Take a good look at the delicate ballet of
those massive earth-movers the next time you pass a section of highway construction:
they may be taking their orders from the stars, or at least the global positioning
"We're talking about robotics on a very large
scale," says Nick Talbot, a software engineer at GPS company Trimble. The
road engineers no longer need to painstakingly survey and stake the job;
instead, they upload digital images containing embedded GPS tags. Think of
it as autopilot for earth-movers and you're on the right track; those codes
are used to steer the bulldozer or grader to where the earth needs moving.
GPS has undergone several generations of Moore's
Law changes. A generation ago, receivers were the size of a housebrick and
needed a car battery for power. Today, you can get a Seiko watch with GPS
embedded. GPS chips, says Talbot, are fast on their way to becoming a "universal
While GPS can help kerb a road or precision
plan an open-cut mine, it is also – in crude form – the technology that maps
us to a specific location in space. When we're all online, all the time (and
that's not far away, thanks to GPRS or general packet radio service phones)
it is GPS that will help us find vendors and – worse – help them find us.
GPS "3Ds" the internet, creating a holographic rendition of our lives.
For a relatively low price, you can embed a
GPS chip into anything, including animals, and always know exactly where
the chip is. The 3500 taxis belonging to Yellow Cab Co and the Silver Top
Taxi Service in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne are tracked by GPS while farmers
use it to track livestock.
GPS is also used to facilitate the internet
in cars. Technology research company Strategy Analytics says that 55% of
all new cars in Japan, Europe and the United States will have built-in "telematics"
navigation and information systems by 2007. In Australia, you can find GPS
telematics in high-end Holdens and, soon, Fords. And that's just the beginning.
A few years ago, motor show visitors would watch with a giggle as GPS-guided
computers parked mock-up cars. Laugh no more because BMW has gone ahead and
done it, building cars that can navigate across town and make decisions about
how far you should be from the car in front of you, and at what speed.
GPS is poised to become a ubiquitous technology;
give it another generation, and we'll embed them in newborns. Until then,
you'll need a phone. But getting lost (or found) will never be the same again.
2. Wireless data
Why would anyone want wireless computing?
You could start by asking Japanese youth. Little more than two years after
Japan's DoCoMo wireless company launched the iMode mobile internet service,
more than 7 million people have subscribed. In 1998 – before iMode – Japanese
internet penetration was 13.4% at a time when the US was 37%. In 2000, Japan
leapfrogged the US thanks to iMode, turning DoCoMo into Japan's biggest internet
service provider in just a few months.
Wireless is achieved in three different ways:
mobile internet (for example, iMode), which uses the mobile phone networks
to ship content to mobile phones; the Wireless LAN (WLAN), which wirelessly
connects your computer to a radio base station, which itself connects to
the fibre optic data loop (much like the set-up of a cordless phone); and
the personal-area wireless connection provided by Bluetooth, an embedded
chip that allows devices to "speak" and swap information.
These are all technologies to watch. Bluetooth
is not in enough phones, computers, printers and video cameras yet to be
declared a winner. And mobile internet – while great for remote workforces
that need to shift files from, says, head office to a laptop or PDA– has
yet to produce compelling consumer content in Australia.
An Australian company called Air Loom uses
mobile internet and Bluetooth together in its subscriber system, which
runs on GPRS – an interim data solution running at 40kbs (slightly less than
the 56k dial-up connection on a PC) and which, like broadband, is always
on. The Ericsson T39 phone is GPRS-enabled as well as having a Bluetooth
chip in it; the wireless data is transmitted through the phone via Bluetooth
and into a Bluetooth-powered iPaq PDA. With this wireless combination, users
can send and receive SMS messages, email from POP3 accounts, web mail and
search the web from wherever they can pick up a GPRS signal.
Air Loom CEO Chris Hagios says the future of
mobile internet is assured and that 3G, when it arrives, will change our
perception of wireless computing.
Which leads us to wireless LAN, which is set
to become a pivotal technology over the next five years. Although it was
Apple that first commercialised its AirPort wireless base station over the
802.11b spectrum, all the computer and peripheral makers now make wireless
LAN chips sets and base stations for wireless LAN connections.
The appeal of WLAN is simple: laptop users
with a WLAN card in their machine can be anywhere in the building or on the
campus, and still be connected. WLAN has become pertinent in knowledge-based
workplaces since most knowledge workers are in areas where no one has their
own desk or room – it is all demountable.
The wireless base stations are being used in
serial situations to create wide-area networks consisting of many base stations
reconfigured as relay stations. Given time, these ad hoc networks could challenge
established voice and wireline networks. Groups in the US are beginning to
hook ad hoc networks together. Given time, WLAN will change the way we compute
3. Grid computing – peer to peer
The real technologies to watch for in the
medium term won't challenge us visually – they'll alter the way we think.
An example is what engineers are calling the Grid. If you can imagine the
way we use computers, you could see it like a wheel: the server, or the hard
drive – the point of data-retrieval – is the hub. Sprouting from the hub
are the spokes, which are the users of the hard drive.
The Grid turns that proposition into a 3D picture:
rather than one data session equalling one trip to one hard drive, the Grid
envisages that one session at a PC would involve the searching of hundreds
of personal, commercial, governmental and corporate hard drives for everything
from a Microsoft Excel application to enough computing power to run a genome
model. It is a vision loosely called "distributed computing".
The Grid sounds like Napster, but where it
departs from the humble peer-to-peer system lies in the scope of what the
Grid aims to do: to create supercomputers linked across geographical
and time boundaries.
Several Australian universities, including
the University of Melbourne, are trialling grid technologies. The idea is
predicated on an estimate that the average corporate server uses between
8% and 10% of its processing capacity.
If you have household computer penetration
of more than 50% in the OECD nations, and minuscule penetration in vast developing
populations, then the Grid starts to look like a technology rebalancing exercise.
This works as a theory, says the University
of Melbourne's Rajkumar Buyya, because part of the development of the Grid
means few users of the internet are going to need the relatively powerful
computers we have on our desks and in our homes. "If you are using the Grid,
you don't need a powerful PC," he says. "Someone in India could be using
the Grid with just a keyboard, a screen and a connection. The Grid means
that eventually most computer users will be using a PDA – it's all they'll
In other words, you may belong to a cut-price
ISP on the proviso that your excess processing power from that two-gig chip
can be "netted-off" by the ISP to be brokered into the developing world.
Waste is turned into a resource.
Buyya says the Grid will change everything:
"When an Office 98 user in Australia upgrades to XP, where does the Office
98 licence go?"
His point is that Office 98 is a perfectly
good set of software for most people in the world who want to write a letter,
keep their business records on Excel or create a presentation. But when we
upgrade these licences, we junk the superseded program. On the Grid, the
software makers – or their brokers – will make superseded licences for all
sorts of applications available on mass-use licences, probably paid for by
the ISPs. If you want to run spread sheets or PDFs, the application is simply
served to your screen from the Grid; you don't need to buy the software or
have the microprocessor big enough to run it on your own machine. And proprietary
operating systems become redundant because the Grid runs on XML, a mark-up
language that translates as it goes.
The final wash-up? "When everyone is on the
Grid," says Buyya, "then computing becomes invisible. You don't have to know
anything about it except everything you need is there when you want it."
The securing of identity is a relatively simple
matter when you boil it down to its basic parts, says David Curtis, business
development manager at security expert Giesecke & Devrient Australasia.
"A system either tests something you have or something you know – such as
a smart card and a password. Or it tests something you are."
Are you ready for the technology that "clears"
you at every step of your life based on something you are? For decades, crime
fighters have used fingerprint identification to track criminals, which
– along with the older identifiers such as height, weight, age and race –
created a picture of who the criminal was.
But the technology to watch for is biometrics
and it's well beyond a few pieces of deductive data. Biometrics is almost
certainly the way most of us will be making financial transactions, entering
buildings and clearing immigration at the airport within the next decade.
Biometrics uses an astonishing array of technologies
designed to positively link you to something you are. The identifiers used
in biometrics include the face, fingerprints, retina, hand and finger geometry,
veins, handwriting, iris, voice and "multimodal" systems that mix in several
of the above.
The way we order from Amazon will eventually
look like this: credit cards or driver's licences contain smart chips with
32k of memory available in them. Users will have their fingerprints scanned
digitally into the chip; when buyers want to make a purchase over the internet,
they will push their card into a "reader". The web site then asks the buyers
to place their fingerprints on another reader and the two prints are compared.
If they match, the transaction goes through.
This, says Curtis, is the basic building block
of biometrics and it already works: "readers" have come down to $200 in some
cases and Toshiba has built a combined smart card slot and fingerprint reader
into one of its latest laptops.
Organisations such as the Health Insurance
Commission, the Australian Taxation Office and the Reserve Bank of Australia
are all implementing biometrics systems for internal layers of clearance.
"The federal government uses eight-digit codes,"
says Curtis. "But the biometrics are non-transferrable. Only you can have
your fingerprint or your iris."
The ramifications of an almost-perfect identification
method for the internet are vast: 80% of web users browse online retailers
but only 4% of them buy. The number one fear of would-be internet shoppers
is still the lack of control they have over their credit card numbers once
they have been submitted. But although a fingerprint file can be "captured",
thieves cannot verify it with their own fingerprints.
"Within 10 years, all transactions between
the ATO and taxpayers will be conducted by first authenticating yourself
[with biometrics]," says Curtis. "Inside of 10 years, biometrics will be
coming down to the consumer level."
The big plus? No more remembering 20 PINs just
to get through the day.
5. Autonomic computing – artificial intelligence
Technologies to watch for? Let's start with
the lizard's brain: running at about 10 teraflops – or 10 trillion decisions
a second – the lizards are pretty thick. So thick that IBM has built a supercomputer
for the US Department of Energy called ASCI White that runs as fast as the
small reptile's grey matter.
"In 12 years, we'll have a machine that runs
at 10,000 teraflops," says IBM's director of internet strategy, Michael Nelson.
"That's the cycle speed of the human brain. We'll have the speed but nowhere
near the sophistication."
Big Blue has not been toying with artificial
intelligence for the reasons you could make a movie about. The world's largest
IT company wants the type of AI that will ape the autonomic reactions in
animals – those self-adjusting, self-healing subconscious management commands
made by our bodies every second to make us breathe, sweat and pant according
to our needs.
IBM is trying to develop what it calls "autonomic
computing" in which elements of a network are "smart" enough to heal and
"We have a machine as smart as a lizard," says
Nelson. "But a lizard can avoid danger – they can heal themselves. Our machines
are stupid. We still have to make them self-aware and self-managing."
IBM is on a five-year mission to build an autonomic
network containing new technology, new hardware, servers, software, systems
and engineering. But mostly, says Nelson, the autonomic network requires
Nelson says many IT professionals are privately
panicking about the near future of computing when systems become overwhelmingly
huge and complex but with fewer people competent to maintain and manage them.
"In the next five years, the amount of information
in the world's computing systems will increase a thousandfold, which will
create the need for 20 times the number of people currently required to take
care of those systems.
"Our customers are already becoming overwhelmed
by the cost of managing IT and they're not happy with the projections. The
solution is self-aware systems."
There is not a lot of information yet on how
exactly this is going to work. One hint from Nelson is that it will involve
machines talking to machines, as opposed to a "black box" approach. And machines
talking to machines means AI.
"We'll need AI to make sense of it all," says
Nelson. "I don't know where that's going to lead, frankly."