The tiny (yet powerful) world of speckled computing

Networks of small devices that can sense, compute and communicate data emerge from lab


We are inching closer to a world in which everything -– and everybody -– will be part of some wireless computer network.

Or, more precisely, a Specknet. "Specks" are tiny computing devices that can be placed on common objects -- or on people, as they currently are in a Scottish community testing “speckled computing” with respiratory patients.

Each individual programmable speck can sense real-world data (temperature and motion, for instance), compute it, and communicate with each other wirelessly.

The goal, as laid out by the Centre for Speckled Computing at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, is no less than to bridge the physical and virtual worlds:

“In our vision of Speckled Computing, the sensing and processing of information will be highly diffused – the person, the artefacts and the surrounding space, become, at the same time, computational resources and interfaces to those resources."

In the case of the Scottish trial patients, small electronic patches (about the size of a man's thumb) placed on their chests monitor respiratory data -- a person’s breathing rate and depth, for example -- and transmit the information wirelessly to doctors monitoring the patients miles away.

This community-care pilot project followed successful hospital trials of the new technology in Scotland based on a system created at the Centre for Speckled Computing, headed by Professor D K Arvind. (See interview below.)

Speaking this month at the annual British Science Festival in Aberdeen, Scotland, Dr. Arvind explained that the “inspiration” for the speckled computing model comes not from the virtual or digital world, but from the living world.

“A large number of these is almost like a semblance of cells and neurons,” he said. “It’s very similar to how we believe biological computation takes place.”

The vision of a world in which computers are embedded in everyday objects has been around a long time. Way back in 1988, Mark Weiser, the late, renowned Xerox PARC scientist, was talking about this very notion, which he called “ubiquitous computing” and which he predicted would become as common and invisible as electricity.

“Hundreds of computers in a room could seem intimidating at first,” Weiser wrote in 1991. “But like wires in the walls, these hundreds of computers will come to be invisible to common awareness. People will simply use them unconsciously to accomplish everyday tasks.”

Speckled computing essentially is ubiquitous computing in granular, dispersed form. But it wouldn’t be possible without advances in Internet technology.

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