Everything is Alive

Craig Thompson
Object Services and Consulting, Inc.

January 20, 1999


The following paper was written as a position paper to indicate the need for more DoD R&D in the area of ubiquitous computing.  The observation is that most current software research is focused on evolutionary increases in current technologies but more work is needed in the pervasive computing area because many signs indicate that a paradigm shift in our view of computing is already occurring and we are not quite realizing it.

1.  Vision

Nature has been "happening to us" since the dawn of time. Without fully realizing it, we are entering an era where our ability to control the world around us is taking on wild momentum.

Two hundred years ago it would have been hard to comprehend the changes the now-pervasive electrical grid would make in our lives. More recently, the PC revolution distributed computing onto individual desktops. But there was a time, long before either of these revolutions, when man inhabited a world where rocks, the wind, and trees had spirits that affected people's every day lives.

The vision we see is a paradigm shift "back to the future" where, in a world 25 years from now, once again, everything is alive (EiA) and can sense, act, think, feel, communicate, and maybe move and reproduce.

The assumption not true today is that sensors, actuators, intelligent controllers, software, and communication devices will be virtually free, can attach to their hosts transparently, and can intercommunicate and cooperate to help people do tasks. This extends the desktop metaphor so that computing is no longer just inside computers but now inside all sorts of physical things.

2.  How the Proposed Vision will Revolutionize People's Lives and Work

In the EiA future, individual toys will have personalities and will play with each other and with children, perhaps also helping them with their homework. The sprinkler will talk to the yard plants to see who needs how much water and will listen to the weather channel for news of rain and how to adjust to water rationing. While exercising after work, you ask the weight machine to tell your oven at home to come on at 6:30 because you are running late. As you walk to your car, your mother calls and you have a good chat while driving to the mall - all without a visible phone. The clothes rack at the mall (if we still shop at malls and not just via Web virtual reality) will sense your profile, will highlight the right sizes and styles as you walk by, and will negotiate deals with you. After you make a purchase, wearable computing embedded in the clothes will begin to operate on your behalf. At the grocery store, you ask two cereals which has least calories per serving, then just pickup the items you want and leave (items are sensed, your grocery account is debited). Again that assumes you go grocery shopping at all since many items are delivered into your home by trusted delivery services bonded and monitored by home security systems that track and record identity and movement.

This vision is relevant to the DARPA mission. Joint Vision 2010 identifies information superiority as a critical (moving target) requirement. The $40B of equipment in Desert Storm did not talk together and share knowledge, except one-to-one and to a very limited degree. In a smarter future, where Everything is Alive, we would expect tanks that know the mission, micro satellites that work as teams, smarter land mines that can sense friend or foe and talk to each other to assess situations, and smarter guns that have good-guy activation locks. Mosquito-sized autonomous vehicles can work with other mobile sensors to deliver smart bullets to specific targets. The soldier's backpack will negotiate with missions and logistics to insure precision readiness and remind the soldier to bring extra socks.

It is probably the case that Everything is Alive (EiA) is a macro vision that is inevitable within 25-50 years even without DoD help. But DoD will need to stay on the leading edge of this trend if it is to continuously achieve information superiority. A future Joint Vision 2020 will require it.

3.  Evidence is mounting that soon everything will be "alive"

The purpose of Section 3 is to make the reader realize that EiA is already happening, all around us, pervasively but in an unorganized manner, and we are not really putting the picture together. Increasingly, the means of monitoring and controlling our environment is in the hands of individual humans or machines as technology for connecting, sensing, acting, and thinking becomes smaller, cheaper, and easier to design, deploy, and evolve. It is important to build the case for a massive but so far unseen trend that will logically end in the EiA vision.  We found many examples of interesting evidence just by putting on EiA glasses and keeping our eyes open over a few weeks, so we conclude, in the words of the popular TV show X-Files, that "the truth is out there."

3.1  Yesterday's News - EiA has been happening for some time

Every day, technology adds another common place pervasive gadget to our lives. Growing up it was transistor radios, color TVs, and calculators. Then the rush began: chips in coffee makers and digital clocks, VCRs, cordless and mobile phones, beepers, remote controls, movement-sensitive lights, laptops, palmtops, digital cameras, laser pointers, smart cards, mobile Internet connections, HDTV and big screen TVs, flat panel displays, pervasive email, the Web and its search engines and portals, in-flight phones, virtual offices, Web Cam sites, photo-quality printing, 50GB personal memories, and remote keyless entry locks on cars that use "rolling codes" to foil thieves.

3.2  Recent Evidence

Everywhere around us, objects are becoming smaller, cheaper, more pervasively available, able to sense some aspects of their environment and communicate that. These range from the mundane to the experimental:

3.3  The World Itself is Alive

Already we have developed a variety of means to monitor and reason about the world around us.

For instance, the world tells us much about its past. Measurements of lead isotopes 206 and 207 in Greenland ice cores can be date-correlated to Roman Mining in Rio Tinto, Spain between 600 BC and 300 AD. Core samples from Greenland Ice Sheet Project 2 and the Gulf of Oman indicate a drought lasting from 2200 BC to 1900 BC where Middle Eastern civilizations collapsed (Old Kingdom of Egypt, Minoan civilization of Crete, Indus Valley civilizations). Every stone building and statue provides dating clues - superimposed on the strong fossil compass of magnetic polarization formed when the rock cooled is a light imprint based on degrading of that record as the rock is oriented in a building. The imprint can be destroyed by heat. The longer it is in-place the greater the heat, leading to a dating technique for buildings.

Meanwhile, we track the weather increasingly accurately, map large areas with sub-meter accuracy, can track schools of fish via sonar (and as a consequence have overfished many fishing grounds), and tag and electronically track sharks, wolves, manatees, drug runners, and even children. The Gaia Hypothesis <http://magna.com.au/~prfbrown/gaia_int.html> proposed by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in the late 1960's makes a case for the earth itself as being alive (not just the entities in its biosphere) as physical processes interact with life processes in feedback loops to stabalize the environment. Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence by George Dawson makes a case that in the digital universe a conscious mind will evolve naturally rather than as the result of design, with humans in the role of neurons.

Perhaps the world is not (yet) alive in the sense of these theories. But biotechnology, MEMS, and Web-object-agent technology are moving us in this direction, toward the EiA vision.

3.4  Biotechnology

For billions of years, nature has been perfecting little machines like enzymes that construct other machines, machines that can grow, reproduce, and heal themselves. People are beginning to understand how. The earthworm genome has recently been mapped and the human genome is not far behind, gene splicing therapy and clones are already outcomes as are oil-eating microbes for oil spills. Iceland is beginning a state-mandated experiment to integrate detailed genetic, medical, and genealogical information about its very homogeneous DNA pool of 270,000 residents into a set of linked databases. A local company deCODE Genetics will hold a 12-year monopoly on data marketing rights. Biotechnology is already a big field working from the biology side with a billion-year head start on miniaturization. But electro-mechanical miniaturization is not that far behind.

3.5  MEMS

Size matters. Miniaturization of Big Ben to the mass-produced pocket and wristwatch and the 100-foot ENIAC computer to pervasive laptops are just points on a progression that is already moving toward the Age of Nanotechnology. IBM's Scanning Tunneling Microscope was the Kitty Hawk that demonstrated placing atoms like tiny Lego blocks (e.g. placing 35 xenon atoms to spell IBM in 1989). Smaller often means cheaper, faster, lighter, stronger, cleaner, more precise, more intelligent (e.g., the $50 transistor now costs 1/100-thousandth of a cent). And miniaturization means new problems like the magnified effects of small impurities, static electricity, viscosity, heat buildup, and ultimately quantum effects.

Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS) marry hair-sized computer chips with tiny sensors, probes, actuators, lasers, motors, nozzles, valves, gears, and drive shafts. The MEMS research area is still fairly new and not all MEMS research will bear fruit at first. In the Best of Annals of Improbable Research (Marc Abrahams, W.H. Freeman, 1997) is the description of a MEMS toaster that saves on counter space and "implies the existence of fundamental toast particles." But MEMS researchers predict a technological avalanche; like plastics in The Graduate, MEMS will be pervasive; you won't know they are there. MEMS are moving from research toys to industrial applications. Whisker-sized MEMS are already used to deploy car airbags. Plausible applications are everywhere in biotech, medical, defense, and electronic games: ultralight planes that use arrays of MEMS rather than flaps for precision maneuver, machines the size of molecules built into paint to activate a fire retardant when heated, dexterous probes doing surgery through pin hole slits, glowing MEMS that indicate cracks in an airplane strut or machine girder. Georgia Institute of Technology has developed a potential replacement for hypodermic needles in the form of a patch a tenth of an inch on a side containing a 400 needle array with each microscopic thousandths of an inch long, with the feel of a Band-Aid and benefits that it is painless, lowers risk of infections and can be modified with a microprocessor and a pump to monitor and release medication over time.

Biotechnology and MEMS are already inter-marrying. For example, researchers at New York University just reported in Nature that they have joined two rigid double-stranded DNA spirals with a bridge of DNA to create a hinge-like part that bends when exposed to a particular chemical solution. The hinge, still too cumbersome to be useful, is four ten-thousandths of the width of a human hair.

3.6  Internet and Web Technology

In the last ten years, Internet and email has connected up the world of PCs, and in the last five, the Web has matured to provide an information and electronic shopping paradise. Search engines let us find content, chat rooms let us find companionship, thin browsers in smart phones give us windows to remote applications and knowledge once hidden in write-once organizational memories is being organized for use.  In Web world, we are being profiled and targetted constantly from how long we stay at a web site and how we got there to questions about our social security number and checking account number when changing to a new phone service.

4  What's Missing

4.1  Our Perspectives need to change

I recall my geologist father walking out on our patio and looking up at the mountains behind our house in Santa Barbara and exclaiming, "I cannot believe how fast those mountains are growing!" If the evidence described in Section 3 is just the tip of the EiA iceberg, then we are beginning to need some kind of map of the iceberg. This means that we need to adjust our focus to see how MEMS and biological trends are related to computing infrastructure trends.

4.2  Missing Technical Pieces

There are many missing ingredients from making the Everything is Alive vision happen. The technological community has not seen the vision yet so work on fragments of the vision is happening in isolation and we cannot reason as a community about the missing ingredients. Here are just a few ingredients that seem to be missing:

It would seem that in order to accelerate the pace of EiA-related technologies. We have to: 4.3  Ethical and Religious Considerations

We claim that the EiA vision is inevitable but that DoD needs a framework for thinking about it and investing to keep in front of the power curve. Part of the eventual vision (out of scope in the proposed study) must take into account ethical and religious considerations.

Many will see an Orwellian dark side to the EiA vision. London-based Privacy International points out that the trend toward data collection at the expense of privacy is a worldwide problem. If you did your Christmas shopping on the Internet, then many different companies have your credit card and personal profile data, all the more likely that abuse could occur. Icelandís population-wide genetic data collection scheme (Washington Post, 1/12/99, front page) is a larger example. If people feel their universal health record will be entered in a database, including mental health disorders or family secrets like the 10% of out-of-wedlock births estimated in Iceland, trust between doctor and patient can disappear. If connected, Big Brother's information systems can know more about the individual than she knows about herself, and with knowledge can come control. The Holocaust Museum in Washington DC contains graphic descriptions of a real government organized to use genetic records for ethnic cleansing. In the MEMS world, some talk of "smart dust" containing tiny sensors that can monitor and communicate their surroundings including your movements.

Some popular wisdom counsels that EiA and information availability advantages will outweigh the risks, that fears of abuse should be addressed through legislation - "you do not place limits on creation of knowledge but on the ways that the new knowledge can be used." Legislation and detection/deterrence are both needed to control the process. A European directive on privacy that recently went into effect restricts gathering and distribution of personal data, and prohibits transmission of data to countries that do not have similar laws. The directive affects American e-commerce and business-to-business sites that have or plan to have European customers.

Meanwhile, there will be consequences to religious faith and how man sees himself in an EiA world. If we already have seminars like "Religion in the Age of Whatever," we can expect many more as we come to grips with things that think when everything is alive.

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