By Keith McDowell
Everything has a beginning. For me, it began in the early 1950s as a young boy glued to that new fangled device called a television set and my favorite Saturday morning program, Captain Midnight. Sponsored by Ovaltine, the progenitor of powdered hot chocolate, Captain Midnight was an aviation serial containing fifteen episodes in which the intrepid hero continually saved the beautiful damsel in distress, Joyce, from the sinister scientist, Ivan Shark, while flying around in an airplane that looked like the Bell X-1 in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. The plots were predictable and the characters one dimensional, but it didn’t matter. The series had what I cherished most: secret messages and a secret decoder ring.
The complete history of decoder rings and the inventor will likely never be known, but suffice it to say that they became popular starting in 1934 when Ovaltine sponsored the radio program Little Orphan Annie. A year later, fan club members could obtain a membership badge containing a cipher disk that allowed one to decipher secret messages posted during the radio shows. And, of course, Captain Midnight continued the tradition on television! Urban legend claims that the secret messages often said: “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” Hmm, maybe that explains my continuing addiction to hot chocolate!
But what have secret messages and decoder rings got to do with innovation in the Twenty-First Century? We fast forward to 2012 and a recent request from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Quoting from an Associated Press article in the CBC News, we find that “The U.S. government is seeking software that can mine social media to predict everything from future terrorist attacks to foreign uprisings.” That’s right! Our government is seeking the latest incarnation of a decoder ring to ferret out secret messages from all that gibberish in the social media. And don’t be surprised in the next year or so when a sudden spike occurs in the sales of Nestlé Nesquik at the FBI.
Seriously, is this for real? Can we actually extract “terrorist” truth statements from a data mining decoder? And more important, do we really want Big Brother watching over us? The latter question is best left to other venues for debate, but the answer to the first question is simple. Data mining is real and growing exponentially as a tool of the commercial marketplace through connectivity to the Internet. It works, pure and simple! And I have no doubt that the FBI can and will make use of the technique. But can it be spoofed?
The Associated Press article makes clear that spoofing, both accidental and intentional, is part of the game. Intentional spoofing can be done through bots or encryption codes and likely many other ingenious techniques. Furthermore, evolution and adaptation guarantees that “terrorists” (including hackers) using social media will eventually morph into smart terrorists (hackers). Wow! Talk about fertile ground for innovation!
And then we have accidental or, perhaps better said, built-in spoofing of the input data strings, whether textual or numerical. How does one distinguish a joke from a truth statement? And as we all know from our study of logic, truth statements, number theory, and formal logic systems, there are always truth statements that exist outside any formal system – not to mention such brain twisters as “this sentence is false” or “I know that I know nothing at all.” So how does one recognize or extract meaning from the logical equivalent of the proverbial dog chasing his own tail?
And, of course, data mining programs as decoder rings are nothing more than formal systems that churn out “theorems” or supposed truth statements from potentially “noisy” data input. In this regard, Stephen Wolfram in A New Kind of Science has taken the game to new levels and formalized the process of truth generation from initial data strings using cellular automata. He addresses quite emphatically the issue of pattern recognition and its reliability or lack thereof. Goodness! Who would have thought that Little Orphan Annie and Captain Midnight could have initiated so much trouble? Perhaps we’ve all been drinking too much Ovaltine.
But the story doesn’t and shouldn’t end with the FBI and their search for terrorists. I propose that we create the ultimate decoder ring – the true “holy grail” that adventurers have long sought to find. Here is my proposition; it’s one that I’ve proposed elsewhere. We begin with the statement that “everything to be known is already known.” No, it’s not another brain twister! It’s a simple fact and based on the assumption that all knowledge can be coded as a textual or numerical string. Of course, textual truth or knowledge can be suitably converted into a numerical string as is done by the “bits” in every computer. We conclude, therefore, that all knowledge is encapsulated in one form or another by numbers. And even though some numbers are not computable to infinite precision, we in principle know everything there is to be known since all numbers are potentially available to us. There’s just one itsy-bitsy problem. We don’t have the decoder ring! We don’t know how to convert numbers or a string of bits into meaningful knowledge.
My grand challenge to the world of inventors, mathematicians, and software geeks is simple. Invent a decoder program that takes numbers as input and converts them into meaningful knowledge. It’s the ultimate meta-challenge and transcends the plebian request of the FBI. Think of the innovations that will emerge from the revealed truth! Entrepreneurs will dazzle the world as did Sir Isaac Newton who kept his invention of the calculus secret and used it to obtain results which he then proved by the more conventional techniques of his time.
Face the truth: he who owns the decoder program will rule the innovation world. And even if one doesn’t get to the ultimate decoder program, consider the spin-offs along the way including making the FBI happy and the potential for lucrative national security contracts. It’s not fiction. It’s Captain Midnight writ large! And it comes with a cup of Ovaltine and a plastic decoder ring.