Monday, December 28, 2009

Singularity U Day 4: The Internet of Things

What comes after Web 2.0? For David Orban, the next phase is the Internet of Things: a digital lattice of interconnected objects — cars, handbags, sneakers, thermoses. Orban calls these objects spimes. Coined by sci-fi god Bruce Sterling, the term denotes a networked thingy that’s aware of its orientation in space and time. Your cellphone is a spime. A Roomba vacuum cleaner is another. Orban’s company WideTag is cranking out spime-ish gizmos and iPhone apps.

Location- and time-aware devices would be a lot more autonomous — they would take care of themselves rather than making you take care of them. Roomba already plugs itself in when it’s thirsty. A cell phone could go a lot farther toward making sure it had enough juice. Orban hopes the OpenSpime standard will lead the way to rapid proliferation. The danger is that connecting scads of spimes will max out the Internet’s capacity for connections. No problem: the next-gen Internet Protocol v6 is designed to accommodate 1,000 nodes for every person on earth.

If that sounds like overkill, consider claytronics, an initiative to make programmable matter. A lump of claytronics comprizes zillions of tiny programmable spheres, currently 1mm in diameter, eventually 1 micron. At that tiny scale, van der waals forces would bind the spheres into a putty that would hold any contour you impose on it. You’d be able to form the stuff by hand into any shape and determine the color, texture, and other characteristics. And, of course, a claytronic object will be able to change its form and character according to remote commands.

At Orban’s invitation, the class breaks into groups, each charged with conceiving its own new-breed spime. My group dreams up SPORE — Space Projects Offworld Resource Explorer — an autonomous botnet that roams the asteroid belt in search of mining opportunities. Other concepts: a P2P Teddy Bear and the Enlightenment spime cloud, which envelops the user in virtual reality.

The proposals get a little silly, but Orban reminds us that Vint Cerf himself, on Google’s official blog, wrote about delivery of soap to Internet-enabled washing machines. “If Vint Cerf can say something like,” he tells the class, “it’s okay to think crazy.”

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