Chips with Everything

In 2007 the computer gave up taking over the world. Instead the world took over the computer.

2007: The word computer disappears from the Apple company, the founders of the personal computing world. Instead Steve Jobs waxes lyrical about his new iPhone: a mobile megamedia merger of phone plus camera, plus Wi-Fi, plus Apple, plus Google, plus AT&T—and minus the “computer.”

Bill Gates has mysteriously forgotten “computers” too. His new hobbyhorse? “An entirely new class of robots,” Gates states in Scientific American, “that are essentially mobile, wireless peripheral devices.” These aren’t your great-great-grandfather’s girl-shaped 1927-style robots from the film Metropolis. Gates’s visionary robots are virtual-actual hybrid machines that wade around the world in pools of wireless connectivity. Their brain is a PC hooked to the Internet.

Steve’s ultracapable iPhone, whose screen can be squinched with your fingertips as if it were Play-Doh, bids fair to become Apple’s “remote control for reality.” With the Web in your purse or pocket, applied to physical reality via Google mapping services, you own the ultimate Reality Distortion Field! For Gates, the computer is transforming itself into Microsoft on wheels, a Zune that walks: with brand-new software supporting Microsoft for Robots, a PC can ramble all over your house photographing, scanning, listening, grabbing, and gripping—maybe even fetching a beer! Where does Microsoft’s Wireless Robot want to go today?

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Forget the wires, and you can forget the computer too. The computer just fades into the Internet cloud. That network-as-cloud enables a new class of amphibious virtual-actual products. Cut the wires—and shoes can talk to iPods. Doors and windows get wireless remote controls. Light switches pop up wherever you care to stick them. “Industrial Wireless” appears on the scene: heavy-duty applications in factory command and control. Cut the wires—and automated buildings and factories beckon. The Internet’s wireless towers become the church steeples for tomorrow’s City of Bits!

It’s the logic of the Digital Great Chain of Being: from the ancient monster mainframe isolated in its glass cage to the brisker midsize computer to the whizzing desktop, the luggable laptop, the portable palmtop, the screeching, chirping cell phone that nobody can escape down to the silent, invisible radio-ID chip—sometimes injectable—that is scarily described as “the size of a grain of rice,” there’s plenty of room at the bottom.

In 2007 the computer gave up taking over the world. Instead the world took over the computer. The Internet became a wholly owned subset of Reality 2.0. When the actual world invades the virtual world, it scatters the computer into tiny physical pieces, some no bigger than dust. “Intelligent printing,” another modern darling, is semiconductor ink sprayed on cardboard. There’s never been a humbler, cheaper “computer.”

It’s the foggy dawn of an Internet of Things. In 2007 wireless isn’t just for phones and global satellites, it’s become domestic and personal. The new and improved 802.11n Wi-Fi standard is fast enough to ship wireless video around the house, but it is corny compared to WiMAX, a single giant tower that can drench a city in Internet traffic. There’s an explosion of methods for machines to connect to machines, and a crash in the price of a signal. A host of wireless standards competes for every niche: ZigBee, Z-Wave, HDMI, Wibree, GSM, CDMA, Bluetooth. Hooked up to physical objects, tiny local Internets assemble themselves into “stars, meshes, clusters” with “self-forming, self-healing” networks.

Knowledge is power, data is power—but power is power too, and in 2007 electrical power is the planetary crunch issue. The iPhone will have its little dock where it slots in, gasping for fossil voltage. The Microsoft Web robot will clank over and plug itself into the wall, and woe betide the competitor who gets in its way. Every other wireless chip still needs battery power; otherwise the Internet of Things becomes one giant lethal macramé of power cords. Putting chips in everything is the fast track to a greenhouse doom: you’ll be in an automated town that wirelessly watches itself catch fire and wash away in high tides.

Except, what if there were wireless chips so small and clever that they sucked renewable energy right out of the environment? To survive as truly native components of the actual world, wireless computers would have to become power plants so nifty and thrifty that they’d live off free ambient energy: the heat in a hot-water pipe, the passing glow of sunlight. Being so small yet fiercely capable, the tiniest chips need only a fleabite of power to thrive. Green chips: the smaller they get, the closer they are to a zero-footprint.

It’s still only 2007. Apple has not yet shipped a single iPhone. We don’t have Windows with Wheels and Eyeballs either. But self-powered green chips? The Germans, in the unlikely global stronghold of wind and solar, are very busy on ambient power: unlike Apple and Microsoft, nobody’s ever heard of EnOcean. It’s a start-up specializing in wireless doodads that can harvest and store the tiniest traces of environmental energy: a flux in daylight, a change of air pressure. Green-powered ­micronetworks—no more batteries.

Fast, cheap, wireless, inky, self-powered, and out of control: at a price point like that, every product is an Internet site. Even a stick of gum isn’t safe.

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