network communications have delays that relate to the switching and routing of the message packets, the request itself is queued and the processing itself takes a finite interval of time before the results are sent back along the network to the requesting device.  At the moment, with a fast network and a modest processing request, the time taken amounts to about the time it takes to blink (~350 ms). For hearing technology this is a very important limitation as the ear is exquisitely sensitive to changes over time. For instance, when sounds are taken in through the ear, there is a delay between processing and comprehension, a delay that can detrimentally influence not only how the sound is interpreted but also a person’s ability to successfully maintain a conversation. This means that we need to find ways to locally processes those elements that are time sensitive and to off-load those processes where a hundred milliseconds or so are not important.

Of course the Cloud is more than just processing power, it also represents information – or more correctly data. Estimating, let alone comprehending, the amount of data currently transmitted across this peripheral nervous system and potentially stored in the Cloud is no mean feat. It requires the use of numbers that are powers of 1000 (terabyte 10004; petabyte 10005; exabyte 10006; zettabyte 10007 and so on). An estimate of traffic can be derived from Cisco’s published forecast figures in 2013 for 2012–17 which indicate that the annual global IP traffic will pass the zettabyte threshold by the end of 2016 and by 2017 global mobile data traffic will reach 134 exabytes annually; growing 13-fold from 2012 to 2017. As for storage, estimate place Google’s current storage at between 10-15 exabytes and Google is but one of the players here – it would be very difficult to determine, for instance, the storage capability of the NSA and other worldwide governmental agencies.

Of course these numbers are mindboggling and there is a point where the actual numbers really don’t add anything more to the conversation. This is just Big Data! What these imply however, is that a whole new range of technologies and tools need to be developed to be able to manipulate these data to derive information. Big Data and Informatics in general have huge implications for the way we conceive how we manage hearing impairment and deliver technologies to support listening in adverse environments.