Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Science and Technology #1

Bruce Sterling is a very fine science-fiction writer. He is also a very distinguished individual in the field of design, particularly pertaining to environmental design and "green" technologies, being the central figure of the Viridian Design Movement.

Another area in which Sterling has been an active commentator is that of "spime". This is one of those ideas that, when you first hear it, you dismiss as being so blindingly obvious that no-one should deserve recognition for it's "invention".

However after reading about it a little, then going away and reading about it some more, I gradually came to realise that spime as a concept is not a vague neologism but a very relevent modern-day topic, and an inevitable product of the convergence of information technology and the material world.

Consider the fact that today, most products (like toys, electrical goods, cars, computer-components, peripherals, buildings, pharaceutical plants...) are designed in software on a computer. They will then probably be instantiated by machines.

Once they have been completed, transported from the factory and sold to the consumer, and used by the consumer they may well be recycled. And hopefully one day all items will be recycled.

However this raises an interesting question: exactly where does the "object" (whatever it may be) come into existence? Is it when it is put together on the assembly line? Is it when it is first created in the virtual environment of the CAD software?

The fact is that the "object", as an abstraction, can be said to have existed from the moment it is concieved in VR. As technology advances, it will become cheaper and cheaper to manufacture computer chips (or their technological descendants) and cheaper to build them into objects as a matter of course.

These chips will have memory, processing capability, sensory capability and an awareness of where they are in space and time, and what they are. The blueprint for these chips will exist along with the object they are embedded within in the virtual CAD environment.

When it is time for the object to be recycled the chips will guide the object to its final destination (imagine a sandwich-wrapper lying on a pavement saying "please deposit me in the jive-coded waste receptacle...").

Once the object is recycled there will remain a complete record of the objects life. Where and when it was designed, who by, where it was manufactured, where it was taken, where it was used, who by, what for, and finally where it has been recycled.

This sounds very Orwellian, especially when you consider that factories in the future may be very compact and verstatile, and capable of manufacturing objects from the atoms upward. This will mean that potentially the food we eat, and even our bodies can be tagged, recorded and monitored at an incredible level of detail.

Who controls spimes, and who has access to the information, will be a key topic of political debate in the future, and the near future. Of Sterling's six facets of spime several already have representative technologies. The six are:

1) Small, inexpensive means of remotely and uniquely indentifying something over a distance (e.g. radio frequency identification).

2) A mechanism to precisely locate something on Earth (e.g. a global positioning system).

3) A way to effectively mine the large quantities of data produced by these systems (e.g. modern web search engines).

4) Tools to virtually construct any object in a virtual environment (e.g. AutoCAD, and various molecular-modelling programs).

5) Ways to rapidly prototype virtual objects into physical objects (there are various "3D printers", but we're not yet very near the garage-level universal assembler)

6) Cheap and effective recycling.

The potential good for this kind of convergence is huge. However there are numerous potential pitfalls and problems. I look forward to exploring these in thought, and maybe later in the real world.

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