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Communications of the ACM

Never Lost, Never Forgotten

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What will nanotechnology and macronetworks do for the informed human race?

Computers are vanishing. They are vanishing into the infrastructure around us, whether it is the insides of appliances (telephones, televisions) or simply shrunk to take less valuable desktop, pocket, or other real estate. At the same time, networks are becoming pervasive. In the last year, I have visited Hawaii, Israel, Brazil, Crete, and had Internet access back to homeinteractivelywherever I traveled at little or no cost. I do not possess a laptop; nor did I have to acquire local specific knowledge or skills to use computing services.

An entire handheld computer today is about the size of a valve (or "tube" in U.S. lingo) that was used in digital computers 50 years ago. A present-day router that can switch all of the traffic for the world's telephone system is about the size of a single telephone 100 years ago. The Internet is now growing at the rate of a million computers a month.

The next 50 years will see computers vanish within people as well as pervasive high bandwidth, low radio frequency (RF) wireless communication. I predict that nanotechnology and novel modulation techniques, as well as the simple density of deployment of 4th or 5th generation wireless networks, will allow us to dispense with external devices altogether. If this is the case, then direct nerve interfaces to computers will be required, and people will learn to exercise new senses and limbs able to communicate over a distance (almost as if possessing telepathy) with other people, and with objects around them.

By the year 2600 the world population will be standing shoulder to shoulder and electricity consumption will make the Earth glow red hot.
Stephen Hawking, physicist

This is not science fiction. There are really no obvious reasons why one cannot build such a system in the next few years. The health risks from RF at the levels required are beginning to be understood. The CPU and memory power requirements can easily be overcome (using similar technology used to power artificial hearts).

The most interesting aspect of this will be to see what people actually do with such technologies. What will be the social and economic effects as well as the technical requirements within the infrastructure to support such a system? What failure modes will there be and how will we survive them?

I propose that many of the most difficult problems will be in areas where we have only scratched the surfacein novel models for emergent behavior; in understanding entirely new interaction modes; in devising technically safe, feasible, and ethical mechanisms for privacy and authentication. The idea of a virus invading a computing system that was closely coupled (even potentially with haptic interfaces) is fairly alarming.

It will surely be as much fun as the last few decades!

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Jon Crowcroft ( is a professor in the Department of Computer Science at University College London and is a member of Communications' Editorial Advisory Board.

Copyright held by author.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.


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