EMBRACE THE SWARM

When we permit any object to transmit a small amount of data…

…and to receive input from its neighborhood, we change an inert object into an animated node.

It is not necessary that each connected object transmit much data. A tiny chip plastered inside a water tank on an Australian ranch transmits only the telegraphic 2-bit message of whether the tank is FULL or NOT. A chip attached to the ear of each steer on the same ranch beams out his location in GPS numbers; nothing more. “I’m here, I’m here” it tells the rancher’s log book; nothing more. The chip in the gate at the end of the rancher’s road communicates only a single word, reporting when it was last opened: “Tuesday.”

It does not take sophisticated infrastructure to transmit these dumb bits. Stationary objects–parts of a building, tools on the factory floor, fixed cameras–are wired together. The nonstationary rest–that is, most manufactured objects–are linked by infrared and radio, creating a wireless web vastly larger than the wired web. The same everyday frequencies that run garage door openers and TV remote controls will be multiplied by the millions to carry the dumb messages of connected objects.

The glory of these connected crumbs is that they don’t need to be individually sophisticated. They don’t need speech recognition, artificial intelligence, or fancy expert systems. Instead, the network economy relies on the dumb power of bits linked together into a swarm.

Our brains tap into dumb power by clumping dumb neurons into consciousness. The internet banks on dumb power by connecting dumb personal computers. A personal computer is like a single brain neuron in a plastic box. When linked by the telecosm into a neural network, these dumb PC nodes create that fabulous intelligence called the World Wide Web.

Again and again we see the same dynamic at work in other domains: Dumb cells in our body work together in a swarm to produce an incredibly smart immune system, a system so sophisticated we still do not fully comprehend it.

 

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This is a blog version of a book of mine first published in 1998. I am re-issuing it (two posts per week) unaltered on its 10th anniversary. Comments welcomed. More details here.
-- KK