COMPUTER CONFERENCES ON THE AGENDA|
Published in SCIENCE IN THE USSR in November, 1985, No. 6, pp. 84-89.
This was the first publication on THE INTERNET in the Soviet press - though in the beginning of 1980-s "the Internet" existed only as "international computer conferences", or "teleconferences". In those bygone days computer communications had taken place as e-mails, distributed among participants either directly, in a real time mode, or via e-mail boxes - for participants not currently on-line.
The author had been working in international computer conferences from 1982 to 1989 (until his departure - for good - from Moscow to Boston), first using computers out of Moscow Research Institute of Applied Automated Systems (RIAAS), and then his own PC from his apartment in the Olympic Village in Moscow. This was done using a 360 baud modem - hard to believe nowadays, looking at super-high-speed modems currently in use.
It is hard to grasp mentally, but for about seven years the author was the only person in the USSR, along with the rest of the "communist countries" of some two billion people, who had been working in "the Internet" in the 1980-s.
The author is unmeasurably indebted to the World Academy of Art and Science and its President Carl Goran Heden (Stockholm), who had invited me in 1982 to participate in international computer conferences, had sponsored my regular - practically every other day - work in international computer networks for seven years, that eventually got me elected to the World Academy as a Member. I also indebted very much to Stockholm University (Sweden) and Guelph University (Canada) for a remote using - free of charge - their computer systems in 1982-1986 and 1986-1989, respectively. Last, but not least, I am thankful to Professor Oleg Smirnov, Director of RIAAS (Moscow), who had made my participation in computer networks possible - technically and otherwise - since he covered for all those years my practically illegal activity with computer communications. From the national (USSR) security point of view I had been doing serious crime, communicating with individuals and institutions abroad across the state border, without special permissions and ongoing control. Those who had lived (or currently live) under totalitarian regime, would understand what does it mean. Since I had been doing that "serious political criminal activity" non-stop for a good number of years, and Director Smirnov was aware of it and did nothing to prevent it (actually, had encouraged it), I am really thankful to him.
The following article was written as my attempt to attract attention to the newly emerging and exciting communication tool. The article was written in 1984, was banned from publication for about a year ("masses should not know about it" - these exact words were said by a bureaucrat from the State Committee of Science and Technology, who had banned the article). Thanks to Academician Georgy K. Skryabin, then Secretary of the USSR Academy of Sciences, who had supported the article and eventually made its publication possible.
As a follow-up, this article was reprinted by a number of Soviet magazines (Znanie-Sila, Nauka i Zhizn', Vestnik Akademii Nauk, and some others). This was followed by a TV broadcast on computer conferencing (in 1988), in which the author of this article served as an anchor. This in turn initiated a step-by-step legalization of e-mails in the former USSR. In 1991 the USSR collapsed, and the rest was history. It should be noticed only, that when the infamous coup d'etat attempt happened in August of 1991, and all the media were shot down, it was said that e-mails from Moscow received in the West were the only source of information on what was going on in the first several hours of the event. If it is true, I am a little proud of it.
Copy of the original of the article is HERE. One thing in the article was not true. The last picture (on page 89) says: "Preparation for a computer conference at Moscow University". This was lie. There was no computer conferencing from any place in Russia in the mid of 1980-s except my work from RIAAS and then from my apartment in the mid of 1980-s. The picture and its caption was a condition required for the article to be published.
For a nowadays reader the article might occur rather primitive. Please notice a few details, though. For instance, in one place (in fourth paragraph) I have copied an actual text on the screen of my computer in 1983 (and added "Bioenergy-85" to the text to make the article up to date, since it was published in 1985). The screen said: "Five other persons are currently present in the system". Mind you, that that time a computer on-line indeed reported how many people were actually connected to the server at any given time. Furthermore, in 1983 there was only ONE main server in Europe, which was located at Stockholm University. In other words, at that particular moment of my work there were ONLY FIVE INDIVIDUALS in Europe working in computer networks concurrently with me. In the beginning of 1984 there were some 380 users in Europe, and one could get a hard copy of their names punching in a respective computer command.
The following is the full text of the article as it appeared in SCIENCE IN THE USSR in 1985.
Copy of the original of the article is HERE.
Prof. A. KLYOSOV, D.Sc. (Chem.), is an expert in biochemistry and biotechnology. Winner of the USSR State Prize and the Lenin YCL Prize, he heads the Carbohydrate Research Laboratory of the USSR Academy of Sciences' Bach Institute of Biochemistry.
Amazing changes are to be observed in information communication due to the convergence of computers and sophisticated communications systems. Specialists hold the view that by the close of the present century a scientist will be able to get in touch with any other researcher anywhere else immediately and without effort. An utopian fantasy? Nothing of the sort! Already now computer conferences enable scientists to exchange views freely via display screens without leaving their institutions.
Let's imagine the following. Something resembling an attache case is put on our desk and opening it we see a keyboard akin to that of an ordinary typewriter, plus a display screen which lights up green when the computer is linked to the telephone network. Modern computer technology has made this possible. We now type a definite set of digits and see on the screen the following question in several languages. "Welcome to host computer, which language will you use?" As I am to "talk" with English-speaking colleagues, I press the letter "E" and in response to the questions on the screen I type out my name and user number, after that I wait a few seconds until the screen "page" gives the "O.K."
The screen is covered with lines which tell me what the host computer has stored up in its memory bank since I last logged into it.
It reads: "You have 4 unseen letters, 3 unseen entries in a conference Bioconversion Technical, 5 unseen entries in a conference English Language, 24 unseen entries in Speakers Corner, 2 unseen entries in Bioenergy-85, 6 unseen entries in Computer Conferencing Experience. You have 44 unseen entries. Five other persons are currently present in the system." The screen page asks me whether I would like to read the letters or join a particular conference. (Nowadays a scientist has the opportunity to join any of the 200 odd scientist teleconferences which are in progress at any one time in the European computer conference system alone - Ed.) Other options allow me to transmit a televised letter or sign off. One can easily imagine that the five users mentioned may be at that moment in any of the six continents. It is much harder to believe though that they can talk with one another momentarily and discuss a serious scientific problem, even argue over it by merely carrying out a few simple operations on their computers.
The intermediaries are the special host computers at major research centers, which have immense memory banks capable of storing hundreds of thousands of communications received simultaneously from several thousand users and of sending out requested scientific data to any institute or lab keyed into this system. The communications link is effected by ordinary telephone cable or space channels in the same manner as one, for instance, here in Moscow we may talk with Khabarovsk out in the Soviet Far East or with New York City. The text sent by one user to another or to some conference and forwarded to the host computer remains in its memory banks to be retrieved when required. One may key in on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis depending on the amount of data one expects or on the urgency of the communications that you need. Such is the fundamental difference from ordinary telephone conversations, when all users need to be on hand simultaneiously. Furthermore, the computer usually has a printer attached, and after the communication session ends, one gets a full stenographic record of all the communications typed out in any number of copies. Finally, there is nothing simpler than setting up a chart or diagram on the display screen and transmitting it to colleagues for analysis. Thus, during the world computer conference on bioconversion - more about that later - which happened to coincide in part with the Christmas holidays - participants embellished communications with drawings of Xmas trees, lighted candles and glasses of sparkling champaigne.
But however sophisticated technology may be, it cannot fully replace personal contact. It is essential for scientists to meet and exchange views and engage in off-line discussions. Still in a number of cases, it is more expedient to arrange teleconferences, as every year symposia, conferences and the like in many different disciplines often coincide. Without the time or much money (the more so, since participants fees often run into several hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars) it is simply impossible to attend all or even the majority of the conferences especially those on international scale.
I myself regularly participate in some dozen or more teleconferences on different subjects. The biggest in the European computer conference system which incorporates the USSR is the "Speakers Corner" which has an "audience" of some four hundred, and which has already received some 2,000 communications. Runner-up is the "English Language" conference, with some two hundred users and about five hundred communications sent. Third comes "Bioconversion" with about one hundred users and 700-odd communications.
Asked to provide, for example, the list of conferences currently taking place the computer displays on its screen and prints out the titles of all teleconferences arranged earlier, while simultaneously supplying the respective data as to the number of participants involved in each, and the number of communications presented. To key in, you type out the conference required, upon which the relevant screen page will ask whether you wish to participate or not. The moment you type the affirmative the screen will tell you how many unread communications for you there are which have been presented to the conference in question. Next the screen asks the user to state his preference, whether he would like to read all communications one after another, or one particular paper, or the more recent papers and how many of them. All one needs to do now is to indicate your opinion upon which the display screen will page the text and indicate its original number thus enabling the user to identify the author, the time of writing and transmission of the communication to the computer and, finally, the key words for the search.
Generally, it is much the same as at an ordinary symposium at which a member of the audience may question the speaker, take the rostrum or debate the issue informally. True, the teleconference offers a marked advantage in that it enables one to scan the text displayed quickly, type out the name of the "speaker", choose anything of interest, obtain printouts of the required papers, etc.
We mounted a thorough tele-test in late 1983, when a number of international organizations decided to hold a nonstop world teleconference on bioconversion of lignocellulose for fuel, fodder and food. This subject was chosen because many researchers and technologists throughout the world were and still are keenly interested in how to develop bioconversion techniques by which we mean the biological transformation of plant material or its waste such as lignocellulosic residues into such useful products as sugar, alcohol, biogas, etc. The annual worldwide natural plant growth produces upwards of 100 billion tons of cellulose. Human usage of even a part of this amount results in the accumulation of considerable quantities of cellulose-containing wastes which represent an inexhaustible source of energy and food for man. However, the problem is how to obtain valuable products more rationally from these wastes with the aid of natural biocatalysts, that is enzymes (see I. Berezin and A. Klyosov, "Enzymes Attack Cellulose", Science in the USSR, 1981, No.3).
Our teleconference, whose sponsors included the UN and its specialized agencies such as UNESCO, UNEP, UNIDO as well as the World Academy of Art and Science, was arranged to discuss feasible techniques, select optimum versions and original approaches, resolve controversies and elucidate the scientific, organizational and technical issues involved in arranging computer conferences. Prof. O. Smirnov, Director of the Research Institute of Applied Automated Systems of the USSR State Committee for Science and Technology, and USSR Academy of Sciences' Corresponding Member I. Berezin, Director of the Bach Institute of Biochemistry were appointed as chairmen of the Soviet Organizing Committee (the author of the present article represented the USSR and was in charge of this undertaking).
The world teleconference on bioconversion, which was so successfully conducted in this country with the aid of the terminal computers at Prof. Smirnov's Institute was broken down into three stages. During the first, preparatory, stage from March into December 1983 non-stop international computerized meetings on the planning of teleconferences on bioconversion were organized, at which the programs were drafted, the respective questions tabulated and the participating countries, technical aspects, etc. were defined. At the same time the host computer received the first scientific communications which were discussed at once by experts in microbiology, biochemistry and biotechnology.
The second and, in effect, basic stage was launched in December. The Soviet team consisted of 12 leading specialists on bioconversion from institutes of the USSR and Union Republic Academies, the Glavmikrobioprom (microbiological industry trust) and the USSR Ministry of Higher Education. Debating clubs linked with the main Soviet team by telephone were organized in many Soviet cities where there were experts on bioconversion. Noting how productive this had been, Carl-Goran Heden, Director of UNEP/UNESCO/ICRO Microbiological Resource Center (MIRCEN), Stockholm, the leader of the world bioconversion teleconference, said: "Personally I found that the most interesting parts of the discussions took place between the European and North American participants, on the one hand, and the Soviet scientists, on the other. In the course of the December conference the latter also demonstrated how a node in Moscow could very effectively act as a switchboard for an extensive national network ranging from Riga to Tashkent and from Leningrad to Kiev" (MIRCENET Newsletter, 1984, No. 2).
The UK was represented by 34 specialists, the USA and Canada by 26, Sweden by 11, the FRG by 7, Italy, the GDR, the Philippines by four each and Finland, Guatemala, Japan, Thailand, Luxemburg, Denmark, Brazil and New Zealand by one each (some of those countries participated off-line, using faxes and conventional mail to communicate to moderators of this computer conference - A.K.). Nearly all the hundred-odd experts involved maintained daily contact with a daily average of some 100 communications and comments on them.
During the debates experts exchanged views on prearranged subjects with preference given to the consensus of opinion that was reached at the terminal computers. Discussions were concerned, for instance, with problems of the genetic engineering of enzymes and microorganisms transforming cellulose into sugar and liquid fuels, the development of units for obtaining biogas from industrial and agricultural wastes, the cultivation of edible fungi on lignocellulosic wastes, the development of an international system for the storage and exchange of microorganism strains, aspects of the organization of bioconversion in the developing countries, etc.
The world teleconference enabled participants to select from the overall influx of news the more important items and moreover in a most efficient manner. Here are two important aspects which distinguish teleconferences from the many means of communication in the world of science. Printouts enable the "instantaneous" publication of matters arising not infrequently in the process of discussion which is flashed round the world, skipping the long and tortuous route of preparation, editing, reviewing, typing, printing, proofreading, etc.
While it is impossible to mention all the contacts the teleconference provided, here are several examples from the many that were typical. Thus, Dr. Quimio of the University of the Philippines at Los Banos noted what was being done to cultivate edible fungi from woodwaste and rice straw, and round up his presentation thus: "I hereby appeal to the scientific community to help us to maximize the fungi yield and to produce protein-rich fodder and will welcome any comment or advice." The Italian Professor Giovannozzi at once replied: "We have read with a great pleasure the text sent by T.H. Quimio and would like to know whether the fungi studied would not contain substances suppresing enzyme activity which in turn can stimulate fungi growth. We offer our cooperation to try to solve the arised problems by studying some strains with biochemical techniques in our Institute in Vitterbo."
From the Microbiology Department of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences came this appeal: "Please! I want to come in contact with areas related to the methane formation in or from peat. Bo Svensson."
On the third day of the teleconference Prof. Murray Moo-Young, the leader of the joint US-Canadian team, observed: "I was supposed to give a summary of today's discussion on fermentation technology and scale-up, but, obviously, I cannot do this because the participants have continued to discuss and debaters seem unable to stop. So, I will wait until tomorrow."
...(From the GDR to the USSR): "Thank you very much for your greetings to Berlin. We hope on a successful cooperation between our institutes. Then, on the basis of your experience what do you see the more effective technique for recycling lignocellulose material - steam explosion or alkaline pretreatment? Acad. Ringpfeil."
...(From Sweden to the USSR): "Arkady, please tell us a short description of the fermentation inhibitory effects of explosion lignin or other lignins."
...(From the USSR to Thailand): "Hello, Jiraporn, try an adsorption test for cellulases on cellulose, using the technique published in the Soviet journal Biokhimiya, 1983, No. 3, p. 369. The results of the experiment will answer your question."
Almost as soon as it began the computer conference slipped onto an informal basis. Prof. Carlos Rolz, Director of the Microbiological Resource Center (MIRCEN) in Guatemala transmitted the following message: "If I could think like a microbe (which I often try to do, but never succeed) I would hate to be put in a reactor under high shear in a dilute suspension of fibers because in order to eat I would have to produce a lot of enzymes and throw them away with the following blessing: Go out there and try to attach yourself to a fiber and produce some food that I can assimilate and do it quickly before you are totally inhibited or I starve."
In his communication on cloning of cellulases Prof. Jonathan Knowles, the British scientist currently doing research in Finland, said that by employing genetic engineering technoques he had synthesized from yeasts a new hybrid microorganism which grows on straw and immediately converting it into alcohol, skipping the intermediary phase of cellulose conversion into sugar. He added that the alcohol thus obtained could be used, for instance, as liquid fuel.
Prof. Knowles was at once invited by Soviet scientists - via teleconference channels - to present a paper about this major scientific achievement at the 16th Conference of the Federation of European Biochemical Societies to take place in Moscow (See "Forum of World's Biochemists", Science in the USSR, 1985, No.4). The invitation was accepted, and the lecture was delivered - now personally - half a year later at the FEBS Meeting in Moscow.