You’ve got your web-connected toaster. You’ve got your 3D printer and Google Glass. What’s next?
There’s no need for a crystal ball – it’s pretty easy to extrapolate the trends we’ve seen over the past century in technology. Moore’s Law for processor speed, Butter’s Law for network capacity, Kryder’s Law for disk storage, and the Carlson Curve all boil down to one thing – miniaturisation.
We’re getting really good at making things smaller in every area of technology, from computer components to mobile phones and even battery chargers, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that these things are going to continue to get smaller. However, there are both soft and hard limits that we’re going to hit on the way down.
The first main limit we hit is one of human usability. It doesn’t make sense to make buttons any smaller than a human finger, so mobile phones stopped getting smaller around 2004 when the Motorola Razr wiped the floor with the competition.
Phone size remained the same for a few years until miniaturisation allowed Apple’s iPhone to bypass hard buttons entirely with a touchscreen. Today, we’re starting to see the first signs of the next step with miniaturisation allowing Google Glass to bypass touchscreens in favour of voice control.
The next limit we hit is more serious. When things get small enough, the laws of physics start to change and we move into the quantum world. This throws a bit of a spanner in the works, because things stop operating the way we expect them to. But as well as headaches, the quantum world offers us opportunities – we can take advantage of radically new properties of matter.
As the Internet of Things dives down this path, we’ll see individual devices getting both smaller and more numerous. The result will be what Texas Instruments’ Gene Frantz and Dave Freeman described in a white paper in 2012 as "an intelligent mist of technology that surrounds us to make our lives automatically safer and more comfortable".
"Eventually there will be trillions of these devices, the equivalent of thousands for every man, woman and child on earth," they wrote. "The intelligent swarm will be ubiquitous, helping to keep our bodies healthy, our buildings comfortable, our cities efficient, and above all minimise waste of precious natural resources."
We can equip these trillions of networked nodes with different components to create new types of matter that we can manipulate with instructions from computers.
Imagine a cloud of fog that suddenly solidifies at the flick of a switch, or a clay-like substance that changes its shape at will, or the ability to gather data from every square millimetre of an alien planet. For decades, nanotechnologists have fantasised about these possibilities, but now we’re actually starting to make them happen.
Perhaps the easiest to envision is a concept called "claytronics" that originated with Seth Copen Goldstein and Todd Mowry, both professors at Carnegie Mellon University. A lump of their ‘clay’ is comprised of a huge number of "catoms" that are individually programmed, each measuring less than a millimetre across. That means a litre of the substance would contain millions of units which can be shaped at will into whatever you like.
Jason Campbell is a senior researcher at Intel Labs who worked on the computing giant’s claytronics programme until it ended in 2010.
"I think of Claytronics as a way to make shape a property we can control in software," he explains. "That capability would let us record and play back shapes much as today’s audio and video recording do the same for sound and appearance."
That could enable us to send handshakes, 3D designs, or even kisses over the web.
"We felt like it would be possible to develop laboratory quantities of sub-millimeter catoms within five years or so given a few million dollars of research investment," said Campbell. "But working at such small scales is much more expensive, and we weren’t able to pull together that level of investment at the time." Goldstein’s lab continues to work on the project.
Instead of packing those microscopic nodes with components that make them clay-like, we can pack them with sensors. In 1997, Kris Pister from the University of California, Berkeley explored this possibility on behalf of DARPA in a research proposal titled "Smart Dust".
Each ‘mote’ of smart dust floats in the air, containing a power supply, a sensor, some circuitry and a way to communicate with other nodes. They could measure anything, from temperature, moisture and movement to chemical signatures and brainwaves. Because they’re so small and innocuous, they can be everywhere. If you thought the NSA’s data collection was scary, you’ll definitely want to keep an eye on this.
The concept has diversified somewhat since Pister’s original proposal, and now the leading research in the field is done at the University of Glasgow in John Barker’s nanoelectronics laboratory. He explains how they could be used in military applications, but also for space exploration.
"Swarms of smart dust might be packed into nose cones of planetary probes," he says, "and subsequently ejected into the atmosphere of a planet where they would be carried by the wind."
But perhaps the most fascinating possibility of all comes from combining aspects of both claytronics and smart dust. Utility fog is a phrase coined by John Storrs Hall in 1993 that describes a collection of microscale robots called "foglets" that spread out widely under normal situations but lock together as a solid when commanded in any shape.
Hall envisioned one possible application as a nanotechnological replacement for seatbelts – you could move around in your car as much as you liked, but if an accident was detected the foglets would momentarily freeze the air around you into a safety net, locking you in position and spreading the impact across millions of tiny links.
He explained that it could even take the place of buildings, vehicles or more. "It can look like a park, or a forest, or if the population is sufficiently whimsical, ancient Rome one day and Emerald City the next," he said. "It can act as shelter, clothing, telephone, computer and automobile. It will be almost any common household object, appearing from nowhere when needed (and disappearing afterwards)."
These technologies may sound far-fetched but will dramatically change the world around us – and it’s only a matter of time until they do.
Smart dust has already made an appearance on Gartner’s hype cycle for emerging technologies, right at the ground level with more than 10 years until it reaches the ‘plateau of productivity’.
The manufacturing processes that’ll deliver these kinds of products are still in their infancy, but with a more development – and what Gartner describes as "a better understanding of human context, humans and human emotion" – the world beyond the Internet of Things could be a very different place indeed.
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