Large Systems: A Way to the Future (Editorial by Alfonso Farina)

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Large Systems: A Way to the Future (Editorial by Alfonso Farina)

Alfonso Farina

In 2001, Stephen Hawking, one of the most important physicist and cosmologist of the last decades, stated in Complexity Digest (2001/10, March 5, 2001): “I think this century will be the century of complexity”. Complexity is, sometimes, an abused term. Other terms would often be more appropriate such as: large, complicated or garbled (due to poor understanding). Complexity, in our current usage indicates a situation that is hard to be coped with, or when a problem exceeds the limit of what can be managed. Scale is the way things change, as the size of the problem increases. Things get bigger and bigger, and eventually the size of the problem crosses a line, so that the increase in size fundamentally changes the problem. In computer science, traditionally a line has been drawn, in terms of algorithmic complexity, between functions that are really computable, simply take too long on any real computer. The line has been set between polynomial and non-polynomial complexity computation. But scale changes that. Even if you’ve got something which grows very slowly, like sorting algorithm, it becomes close to impossible at scale. The increase in size comes together with an exponential increase in the number of inter-relations among the system elements. These inter-relations, though simple and local, are at the basis of the emergence of complexity.
The complexity we are involved in, nowadays, is the result of the very fast changing of the world scenario from the point of view of social life, economy, shortage of resources, etc. Internet and social networks, a kind of virtual cyber-skin embracing the planet, have tightly interconnected people, infrastructures and economic systems. All these changes have been fostered by technology innovation and we can only expect, due to the pace of technology innovation, that more changes are to come. This has an impact on industry products.
Traditional engineering has pragmatically tried to apply a “divide et impera” approach to system design and development. This has inevitably led to systems where components are decoupled or loosely coupled. This approach is now being questioned by two major thrusts. Firstly, globalization and de-regulation in many sectors of our society, due to economic and political reasons, have created interdependencies and mutual couplings. Secondly, the net-centric concept, originally developed in the defence domain, aims at fulfilling and exploiting the advantages deriving from an “integrated, networked and internetworked information flow”. The net-centric paradigm claims, in fact, that a robustly networked force improves information sharing which, in turn, enhances the quality of information and shared situational awareness. Shared situation awareness enables self-synchronization and enhances speed of command, which all together dramatically increase mission effectiveness.
It is becoming evident that our biggest opportunities, like our most urgent threats, arise from networked systems. If the security of our cyber-networks is compromised, modern life – our economy, our health system, our critical infrastructures (transportation, electric grid, just to mention a few) – grind to a complete halt. Cyber-security is entangled with the design process of large systems. It should not be an afterthought, but an integral part – a key property – of the large system, since its conception. Cyber-security vs. cyber threats is a battle of knowledge, technology, energy and funds. Perhaps, we should take hints from nature in devising a cyber-secure system by following, for instance, the same principles of the immunological system of the human body and exploiting the strong analogy between biological viruses and computer viruses (a powerful-harmful form of distributed computation). This would not be the first time we learn from nature: sonar was inspired by bats and whales.
The new trend of engineering forces and encourages us to design and exploit the complexity, to achieve additional performance and robustness of large systems. Traditional technologies build systems from precision components; advanced technologies build more robust systems from many sloppy components. Of course, this new trend implies the necessity to develop an adequate theory to study the intrinsic properties of complex systems (e.g.: network topology, stability, controllability, self-organization, emergent behaviour, metrics of complexity, etc.).
In addition to these technical issues, there are also important social issues still open such as the appropriateness of the national and international regulatory frameworks (laws, regulations, directives). Let’s remind, for instance, the ethical problems related to video-surveillance or the laws which regulate cyber-security on the web.
The new system engineering needs to be conceived as a holistic, integrative discipline, wherein the contributions of electronic, IT (Information Technology), structural engineers, mechanism designers, power engineers and so on are balanced to produce a coherent whole. The role played by the academia has to be underlined for the development of the expertise including cross-fertilization between these wide spectrum of competencies. The industry has the primary function of promoting and implementing a large team working within a wide spectrum of professional profiles, seniority, from different industries, which collaboratively conceive, design and implement the large system products. The primary values that, in my opinion, should motivate our work are the following: a lifelong learning (technical knowledge has revealed to be a very successful ingredient in our fast-paced society), innovation (the key to perform better), the unbreakable bond between practice and theory (each one motivating the other), professional ethics and the wish to cooperate.
Finally, I mention two additional fundamental resources, we share and trust on: people, being our main value, and hard work. I conclude by quoting the following sentence, applicable to every field, not necessarily in science and engineering, “The only place where success comes before work is a dictionary” .

Alfonso Farina.
From an excerpt (with permission) from the Editorial of "Polaris-Innovation Journal, SELEX Sistemi Integrati Technical Review, 08-2011".

This figure, a mathematical curiosity, is the Escher tessellation of a Christmas tree on a Poincarè disk.


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