Hundreds of thousands of PCs working in concert have already tackled complex computing problems. In the future, some scientists expect spontaneous computer networks to emerge, forming a ''huge digital creature''

Skin capillaries and satellite photo over Sudan.
The skin is an uncanny piece of engineering. It processes immense amounts of data on temperature, pressure, humidity, and texture. It registers movement in the air, gauges the size of objects by the distance between points of contact, alerts us to danger, and prepares us for pleasure. But the skin does more than register superficial events--it's a controller. It sends signals to regulate blood flow, activate sweat glands, alert immune cells to marauding invaders, and block ultraviolet light. Even when skin dies, it is utilitarian: Dead cells accumulate in layers to prevent unwanted penetration.

Video: Bell Labs'
Cherry Murray*
In the next century, planet earth will don an electronic skin. It will use the Internet as a scaffold to support and transmit its sensations. This skin is already being stitched together. It consists of millions of embedded electronic measuring devices: thermostats, pressure gauges, pollution detectors, cameras, microphones, glucose sensors, EKGs, electroencephalographs. These will probe and monitor cities and endangered species, the atmosphere, our ships, highways and fleets of trucks, our conversations, our bodies--even our dreams.

Ten years from now, there will be trillions of such telemetric systems, each with a microprocessor brain and a radio. Consultant Ernst & Young predicts that by 2010, there will be 10,000 telemetric devices for every human being on the planet. They'll be in constant contact with one another. But the communication won't be at our plodding verbal pace. ''Fifty kilobits per second is slow,'' huffs Horst L. Stormer, a Nobel prize-winning physicist employed by Lucent Technologies Inc.'s Bell Laboratories and Columbia University. Machines will prefer to talk at gigabit speeds and higher--so fast that humans will catch only scattered snippets of the discussion.

What will the earth's new skin permit us to feel? How will we use its surges of sensation? For several years--maybe for a decade--there will be no central nervous system to manage this vast signaling network. Certainly there will be no central intelligence. But many scientists believe that some qualities of self-awareness will emerge once the Net is sensually enhanced and emulates the complexity of the human brain.

Sensuality is only one force pushing the Net toward intelligence. An eerie symbiosis of human and machine effort is also starting to evolve. The Internet creates a channel for thousands of programmers around the world to collaborate on software development and debugging. That has produced an evolutionary leap in software: The ''open source'' movement that spawned the Linux operating system. The Linux world behaves as an ecosystem--''a self-correcting spontaneous order,'' as open-source pioneer Eric Raymond describes it in his Net manifesto, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Through collaboration, this community can push past the technical barriers to machine intelligence.

And though silicon networks today look nothing like the brain, nodes of the Net have begun to function as neurons. Researchers have already tackled complex computing problems, such as interpreting interstellar radio signals, by parcelling computing tasks out to about a million PCs working in concert. Within 10 years, discrete microprocessors could be knitted together into ad hoc distributed computers. Don't think of these as PC networks. The terminals would just as likely be cell phones or Palm-like devices, each one far smarter than today's heftiest desktops. ''Think of this as a whole ecology, an information environment that's massively connected,'' says Ernst & Young Chief Technologist John Parkinson.

COMPUTER CLANS. Such spontaneous computer networks would be ideal breeding grounds for so-called ''emergent'' phenomena. The concept is championed by the Santa Fe Institute, intellectual home of physicist Murray Gell-Mann, computer scientist John H. Holland, and other architects of a discipline called ''complexity.'' This school studies behavior that emerges from the collective activity of partly independent agents. Individual ants, for example, can't fight off an attacking wasp, but a colony can. A single brain cell is a simpleton, but a few tens of billions can perform mental miracles.

Complexity experts anticipate the occurrence of such phenomena on a Net that will someday comprise billions of smart devices, each linked through thousands of pathways. The whole will add up to more than the sum of its parts, says Sandia National Laboratories Senior Scientist Gerold Yonas. ''At some point, a massively parallel computer will reconfigure itself,'' he predicts, and portions of the Net will take actions that no human engineer programmed or even planned for.

Humans won't be removed from the process, says Leonard Kleinrock, inventor of packet switching technology and architect of the Net's first node, 30 years ago at the University of California at Los Angeles. ''Millions of people contributing ideas in unforeseen ways are part of this complex adaptive system,'' he says, pointing to the open-source movement as proof.

Now, toss into this ecosystem a few hundred million intelligent software agents, vastly more powerful than the crude software ''bots'' that perform Web searches today. Add the voices and intentions of a few billion digital pets, companions, and caretakers. Then stretch out a sensory, telemetric fabric. ''The network itself becomes a huge digital creature,'' says Toshitada Doi, chairman of Sony Corp.'s Digital Creatures Lab. ''We will carefully design it so that it will help human beings, not harm them.''

That may not be easy, however. Emergent behavior could be mischievous, even sinister. In Sandia simulations with software agents acting as communications nodes in network, the nodes have assembled themselves into clans. ''In a real network, the clans might have distinct points of view,'' Yonas says, ''and one might be antithetical to another.''

SELF-HEALING NETWORKS. By the time something like that happens, networks should gain some of the resilience and safeguards of living organisms. For a start, ''networks will learn to heal themselves,'' says Sprint Chief Technology Officer Martin J. Kaplan. And when the earth's own skin signals danger--seismic activity, a geomagnetic storm, or a worrisome spike in financial transactions--the Net will sense it, alert people, and reroute traffic.

Critics of the Santa Fe school say it lacks a solid theoretical foundation. Supporters concede that point, but say the field is still new. ''This is 21st century science,'' says William N. Joy, founder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems Inc.

Humanity is now preparing to cast its net across the solar system. At NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., scientists are devising a version of the Internet called InterPlaNet that will weave the moon, Mars, and some asteroids and comets into the earth's expanding nervous system.

Today's communications between earth and unmanned probes are expensive, proprietary, and complex. With InterPlaNet, ''We can simplify everything, cut costs, and engage the public more effectively,'' especially when astronauts arrive on Mars, says JPL team leader Adrian Hooke, manager of space data systems. Then, the earth's telemetric body will span the reaches of the solar system. The Net may not experience all the human thrills of exploration. But it will feel some tingles up and down its spine.


*Murray is a researcher at Bell Labs. Video interview by Neil Gross. (Needs G2 Player)

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·14: The Earth Will Don an Electronic Skin

ONLINE ORIGINAL: Q&A: An Internet Pioneer Moves toward Nomadic Computing

VIDEO Cherry Murray, Head of Physical Research Lab, Bell Labs
(Needs G2 Player)

Sante Fe Institute

Dr. Leonard Kleinrock's web page

Dr. Leonard Kleinrock's personal history of the internet

30th Anniversary, birth of the internet at UCLA

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