Beyond the Internet
If you think of how many computers we're all surrounded by now it may seem strange to think that during the 21st century they just might disappear altogether. And yet according to the pioneers of information technology (IT) that's exactly what's likely to happen. Not that we're heading back to the days of hand written ledgers and the abacus -- far from it. What it means is that computers are literally going to be absorbed by their surroundings and embedded in walls, carpets, toasters, neckties, and even our own bodies. As computing dissolves into the environment it will become as pervasive as the electricity flowing through society. In a controversial prediction, some scientists suggest the earth will be wrapped in a "digital skin," transmitting signals over the Internet almost as a living creature relays impulses through its nervous system. Millions of sensors will probe and monitor highways, cities, factories, forests, oceans, and the atmosphere. Some will be linked to orbiting satellites -- extending the reach of this digital infrastructure into outer space.
Scientists refer to this scenario as ubiquitous or pervasive computing. Either way, the bottom line is the same: an unprecedented level of connectivity. The international consulting firm Ernst & Young predicts that by 2010 there will be nearly 10,000 telemetric devices (meaning devices that transmit or receive data) for every person on earth. Managing connectivity on a scale like this will be too difficult for humans to do on their own. In the future, network management will be partially delegated to software programs called agents that learn about their users and act autonomously on their behalf. The way humans interact with computers will also change profoundly. Instead of typing commands into a passive box, humans will use speech and physical gestures to communicate with computers much as they do with anyone else. Computer networks will in turn be adaptive, intelligent, and self-organizing.
The pace of change in computing is dizzying even to those advancing its leading edge. Neil Gershenfeld, the co-director of the Things That Think consortium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory, admits he no longer tries predicting when some futuristic technology might appear because it almost invariably turns up years before he thought it would. Much of the basic infrastructure for ubiquitous computing is actually already here -- the Internet is up and running, processing power is increasing daily, and advances in wireless technology are exploding. For example, emerging systems like Wideband Code Division Multiple Access will soon increase wireless data rates to two megabits per second; fast enough to download songs and movies from the Web. This capacity points to a future in which handheld devices are used to access a wide range of databases and other kinds of networked tools.
In addition to the social ramifications, ubiquitous computing also has important implications for the environment. In fact, many scientists view the promise of real-time data flowing over self-managing networks as a bright light in the future of environmental protection. How do chemical pollutants move through oceans and the atmosphere? Can we link ecological changes to fluctuations in the global environment? Today, scientists investigating difficult problems like these rely on computer models and incomplete measurement data that are sporadic at best. But when self-powered sensors in the field "talk" to each other we can set up dynamic databases that reduce the uncertainty in these analyses. With better information will come better decisionmaking, and with that, environmental policies that are more responsive to ecological needs.
Integrating physical objects and the Internet will also lead to a new era of "intelligent" manufacturing and distribution that will save scarce resources. Just five to ten years from now, manufacturers will track products from razor blades to tuna cans remotely with radiofrequency communication. This will not only boost recycling and facilitate inventory management, it will also allow companies to conserve energy and reduce waste by matching manufacturing and supplies to real-time demand. Farther in the future, some products will be simply downloaded from the Internet and printed directly where used, eliminating the need to expend energy in transportation. Describing what might as well be a scene from the 1960s' television show "The Jetsons," Gershenfeld suggests future households will print three-dimensional items like wine glasses and toy jeeps on a device called a "fabricator." Sound far-fetched? It's already happening. Three-dimensional printing is underway at the Media Laboratory now, although it will be years before the technology is widely available.
Without doubt, this view of the digital future also has a darker side. Threats to personal privacy, hacking, increasing network vulnerability, and digital terrorism are all serious and unresolved issues. And there are myriad technical hurdles yet to be overcome. Whether society is ready to embrace this "second wave of connectivity" is debatable. John Seely Brown, the chief scientist at Xerox, suggests its environmental benefits can be realized only when society shifts from a traditional focus on personal computing toward broader concepts based on adaptive, self-organizing systems. But how and when this shift will take place remains to be seen.
Most people might think computers isolate humans and distance them from the natural world. And certainly the image of someone sitting alone for hours mesmerized by the gentle hum and glowing screen of a plastic box supports this view. But changes in computing might also bring humans closer to their environment and enable them to better understand and manage the natural world around them. The sections that follow in this chapter describe the ways in which this might happen.
Next section: The Networked Physical World