Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The inevitability of smart dust

This post was first published on the O'Reilly Radar.

I've put forward my opinion that desktop computing is dead on more than one occasion, and been soundly put in my place as a result almost every time. "Of course desktop computing isn't dead — look at the analogy you're drawing between the so called death of the mainframe and the death of the desktop. Mainframes aren't dead, there are still plenty of them around!"
Well, yes, that's arguable. But most people, everyday people, don't know that. It doesn't matter if the paradigm survives if it's not culturally acknowledged. Mainframe computing lives on, buried behind the scenes, backstage. As a platform it performs well, in its own niche. No doubt desktop computing is destined to live on, but similarly behind the scenes, and it's already fading into the background.
The desktop will increasingly belong to niche users. Developers need them, at least for now and for the foreseeable future. But despite the prevalent view in Silicon Valley, the world does not consist of developers. Designers need screen real estate, but buttons and the entire desktop paradigm are a hack; I can foresee the day when the computing designers use will not even vaguely resemble today's desktop machines.
For the rest of the world? Computing will almost inevitably diffuse out into our environment. Today's mobile devices are transition devices, artifacts of our stage of technology progress. They too will eventually fade into their own niche. Replacement technologies, or rather user interfaces, like Google's Project Glass are already on the horizon, and that's just the beginning.
People never wanted computers; they wanted what computers could do for them. Almost inevitably the amount computers can do for us on their own, behind our backs, is increasing. But to do that, they need data, and to get data they need sensors. So the diffusion of general purpose computing out into our environment is inevitable.
Everyday objects are already becoming smarter. But in 10 years' time, every piece of clothing you own, every piece of jewelry, and every thing you carry with you will be measuring, weighing and calculating. In 10 years, the world — your world — will be full of sensors.

The sensors you carry with you may well generate more data every second, both for you and about you, than previous generations did about themselves during the course of their entire lives. We will be surrounded by a cloud of data. While the phrase "data exhaust" has already entered the lexicon, we're still essentially at the banging-the-rocks-together stage. You haven't seen anything yet ...


The end point of this evolution is already clear: it's called smart dust. General purpose computing, sensors, and wireless networking, all bundled up in millimeter-scale sensor motes drifting in the air currents, flecks of computing power, settling on your skin, ingested, will be monitoring you inside and out, sensing and reporting — both for you and about you.

Almost inevitably the amount of data that this sort of technology will generate will vastly exceed anything that can be filtered, and distilled, into a remote database. The phrase "data exhaust" will no longer be a figure of speech; it'll be a literal statement. Your data will exist in a cloud, a halo of devices, tasked to provide you with sensor and computing support as you walk along, calculating constantly, consulting with each other, predicting, anticipating your needs. You'll be surrounded by a web of distributed sensors and computing.
Makes desktop computing look sort of dull, doesn't it?