The Elephant’s Trunk

In a collection of essays called The Origin and Evolution of Intelligence (Scheibel and Schopf, eds.), Steven Picker’s article Evolutionary Biology and the Evolution of Language starts off with the assertion In Biology Uniqueness is Common and then immediately proceeds to give a stunning counterexample of that claim.

The elephant’s trunk is 6 feet long, 1 foot thick, and contains 60,000 muscles. Elephants can use their trunks to uproot trees, stack timber, or carefully place huge logs into position when recruited to build bridges. They can curl the trunk around a pencil and draw characters on letter-sized paper. With the two muscular extensions at the tip of the trunk, they can remove a thorn; pick up a pin or a dime; uncork a bottle; slide the bolt off a cage door and hide it on a ledge; or grip a cup, without breaking it, so firmly that only another elephant can pull it away. The tip is sensitive enough for a blindfolded elephant to ascertain the shape and texture of objects. In the wild, elephants use their trunks to pull up clumps of grass and tap them against their knees to knock off dirt, to shake coconuts out of palm trees, and to powder their bodies with dust. They use their trunks to probe the ground as they walk, avoiding pit-traps, and to dig wells and siphon water from them. Elephants can walk underwater on the beds of deep rivers or swim like submarines for miles, using their trunks as snorkels. They communicate through their trunks by trumpeting, humming, roaring, piping, purring, rumbling, and making a crumpling-metal sound by rapping the trunk against the ground. The trunk is lined with chemoreceptors that allow the elephant to smell a python hidden in the grass or food a mile away.

Elephants are the only living animals that possess this extraordinary organ.

If you like elephants, check out The Elephant Encyclopedia for a bunch of neat pictures. But you may ask why I am suddenly going on about elephants. This was prompted by a post on Rajesh Jain’s weblog on a dream device which combines the features of a Blackberry and iPod. To which Brian put a comment and asked whether we really need all-in-one devices. That got me to thinking about the elephant’s trunk and so this post.

To my mind, a device may have various functionalities as long as there is an underlying commonality to the supporting infrastructure that the device incorporates within itself. For instance, if the various functions require digital storage, retrieval, and decoding, then aggregating these functions on the same device that has at its core a huge amount of storage is logical. So you could combine digital diary functions with MP3 functions because they both share the same underlying hardware. Now add a communications function and you have a handheld PDA which plays MP3. Camera and picture viewer also logically follow since a PDA has to have a screen and so they are shared.

But then, an all-in-one device has the obvious disadvantage that Brian pointed out in his comment, namely, you lose the device and you are up the proverbial creek without the paddle. Well, in that case, the obvious evolution of the device is to use the device for retrival and communications alone and keep the storage function outside the device, say, on centralized servers that are unlikely to get stolen. Ultimately, if you have broadband connectivity, then you really don’t need to drag your own harddrive all over the bloody place. This has the other advantage of lower power requirements.

Indeed, most of computing could be moved to centalized servers and all you need is a retrieval device that is not complicated at all. Think about it.

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.