Air bags — because they contain an expensive and not-entirely-reliable accelerometer trigger.
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The consequence has been a booming market for replacement airbags, which thieves are happy to fulfill. Future systems will incorporate sensors capable of identifying not only the presence of a passenger, but their weight and size as well, and adjusting the force of inflation accordingly. Such new devices — cheap, ubiquitous, high-performance sensors — are going to shape the coming decade. Now in the next decade we are going to add sensory organs to our devices and networks.
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The last two decades have served up more than their share of digital surprises, but even those surprises will pale beside what lies ahead. Processing plus access plus sensors will set the stage for the next wave — interaction. A suite of technologies underlie the rise of sensors, including MEMS, piezo-materials, micromachines, very large scale integration VLSI video, and a handful of other technologies Figure 3. MEMS are by far the most important of the technologies enabling the rise of sensors in the near term. In concept, MEMS technology is simplicity itself: it amounts to nothing more than using semiconductor manufacturing techniques to create analog devices.
But underlying MEMS technology is an interesting mind-shift in chip design. Traditional chips are little more than intricate race tracks for electrons built up through an elaborate process of etching and deposition. That loose layer interferes with the smooth flow of electrons because it interacts with the surrounding analog environment. The automobile industry is a major consumer of MEMS devices, and is likely to be the single largest early market, as carmakers add them to everything from emissions systems to tire hubs. The novelty was that the devices suddenly were cheap enough to put into ordinary products in the marketplace.
Piezo-materials are materials typically ceramics that give off an electrical charge when deformed and, conversely, deform when in the presence of an electrical field. Piezos are particularly useful as surface-mount sensors for measuring physical movement and stress in materials. But more importantly, piezos are useful not just for sensing, but for effecting — manipulating the analog world. This is an indicator of the real significance of the sensor decade.
They will also interact with the physical world on our behalf. Like MEMS, piezo-materials have been around for some time, and there is no shortage of interesting work underway. Micromachines are semiconductor cousins to MEMS technology. Like MEMS, Micromachines are built using semiconductor manufacturing techniques, but unlike MEMS, they are more complex in design, incorporating in some instances micrometer-scale gears and other moving parts.
Micromachines exploit the often overlooked structural qualities of silicon: a low coefficient of thermal expansion, high thermal conductivity, a strength-to-weight ratio more favorable than aluminum, and elasticity comparable to that of steel. At the same time, the process of manufacturing micromachines is in its infancy, and it will be some years before elaborate micromachines are anything more than lab curiosities.
Simpler devices will arrive slightly behind MEMS devices. Expect this to drop precipitously as the next generation packages everything on a single chip: the charge-coupled device CCD , all the circuitry needed, and even the lens will be glued directly to the chip. A host of other technologies are being pressed into the service of mediating between the analog and digital worlds. Global positioning system sensors are also undergoing radical reinvention, lowering cost and increasing performance. Cheap laser technology is also rapidly changing gyroscopic technology as ring laser gyros RLGs displace traditional spinning-mass systems in aircraft, delivering dramatically increased performance in cheaper, more reliable packages.
The impact of sensors will be as surprising in the decade ahead as that of microprocessors in the s and lasers in the s. And the surprises will be additive because of the synergistic interaction among the generations of technology. Some of the most interesting applications of sensing technology will be applied to solving existing information technology problems.
One such problem created by lasers is switching. Data moves along fiber-optic threads as photons traveling at the speed of light, far faster than the fastest of electronic switches can switch it. But these examples merely touch the most prosaic of possibilities. Casual inspection of prior forecast and subsequent reality of the microprocessor and laser decades makes it clear that the scale of surprise will be enormous even for professional forecasters.
But the good news is that hints of what is to come are already occurring. One place to look is the World Wide Web. In , a home page of the California Department of Transportation posted a pointer to a Web-based map of the San Diego freeway system. The map displays traffic speeds and densities in real-time by means of sensors embedded in the asphalt that send data to a Sun workstation. Even as telecommunications executives continue to try and sell tired old notions of videoconferencing, the interaction of cheap video and laser-based Web bandwidth has already delivered a hint of what the future will really hold.
A world of ubiquitous video is not a world of people looking at each other via videoconferencing.
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Rather, it is a world of cameras aimed at everything everywhere, watched over by machines, and only occasionally examined by people. What happens when we put eyes, ears, and sensory organs on devices? This has profound implications. Two parallel universes exist today — the everyday analog universe we inhabit, and a newer digital universe created by humans, but inhabited by digital machines.
We visit this digital world by peering through the portholes of our computer screens, and we manipulate it with keyboard and mouse much as a nuclear technician works with radioactive materials via glovebox and manipulator arms. Our machines manipulate the digital world directly, but they are rarely aware of the analog world that surrounds their cyberspace.
Now we are handing sensory organs and manipulators to the machines and inviting them to enter analog reality.
The scale of possible surprise that this may generate over the next several decades as sensors, lasers, and microprocessors coevolve is breathtakingly uncertain. Such change seems overwhelmingly uncertain because we tend to compress outcomes into a telephoto view of the future — just as a telephoto lens compresses distance, creating the illusion that distant objects are close to nearby objects, our expectations lead us to compress chronology and overlook the logic of orders of impact as early developments contribute to later innovation. The way to make long-term sense of sensors and their place in the digital technology complex is to think explicitly in terms of first-, second-, and third-order impact, and beyond.
The history of the internal combustion engine provides a good example of orders of impact and their predictability Figure 4.
The process of invention and subsequent diffusion was chaotic, but the outcome was clear. The second-order impact — the traffic jam — came as something of a surprise, but only to idealists and others who had not taken the time to anticipate consequences. In fact, traffic jams were not unfamiliar to city dwellers in the horse and buggy era, so it was all but a foregone conclusion that the same would happen with cars. But the third-order impact — suburbs — was rather more surprising, even though the first suburbs had already been around for decades on a small scale.
The biggest surprise though was the fourth-order impact — the rise of huge regional conurbations, such as the Atlantic Seaboard and the Los Angeles basin. This was unexpected in because everyone assumed that by conferring mobility, the auto would lead to the dispersal of populations, rather than their further concentration. What assumptions are now blinding us to the impact of cheap and ubiquitous sensors? Notice the interesting pattern of alternating tension between expansion and constraint in each of the successive orders of impact for the internal combustion engine.
The horseless carriage gave us sudden expansion locally, yielding a new constraint — the traffic jam. Early adopters responded with a third order expansion — moving to the suburbs. This in turn led to a new fourth order constraint — megacities. Look for the same pattern of surprising consequence and interplay between expansion and constraint as sensors assume center stage in the information revolution in the decades ahead.
And keep in mind that just as microprocessor and laser innovations continue today, sensor advances will have reverberating consequences well beyond the next decade.
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