Over four decades ago, the Internet was born and with it the beginning of a new era. As with many significant ages in human civilization, this new era has its own calendar. Ever since midnight on the cusp of 1969 and 1970, a simple counter has ticked off each second. This was the beginning of the Unix Epoch, called so for its implementation on the standard Unix computing operating system used as the foundation of the Internet. The exact beginning of the Unix epoch is rather arbitrary, but it’s place in history is not. Curiously, the end of this Unix Calendar is only around 25 years away, to be replaced by a new calendar built on top of even newer technology, and maybe signifying a new age in human civilization.
There has always been a strong and curious link between time and technology. Navigation of the oceans via the positions of stars requires an accurate clock. Modern day navigation with GPS systems require very accurate clocks. Over the course of history, we have developed various devices to measure time. These are calendars, which measure long spans of time, and clocks, which measure short spans of time but with greater accuracy. The technology of calendars and clocks have kept pace with the long history of human growth, with advances coinciding with agrarian and industrial ages of civilization. This correlation hints at an underlying cause.
Complex machines require advanced technologies for measuring time. Historically it’s a synchronized clock that machines need to execute complex patterns. The Information Age is built on top of the Atomic Clock, providing significantly more precision than purely mechanical clocks. This gave us the ability to build machines that could rapidly exchange large volumes of information. These computer machines running the Unix operating systems kept an internal clock and calendar: a simple number of seconds that have elapsed since a certain point in time.
Time as implemented in the Unix operating system was a well engineered device - one with a few clear limitations. The most obvious limitation is the use of seconds for the clock, rather than even smaller units of time that would allow more complex software machinery. The more critical limitation is that the calendar has an end date. Soon, the number that counts the seconds from 1969 will become to big. In 2038, the Unix calendar will come to an end.
As an engineering problem, the end of the Unix Calendar is a bit bigger than Y2K, but unlikely to cause serious harm. This event is also unlikely to cause as much excitement as the recent end of the Mayan calendar. In many ways, the end of the Unix calendar is not a very big deal. However, it’s end signifies a new beginning as we develop technology to measure an ever finer granularity of data from ever increasing time spans. The next era of time is near, and will allow us to build machines so complex we can barely predict them.
Time is a complicated thing. When it comes to most technologies, a simple operational definition, such as counting the predictable periodic vibrations of an atom is all we need. Humans, however, experience time subjectively. This is a topic of great debate in philosophy and psychology. How exactly do we experience the passage of time from moment to moment, from season to season. Of key importance is the effects of time on our memories. This is truly a complicated and mysterious topic, but our knowledge is advancing rapidly and we can begin to understand the ways in which time is fundamental to our conscious experience.
We are at the cusp of one of the most amazing efforts in human history : the attempt to build a mind. We should soon have the knowledge and power to construct a machine that is unquestionably equivalent to a human mind. If we fail to build a truly conscious artificial intelligence, we will still succeed in building a device that can be interacted with naturally as if it was a very intelligent human. A machine this complex will need to process large volumes of data with a very fine level of granularity over time periods far longer than any existing information system. To succeed, a machine mind needs to have a model of time similar to how humans experience time. This is a key to large scale data processing scalability in a way that works with human intelligence.
With the end of the Unix Calendar, we will have standardized on an amazingly more powerful system for measuring time. This will have an impact on our most complex machines and specifically our information systems. The end of the Unix Calendar may even signify the end of the Information Age and the beginning of an age of truly human-like machine minds.