This week’s Economist has a very interesting survey of the future of wireless technology, which assesses progress towards ubiquitous computing and “the internet of things” – the idea that in the near future pretty well every artefact will carry its own computing power, able to sense its environment and communicate wirelessly with other artefacts and computer systems. The introductory article and the (rather useful) list of sources and links (including the book by Adam Greenfield – Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing – whose title I’ve appropriated for my post) are freely available; for the other seven articles you need a subscription (or you could just buy a copy from the newstand).

Evolutionary nanotechnology is likely to contribute to these developments in at least two ways; by making possible a wide range of sensors able to detect, for example, very small concentrations of specific chemicals in the environment, and, through technologies like plastic electronics, by making possible the mass-production of rudimentary computing devices at tiny cost. Even with current technology, these developments are sure to raise privacy and security issues, but equally may make possible unimagined benefits in areas such as health and energy efficiency. The Economist’s survey finishes on an uncharacteristically humble note: “There is no saying how it will be used, other than it will surprise us.”

4 thoughts on “Everyware”

  1. Richard, thanks for the notice. I’m also, obviously, fascinated by the resonances between everyware and nanotechnology.

    This is the way I tend to think of things: enthusiasts and Cassandras both note that the phasing-in of ubiquitous computing is likely to be highly disruptive. Similarly, enthusiasts and Cassandras both note that the emergence of a functional nanotechnology is likely to be highly disruptive. But surprisingly few, from either camp, tend to consider that neither of these things is taking place in a vacuum, and the social and economic impact of one is certain to be amplified by the existence of the other.

    It’s hard enough to explain either one of these domains thoroughly but accessibly to the general public, and (short of gee-whiz utility fog speculations) harder still to convey the sorts of weirdness sure to emerge from their interface. We have our work cut out for us!

  2. AG’s penultimate sentence made me think for a minute. It seems to me that certainly in the next decade or two we shouldn’t expect weirdness from everyware and nanotech. Sure, people will use the technologies in new and interesting ways (Clothes with lights and displays in them could be used as a form of social signalling and artwork), but I can’t really see complete weirdness coming.
    (Which is of course the point, but it is hard to think of any weird way of using the technologies that isn’t merely a different expression of common desires.)

  3. I would suggest a more appropriate term might be ‘Pervasive Computing’ and yes the similarities to Nanotechnology are rife. One of the most important features of this technology is its Pedestrian nature. Just as John Dobson took Astronomy to the sidewalk, the Highway of light is taking the whole pervasive nature of this emerging field to the sidestreets of the world where people are talking about it.
    The are those who tout the idea of the ‘Replicator in Every Home’ mantra and to a degree that is valid. However I suggest a more valid feature of this whole age is the pervasiveness of it incursion into our vocabulary and thus, dare I say, its co-opting by society at large.
    Ubiquitous, or Pervasive Computing is following much the same path and this can only be good.

  4. Vernor Vinge’s novel Rainbows End is a near-future (2025-ish) look at how these technologies might be used. Pretty remarkable, especially the augmented reality interfaces. You can see through walls, around corners, etc; video conference with no visible cameras or screens (the cameras are everywhere and the screen is in your glasses); have a sort of virtual telepathy (gesture-based IM); virtual telepresence, walking the corridors at work without being there; lots of other wild stuff. I don’t know how realistic it is either technologically or socially but certainly provocative.

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