The future in bits

I look at everyday objects differently now, and you will too when you realize that bits -- the binary digits of electronic data -- are starting to show up in the most unexpected places.

We are now able to make sensors and radio-frequency tags so small that we can put them into anything: light bulbs, milk cartons, sprinkler systems and building materials.

Call it "bitmass" -- bits increasingly intertwined with atoms to make the digital equivalent of biomass. It's going to change the texture of our world.

Consider the heat tiles on the underbelly of NASA's space shuttles. I look at them and imagine bits in the tiles. The shuttle could then become much more self-aware -- it would notice, for example, if one of the tiles was missing. And if tragedy occurred, we could piece together answers by asking the pieces what happened to them.

Structures could be made aware of their parameters and keep track of their own conditions over time. Imagine asking your house, "Were you hurt in yesterday's earthquake?"

It sounds like science fiction, but it's not. We've already done the electronic materials engineering. Now we're starting to interweave small amounts of computing and storage into a range of materials and objects.

For example, razor blades will be among the first products we track as they move through the supply chain, thanks to tiny radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags that now cost only a few cents to make. This technology can help companies reduce "shrinkage" (the term used when a product goes missing) and much more.

Think about all the time you waste in stores or at home just looking for things. RFID tags can respond to radio waves and say, "Here I am!" Put them on cartons of milk or prescription medicines, and they'll be able to tell us much more -- like whether temperature fluctuations during transit have affected their freshness or potency.

Bitmass will also accelerate an extremely useful design trend I call "infradestructuring," which involves separating structure and control to create a more flexible infrastructure.

Take lawn sprinklers. My new house has a sprinkler system with five different controllers of different generations, and I can't figure out how any of them work. So I've got all kinds of problems -- this head puts out too much water, that one not enough. I want to put them on different cycles, but I can't do that unless I tear up the ground and replumb everything.

Now imagine a sprinkler head with bitmass. It might have a moisture/pH sensor probe and a network-addressable T-valve that lets you redirect the flow of water. You would be able to associate any sort of watering requirement with any head.

That's because bitmass enables us to teach individual items what we want from them -- and reteach them when our needs change. In other words, we'll be able to change the way things work, without having to take them apart and rebuild them.

Once you realize bitmass's possibilities, you will start to look at the things around you very differently. Light switches, stereo speakers, packages you send through the mail -- all kinds of objects take on new properties.

In fact, it won't be long before you wake up every day and smell the bits!

- Greg Papadopoulos is CTO at Sun Microsystems Inc. He can be reached at greg.papadopoulos@sun.com.

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