Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Where does at the computer power go: The Economist special report on smart systems

The Economist magazine current edition has a special report on smart systems. These are systems which combine sensors, communications links, computing power, data storage and retrieval, innovative and powerful software and often automatic control. Applied now in areas such as management of electricity supply and demand and water distribution system management, they are expected to have great importance in the future in manufacturing and even commerce. It seems to me that one of the early applications has been in traffic control, but there too a lot can be done in the future.

I suppose that we are seeing several trends come together. Sensors, memory, computing power, and communications technology are all proliferating as they become cheaper and cheaper. Networks are proliferating as the proliferating number of devices are being put together in new ways. Innovation continues and indeed seems to quicken as more innovators come on stream and as the proliferating devices and networks offer more opportunities and gains from innovations.

Of course there are going to be a lot of innovations which stink, others which seem great but get eclipsed, and still others which will be important for a while but which are supplanted by still better innovations (as the VCR was supplanted by the DVD). However I am hopeful that we will see smart systems as a major direction for progress in the Information Revolution.

The Economist warns, appropriately I fear, that there may be a "dark side to the force". The power inherent in smart systems may be used for the wrong purposes. For example, it may be used to expand coercive political force and to restrict liberty. In a less Machiavellian example, increased reliance on automated systems may result in a technological dependency with adverse future implications.

Of course, any technology with great power to produce future benefits will probably also have power to be misused or the potential for unintended adverse consequences. Warnings such as those provided the The Economist may help us plan to avert the misuse and reduce the unintended consequences without sacrificing the benefits.

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