Tag: web

Computing in and with the physical world

June 11th, 2009 — 3:59pm

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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).

Comment » | Computer science, Philosophy

Two new-ish search engines

May 26th, 2009 — 7:59am

Recently, while reading about methods for manipulating RDF, I discovered the search engine PowerSet. More recently, Wolfram Research’s Wolfram Alpha launched. There’s been no shortage of new search engines in the past year or so – Cuil is one that was much publicized but ended up remarkably useless – but these two still impress me.

PowerSet impresses me because of its interface – I can easily see what a particular match is about without leaving the list of search results. Speeding up the typical use cases like this is very important for usability.

Wolfram Alpha impresses me because of the quality of the results. Maybe I’m in the minority thinking this – the press seems to have been giving it mostly negative reviews. Clearly WA is not intended as a Google replacement, but perhaps it was described as being one at some point. Today, being available to the public, it’s something different. It lets me look at data, mostly of the quantitative sort, and make all sorts of semi-interactive charts and comparisons. Here are some searches I liked: earthquakes in Japan, 1 cup of coffee, Tokyo to Osaka. I especially like the interactive earthquake graph.

WA is not without its problems though. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what kind of queries you can make. I found the above mostly by experimentation. If they exposed more details about their data model and what they knew about each kind of object, maybe this would be easier. Right now I’m wondering why I can do a query like “largest cities” but not “largest cities in mexico”, for instance. I suppose this is mainly a question of maturity both on behalf of the system and of its users, though.

Search engines like PowerSet and WA are indicative of a broader trend towards semantics in computing and internet usage. While the semantic web isn’t here yet in the sense that we don’t have a semantic web browser or a unified way of querying the internet, clearly services that are based very heavily on semantic models are becoming mainstream. More on the impact of this in a future post.

1 comment » | Uncategorized

Realtime disease tracking

May 15th, 2009 — 4:50am

I just found out about BioCaster, a tool made by people at my institute. It tracks news in real time and lets you view the spread of diseases geographically.

I’ve seen similar services before (related to swine flu, etc), but this one lets you break down the data by disease and even by symptoms.

Asahi Shinbun mentions it in an article (Japanese).

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