Subject: Viridian Note 00113: Pervasive Computing

Key concepts: pervasive computing, smart garbage, product

Attention Conservation Notice: A speech from a design conference sponsored by IBM. Some topic drift, much handwaving, weird ideas. Over 3,000 words.

Speech at IDSA/IBM Designabout on Pervasive Computing Palisades, New York, December 3, 01999

by Bruce Sterling

Let me get right down to virtual brass tacks here, and tackle the issue at hand. I want to talk about my favorite variety of so-called "pervasive computing."

This is a new, young concept, still in search of its identity. It's yet another little electronic frontier, but there seem to be two main parts to it.

The first kind of pervasive computing is the kind where data falls out of the sky, and oozes out of the walls, and I've got some kind of hardware device on me, and I'm computing with it. The data is the pervasive part, and I'm focussing it for my own purposes with some GUI gizmo. That is the high-bandwidth wireless Internet. I have no problem believing in that. It's not at all farfetched. A lot of money is going there, and impressive things will be done. But since I'm a science fiction writer, I don't find it all that attractive.

Then there's the weirder junior version, the second model of pervasive computing, the "things that think" version. In this model, there is some limited bandwidth, but basically, everything's got its own chip in it. Everyday products have processing capacity as a matter of course. Onboard computation is inherent in all postindustrial products. As a futurist, I'm attracted to this version because it's farther away and the implications have been less explored.

There are no hard and fast lines between these two models. They're not exclusive, they could combine. You could have a zillion little chips marinating in a giant wireless Internet. But we already have a good running start on the first version. The second model is still mostly talk (though there is some great talk, such as Neil Gershenfeld's book WHEN THINGS START TO THINK).

You cannot have pervasive computing without pervasive power. If my smallest source of practical electric power has to be recharged and replaced all the time, then we're living in laptop world and palmtop world. Cheap, smart, ubiquitous objects would be out of the question.

There is a very stiff entry fee for a things-that- think world. I have to deliver a fraction of a watt to a few k of circuitry, dependably, for years on end, without ever having to pay any attention. No wires, no plugs. That's just not possible now. But it may become possible. Then we're living in world where forks can be smart. Where bricks can be smart. As for shoes, shoes are extremely smart.

For the sake of my speculation, let's just assume that we've somehow beaten the battery problem. Let's forecast how this technology might develop. Basically, I envision three stages. Since this is a design conference, let me sketch them for you. There's a nice haptic interface standing over here on this easel. No one else has used it. But novelists like to run their demos on paper. (((Speaker uncaps a green marker.))) Look! It affords greenness!

Step One. The chip is detachable. It glues on the product as an afterthought.
Step Two. The chip is a component. It's built-in. Step Three. The whole product has been re-designed around the chip. (((illustrations)))

Here's how this trend plays out in, say, the housing market.

Step One. You buy a home computer. It comes in the house, it goes out the house, big deal. Step Two. You're living inside a wired house. Step Three. You build a house because you decide you need to shelter your network.

Here's how some physical devices fit in.

Step One. An antitheft tag. Inventory tag. A barcode. Dumb, simple, uses an outside power source and outside computing. You use them to tell where things are, what they are, and how much they cost. Available now. Step Two. A GPS navigation unit in the dashboard of your car. It uses an outside signal to tell you where you are and how to get where you're going. Step Three. The tires call you up on the phone and tell you that their tread is wearing low and they ask permission to have themselves replaced.

Running an enterprise:

Step One. You have a security system to defend your store's perimeter. The doors and windows scream when broken, and a silent alarm calls the police. Step Two. You label all the items in your store with location tags. Nothing can leave the store unless its legally purchased and logged out properly. Step Three. Anything you bring into your store is automatically given a name and a network address. It knows what it is, where it is, who had it last, and what condition it is in. Because it was all built that way.

This product in step three is not a twentieth century product. The twentieth century didn't have this kind of device at all. It's unheard of. It's crying out for a brand new name. In fact the whole pervasive computing field is calling out for a new terminology, because none of the terms we have are working properly. Pervasive computing, ubiquitous computing, things that think, intelligent environment, peripheral interfaces. These terms just don't get at the core of it. Consider the functionality of an anti-theft tag: "smart" isn't right, "thinking" isn't right, "intelligent" isn't right. But it can save your retail business, and if you're a shoplifter it can ruin your life.

"Smart" is old-fashioned. I'm convinced that intelligence is the wrong idea to apply to computation. It's a bad metaphor to call a machine "smart." It's misleading, confusing, mistaken terminology. To call machine processing "intelligence" is just not an accurate description of the phenomenon. It's like thinking that a jet aircraft is migrating when it flies south.

This pervasive computing I'm describing is a reactive network of small interacting devices fully integrated into the physical fabric of products. It keeps track of the status of things. It has software in it. The chip in its core is programmable, and therefore capable of very protean forms of behavior. "Pervasive computing" is not the best term for this. "Computing" is no good, because the word "computation" is about crunching numbers, not about networked reactivity. We need a new 21st century word.

Maybe something completely out of left field, something like the term "polite." A polite machine. Your elderly frail grandmother asks, can I sit in this chair? And you answer yes of course, grandma, the chair will adjust to your needs, it's polite. The problem with the term "polite" is that this pervasive technology is likely to find some of its best applications in the police and the military. Since they are objects that are mechanically aware of their status and their surroundings, maybe you could call them "wary." They have software and hardware inside, they're wary products.

Why would this imagined technology come into existence? Well, not merely because we can do it. This is the Iridium fallacy. It has to offer somebody some tangible benefits. Let's start by imagining a military app. The military loves stuff that barely works. They're famous early adopters.

Imagine we've got two armies, the Balkan ethnic separatist army of hardened guerrilla fighters, and that soft, pampered, high-tech army from the World Trade Organization's military wing. The guerrillas don't have much equipment, just the occasional rifle and rocket grenade. But in the high-tech unit, every military object has a unique ID, a location, a situation report, and a network address. We know how many rifles we have, where they are, and how far they are from the fire zone right now. We know where our mortar is and how many rounds it has left. We know when a soldier is hit because his armor knows it's been affected, and it tells us where he's hit, and the direction the bullet came from. We have much less of the fog of war than our opponent, because we know ourselves and our own capacities extremely well, and we can learn about him much faster than he can learn about us. That's a critical military edge.

To test this thought experiment, imagine that the guerrillas have all this pervasive computing and we don't. All we've got is lots of guns, and nice uniforms and helmets, and some big tanks. How long do we stay alive in the streets? Not very long, I'm figuring.

Now a competitive angle in business. I'm assembling products in a factory and shipping them. All my parts are labelled, so I know all my inventory in real time. The shipped products talk to me on their way in, through, and out of the plant. They know whether they are complete and assembled, and what they are missing, and if some particular part has failed. My competitor has a very neat physical filing and storage system. Crates, pallets, giant storage sheds, tarpaulins. I've got this giant higgledy piggledy mess. But my disorder is merely actual disorder, it's not virtual disorder. My virtual order is more effective than his actual order, because it searchable and reactive and wary and polite. As long as the parts know where they are, why should I care where they are stacked? It's not like anybody can steal them. They're all automatically theftproof.

As a professional thief my life is very difficult == a bicycle might rat me out. A stolen purse probably has ten or twelve different objects, all sending email to the owner and the cops.

It's not that this world has no thieves or evil people. Let me be very clear about that. If I'm a bad guy in this world, I probably live in a bad house with a bad network of many bad objects. My welcome mat bites your leg. My broom gives your broom a virus. I sell you wary products with chips that lie to you, cheat you, break themselves on purpose, misrepresent themselves, swindle you. Design doesn't abolish evil intent. Pervasive computing would be particularly well suited for concentration camps.

The power to be your best is the power to be your worst. I don't want to be simplistic, but I must be brief. I find myself on the side of pervasive computing because I believe that increased awareness is a basic good. An Information Society cannot properly seek security in keeping bad people ignorant. The proper cure for bad information is more information, not secrecy or censorship. Open systems good. Closed systems bad. Tested algorithms good. NSA algorithms bad. If we're gonna trust our lives to this kind of stunt, we've got to get the guts of it fully out in the open. Open source code, good. Trade-secret code, bad. Level playing field, good. Police state surveillance, bad. Informed consent, good. Sneaky web cookies, bad. I could go on, but I want to assure you that I'm not swallowing all this stuff just because I think it's hip.

Let's imagine that you've grown up with this pervasive tracking technology. You trust it, you understand it, you're at home with it. If all your possessions are network peripherals, then you have a possible LINUX model for objects in the real world. In this world, I don't buy a hammer. What I really want to own is the hammering functionality. I might as well share the hammer with my neighbor == he can't steal it, and if he breaks it, I'll know immediately. A modern hammer in this world comes built around a chip, with a set of strain gauges that determine if it is worn or broke or abused. Let's network that hammer. We'll agree that our home-nets will provide us with hammerability, and we'll pool our resources to web-search for bargain tools.

This ownership model might work better in China or India rather than the highly individualistic US. But that's most of the human race. It's a form of social and economic behavior that truly pervasive computing might make plausible and workable.

My personal suspicion is that we have an overly nervous attitude toward our possessions. We are forced by their dumb nature to pay far too much attention to the things we own. In this new world, if they're there, they're there. If they're not, I ask around for one on the net. If it doesn't exist locally, I rent it and give it back. I change its ID to mine if I really like it.

Now in my roundabout conclusion, I would like to praise the one quality that I most admire about pervasive computing, possibly the first native computing form of the 21st century. I like it because it is novel and powerful, but it is not metaphysical. I like that it is not transcendant, mindblowing or beyond all human grasp. I like it that the people who've been discussing it here have been talking about fashion and attractiveness and attention, about the skin and the fingertips and the eyelids, and not about superhuman intelligence or some kind of first-strike capacity. This is a profound technology, but it seems very practical to me, refreshingly modest. I like very much that it's not sublime. Charlatans are generally sublime. This is not a puffed-up hokum technology. It's not all self-consciously startling, amazing, stunning and fantastic. I think we have a chance here to create a powerful, novel technology with a new approach which is more mature that the 20th century's approaches were. More tasteful and less histrionic.

For contrast to what's been going on here, let's consider, say, a typically native twentieth century technology, adopted with stereotypical, definitive, twentieth-century motives and attitudes. Nuclear fission. Atomic power. Let's imagine ourselves at the dawn of atomic power, instead of at the dawn of pervasive computing. It's a meeting of the hush-hush Atomic Energy Commission. We're being confidentially briefed by our speaker, and he's a high-security egghead in a labcoat from a secret research base somewhere in the desert. He's got a cloud of dry ice fumes around him, and he's deadly serious and kind of trembling with technological exaltation, and he says:

"Behold the mighty atom! Through our unprecedented mastery of cosmic forces, we have unleashed a fantastic source of limitless power. Our goal now is to bring this great boon to the masses."

And what does the audience say? Well, we were twentieth century people then, so we said, "Hosanna! At last we have some source of hope to counteract the ghastly horror of Nagasaki and Hiroshima!" Because Utopia is the psychic flipside of Apocalypse, you see? They both come from the same deep wellspring in the human soul. A basic inability to deal with it.

What we should have said in that circumstance was something else entirely. A better and more sophisticated response. A very 21st century response. We should have said, "What about the garbage?"

"What garbage," our speaker would have replied.

"Radioactive garbage. Spent fuel rods, dead uranium, labcoats that glow in the dark, that kind of thing."

"HA! I can only laugh and scoff at your mundane query! Only a Luddite philistine with his tiny mind in the gutter could fail to see that splitting the mighty atom is civilization's way forward."

"I'm cool about ways forward, man. But you're not addressing my issue. What about the garbage? Do YOU want the garbage? Can we put the garbage in your basement?"

"No way!"

"Can we store the garbage in your city? Can we store the garbage in your state?"

"No! NO!" He's starting to sweat now. It's a kind of return of the repressed thing going on here, you see.

Let me let you in on something. The coming century is not an atom-science, rocket-science world. It's a design world. It may even be an atom-design world, with nanotechnology, or a rocket-design world, with way too many New World Order cruise missiles. But it's a world of intimate consumer technologies, not state-supported, mind- blowing, Soviet super-projects.

The first thing you ought to ask a wizard in an ivory tower is not "what wonders can you show us, Mr Wizard," but "do you recycle?"

Really. That is a serious, crucial modern question. What about the garbage? What about the underside? What part is technically obscure and what part is deliberately hidden? Quit bragging about your cosmic mastery while you make that sudden lunge for my wallet. I don't want you to run the world from behind the lead shielding. I want to know that I can put my own hands inside the black box and mess about with it, if I feel that I have to. Don't impress me; ask my real opinion, cut me in on the action, make me a stakeholder. Don't build your profit margin on the prim assumption that I'm stupid. Stupid people don't have the money in an information society. In an information society, smart people don't even want the money; we want the equity.

With pervasive computing, we may create a system that gives us a new kind of stake in the physical world. It is a genuinely novel relationship between human beings and their material surroundings. For the world of design, that is a very big deal. It may even be a big deal for the world, period.

Where is the garbage? you may ask. Excellent question! And what an answer I have for you. Is a world of smart gizmos the garbage is smart! It's smart garbage! The garbage-can always reads the barcode when the junk goes in! Smart garbage doesn't fester in darkness, ignorance and denial. It becomes a resource. Or it can be, if we handle it right. If we design it properly. Nothing fated about that. We have to deal with it. Nothing is set in stone there. The future is unwritten. An unwritten future is good!

The twenty-first century is dawning in a rather lovely and promising way. It may become a terrible century, but I see no compelling reason for that. Our worst dangers are not our new opportunities. They are our bad habits. Our bad habits can go. We won't miss them as much as we think.

This was a good conference. The material is great. This stuff is sincere, it's authentic, it's brand-new and full of promise. And we're right up against it, we're as close to the future here as I've ever seen a group of people get. We should be happy and pleased about this. We should have a really good time.

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