1 The Law of Connection

Embrace dumb power

The Network Economy is fed by the deep resonance of two stellar bangs: the collapsing microcosm of chips and the exploding telecosm of connections. These sudden shifts are tearing the old laws of wealth apart and preparing territory for the emerging economy.

As the size of silicon chips shrinks to the microscopic, their costs shrink to the microscopic as well. They become cheap and tiny enough to slip into every — and the key word here is every — object we make. The notion that all doors in a building should contain a computer chip seemed ludicrous 10 years ago, but now there is hardly a hotel door without a blinking, beeping chip. Soon, if National Semiconductor gets its way, every FedEx package will be stamped with a disposable silicon flake that smartly tracks the contents. If an ephemeral package can have a chip, so can your chair, each book, a new coat, a basketball. Thin slices of plastic known as smart cards hold a throwaway chip smart enough to be your banker. Soon, all manufactured objects, from tennis shoes to hammers to lamp shades to cans of soup, will have embedded in them a tiny sliver of thought. And why not?

The world is populated by 200 million computers. Andy Grove of Intel happily estimates that we’ll see 500 million of these by 2002. Yet the number of noncomputer chips now pulsating in the world is 6 billion! They are already embedded in your car and stereo and rice cooker. Because they can be stamped out fast and cheap, like candy gumdrops, these chips are known in the industry as «jelly beans.» And we are in the dawn of a jelly bean explosion: there’ll be 10 billion grains of working silicon by 2005, a billion not long after. Someday each of them may be as smart as an ant, dissolved into our habitat.

As we implant a billion specks of our thought into everything we make, we are also connecting them up. Stationary objects are wired together. The nonstationary rest — that is, most manufactured objects — will be linked by infrared and radio, creating a wireless web vastly larger than the wired web. 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 message of whether it is full or not. A chip on the horn of each steer beams out his pure location, nothing more: «I’m here, I’m here.» The chip in the gate at the end of the road communicates only when it was last opened: «Tuesday.»

The glory of these connected crumbs is that they don’t need to be artificially intelligent. Instead, they work on the dumb power of a few bits linked together. Dumb power is what you get when you network dumb nodes into a smart web. It’s what our brains do with dumb neurons and what the Internet did with dumb personal computers. A PC is the conceptual equivalent of a single neuron housed in a plastic case. When linked by the telecosm into a neural network, these dumb PC nodes created that fabulous intelligence called the World Wide Web. It works in other domains: dumb parts, properly connected, yield smart results.

A trillion dumb chips connected into a hive mind is the hardware. The software that runs through it is the Network Economy. A planet of hyperlinked chips emits a ceaseless flow of small messages, cascading into the most nimble waves of sensibility. Every farm moisture sensor shoots up data, every weather satellite beams down digitized images, every cash register spits out bit streams, every hospital monitor trickles out numbers, every Web site tallies attention, every vehicle transmits its location code; all of this is sent swirling into the web. That tide of signals is the net.

The net is not just humans typing at each other on AOL, although that is part of it too and will be as long as seducing the romantic and flaming the idiotic are enjoyable. Rather, the net is the collective interaction spun off by a trillion objects and living beings, linked together through air and glass.

This is the net that begets the Network Economy. According to MCI, the total volume of voice traffic on global phone systems will be superseded by the total volume of data traffic in three years. We’re already on the way to an expanded economy full of new participants: agents, bots, objects, and machines, as well as several billion more humans. We won’t wait for AI to make intelligent systems; we’ll do it with the dumb power of ubiquitous computing and pervasive connections.

The whole shebang won’t happen tomorrow, but the trajectory is clear. We are connecting all to all. Every step we take that banks on cheap, rampant, and universal connection is a step in the right direction. Furthermore, the surest way to advance massive connectionism is to exploit decentralized forces — to link the distributed bottom. How do you make a better bridge? Let the parts talk to each other. How do you improve lettuce farming? Let the soil speak to the farmer’s tractors. How do you make aircraft safe? Let the airplanes communicate among themselves and pick their own flight paths.

In the Network Economy, embrace dumb power.

Рубрики: | Дата публикации: 12.07.2010

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