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Sensing the World
Jamais Cascio, 10 May 05

smartdust.jpgOne of the subjects that's close to our hearts here at WorldChanging is the use of sensor technology to understand the environment. Whether urban sensors for detecting pollution, ice probes for monitoring changes to glaciers, solar-powered autonomous underwater vehicles for monitoring the ocean, nanobiosensors for monitoring chemicals, even "feral" robotic dogs acting as mobile ecomonitors, swarms of cheap sensors networked together are increasingly among the best ways to keep tabs on environmental changes. Alex's pair of essays on Knowing Nature Through Technology (part 1, part 2) detail the massive utility of sensors as tools of environmental science.

The New York Times has finally caught on, and science writer William Broad provides a lengthy account of the current state of ecological monitoring systems:

The rapid miniaturization of technologies behind cameras, cellphones and wireless computers is allowing scientists to build innovative networks of small sensors that they say will produce a new era of ecological insight and, in time, help save the planet. [...]

The field is young. But experts say successful trials like the California forest study demonstrate the promise of networks of tiny, often wireless sensors, that cost little compared with instruments now in use that are tied together by wires and power lines. In the years and decades ahead, scientists want to deploy millions of these kinds of devices over large tracts for long periods, opening new windows on nature.

"The potential for environmental science is amazing," said Dr. Alexandra Isern, a program director at the National Science Foundation. "With this technology, we can start to understand what is an event and what is normal. We're recognizing more and more how different processes in the environment operate at different frequencies. To comprehend that, you need to take measurements all the time."

Scientists hope to learn more about soil contaminants, land changes, water flow, invasive species, ocean cycles, continent formation, the places atmospheric carbon are stored, the reasons that volcanoes erupt and the ways viruses and gene fragments move through the environment.

The article goes on to cover smart dust, swarms of cheap sensors, and a variety of projects now underway. Two of the more interesting links are to UCLA's Center for Embedded Networked Sensing and to the National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON. The CENS program covers a variety of approaches to networked sensing, including autonomous networks, collaborative signal processing, and nanosensors. I was especially pleased to see that CENS is involved in an exploration of the ethical, legal and social implications of networked monitoring. The description of the approach is worth excerpting:

[The team] ...brings together faculty from Law, Engineering, Biology, History, Visual Arts, and Architecture. A series of discussions of different technological cases has reached the conclusion that not only is it possible to embed values in the design of information technologies, it is impossible not to do so. For example, choices on whether user authentication will be required for transactions have large implications for privacy and security. In the original version of the Internet, designed for peer to peer communication among research colleagues, there was no such requirement and further it was counter to the values of the user population. In commercial uses of the web however, user authentication is absolutely required for commercial transactions. The underlying structure of TCP/IP makes this more difficult to implement than had authentication been required from the beginning. Thus, the original architecture of the code biases an information technology towards a particular set of values, and while with some effort the code may be revised for new purposes the scale of the effort is larger as time progresses. Consequently, for embedded networked sensors it is important to consider exactly which values are to be embedded and the process by which this may occur.

Emphasis mine. It's so rare to find technology specialists who recognize that design embeds values, I'm almost giddy. We've covered some of the social implications ground here, but it's encouraging to see these questions being raised by one of the key centers for the technology.

While CENS takes an academic approach to understanding networked sensors, NEON is much more application focused. It's still a work in progress, and it's quite ambitious. From the NSF outline:

[NEON is to be] ...a continental scale research instrument consisting of geographically distributed infrastructure, networked via state-of-the-art communications. Cutting-edge lab and field instrumentation, site-based experimental infrastructure, natural history archive facilities and/or computational, analytical and modeling capabilities, linked via a computational network will comprise NEON. NEON will transform ecological research by enabling studies on major environmental challenges at regional to continental scales. Scientists and engineers will use NEON to conduct real-time ecological studies spanning all levels of biological organization and temporal and geographical scales.

NEON is designed to improve understanding of biodiversity, "biogeochemical cycles," climate change, hydroecology, infectious diseases, invasive species, and land use -- not a small set of goals. If funding for NEON continues (and at an estimated $500 million, it won't be cheap), it will begin operations in 2007.

Even if NEON flounders from budget cuts, the use of inexpensive swarms of sensors as a fundamental tool for understanding the planet will continue. The value is simply too great; we're on the cusp of making the invisible aspects of the Earth visible to us all. That's pretty damn worldchanging.

(Thanks for the tip, James Hughes)

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Comments

Lawrence Lessig explores this embedded-values-in-design in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace in depth, as far as software is concerned.

Which reminds me that I must still read his other books...


Posted by: Frank Shearar on 11 May 05



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