Computing in and with the physical world

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Computers are connected to people, and to the physical world, through input/output devices. These are not just keyboards, mice, monitors, printers etc, but also various sensors, e.g. temperature, light, movement sensors and video cameras, and output devices like industrial control systems or robots. Every day, we increase the extent of what computers can observe, and what they can affect.

Computers are also more connected to each other, thanks to the internet. So now, by virtue of being connected to computers, physical objects are becoming indirectly connected to each other more and more. One of the consequences of this is that physical objects can manipulate other physical objects in different ways, even when they are far away or otherwise unrelated to the sending object. In other words, the internet is converging with the physical world. This is sometimes called the internet of things.

An example: The Nabaztag is a rabbit like internet connected object that has many novel ways of interacting with its environment. However, it’s an artificial object created for this purpose – the real changes are when conventional objects around us become connected unexpectedly. The Economist has an article about what happens when cars become connected. Quote from the article:

“We can stop looking at a car as one system,” says Rahul Mangharam, an engineer at the University of Pennsylvania, “and look at it as a node in a network.”

In preparing for the future, it would be prudent to anticipate a world where things are interconnected even more strongly today. I can think of several problems and opportunities that would arise in such a world:

  • Safety, ownership and security become much more important. Today buildings and property are protected by locks and physical barriers. What happens when the weakest link in a security chain is a bit switch in computer memory? (We already have this in many situations today, but those systems tend to be less connected. The pressure to be more connected will turn those bit switches into greater risks.)
  • Privacy and anonymity on one hand, versus openness and identification on the other, will acquire even more importance. I expect we will have the ability to control in great detail what information we want to reveal about ourselves and our objects, and to whom and what. For instance, there are experiments with software to accumulate footage from many different CCTV cameras and reconstruct a realistic three-dimensional model of physical reality. There are as many exciting applications as there are dangerous ones (from a surveillance state perspective).
  • Completely unrelated objects might be linked to each other in interesting ways by their owners. I might set up a Rubik’s cube so that entering a particular combination on its faces makes my computer decrypt a hidden file (maybe this isn’t very good from a security perspective). The color and intensities of highway streetlights might change dynamically depending on where the cars are. Depending on whether my friends did something interesting today (found out by observing, for instance, their twitter feeds), I might want the speed dial numbers to appear in a different order on my phone. (The system could also try to figure out which friends I might be likely to contact based on my own actions).

But these are all trivial examples.

A related, but different (as I understand it) topic is being researched by Neil Gershenfeld at the MIT Media Lab. They call it “bringing the programmability of the digital world to the physical world”. This seems focussed on creating programmability without conventional computer equipment. If brought to fruition, it might have some consequences in common with increased connectivity.

Indubitably, these questions will enter mainstream politics increasingly in this century. Ideally, the necessary debates will be informed ones, and held early rather than at the last minute when faced with crises.

Image by Great Beyond. Some rights reserved (CC).

Category: Computer science, Philosophy | Tags: , , , Comment »

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