Documenting the Coming Singularity

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The coming programmable universe

New York Times - December 5, 2011 by Larry Smarr

Over the next 10 years, the physical world will become ever more overlaid with devices for sending and receiving information.

Already billions of processors are embedded in our smartphones, cars, appliances and buildings and the environment. These sensors can send out streams of data about their surroundings, and more and more it is anonymously transmitted to remote data centers — the “clouds” of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Yahoo and Apple.

From these vast clouds, the companies can power apps that are “spatially aware.” For instance, Google Maps now draws on data in the cloud to sample the location and movement of cellphones in cars, producing a real-time picture of traffic congestion.

Smart electric grids are measuring our homes’ use of power; active people are tracking their heart rates; and hundreds of millions of us are uploading geo-tagged data to Flickr, Yelp, Facebook and Google Plus. As we look 10 years ahead, the fastest supercomputer (the “exascale” machine) will be composed of one billion processors, and the clouds will most likely grow to this scale as well, creating a distributed planetary computer of enormous power.

Such computational power, co-located with the gigantic storage that holds the data from all the incoming data streams, will enable faster-than-real-time simulations of many aspects of our physical world. As Mike Liebhold and his colleagues at the Institute for the Future have discussed, computing will have evolved from merely sensing local information to analyzing it to being able to control it. In this evolution, the world gradually becomes programmable.

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