Bulletin EdDesk Article



five technologies to watch

Vol. 120 No. 21


e-bulletin > Stories

By Mark Abernethy


Five techs to watch

Word count:



Get ready for the info-tech Big Bang. Five technologies are fuelling a radical shift away from the PC to distributed computing power. Call it the Anywhere Revolution: Any service, anytime, anywhere on any device. Mark Abernethy provides your introduction to tomorrow's technology today.

Web link:


1. GPS
Take a good look at the delicate ballet of those massive earth-movers the next time you pass a section of highway construction: they may be taking their orders from the stars, or at least the global positioning system (GPS).

"We're talking about robotics on a very large scale," says Nick Talbot, a software engineer at GPS company Trimble. The road engineers no longer need to painstakingly survey and stake the job; instead, they upload digital images containing embedded GPS tags. Think of it as autopilot for earth-movers and you're on the right track; those codes are used to steer the bulldozer or grader to where the earth needs moving.

GPS has undergone several generations of Moore's Law changes. A generation ago, receivers were the size of a housebrick and needed a car battery for power. Today, you can get a Seiko watch with GPS embedded. GPS chips, says Talbot, are fast on their way to becoming a "universal utility".

While GPS can help kerb a road or precision plan an open-cut mine, it is also – in crude form – the technology that maps us to a specific location in space. When we're all online, all the time (and that's not far away, thanks to GPRS or general packet radio service phones) it is GPS that will help us find vendors and – worse – help them find us. GPS "3Ds" the internet, creating a holographic rendition of our lives.

For a relatively low price, you can embed a GPS chip into anything, including animals, and always know exactly where the chip is. The 3500 taxis belonging to Yellow Cab Co and the Silver Top Taxi Service in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne are tracked by GPS while farmers use it to track livestock.

GPS is also used to facilitate the internet in cars. Technology research company Strategy Analytics says that 55% of all new cars in Japan, Europe and the United States will have built-in "telematics" navigation and information systems by 2007. In Australia, you can find GPS telematics in high-end Holdens and, soon, Fords. And that's just the beginning. A few years ago, motor show visitors would watch with a giggle as GPS-guided computers parked mock-up cars. Laugh no more because BMW has gone ahead and done it, building cars that can navigate across town and make decisions about how far you should be from the car in front of you, and at what speed.

GPS is poised to become a ubiquitous technology; give it another generation, and we'll embed them in newborns. Until then, you'll need a phone. But getting lost (or found) will never be the same again.

2. Wireless data
Why would anyone want wireless computing? You could start by asking Japanese youth. Little more than two years after Japan's DoCoMo wireless company launched the iMode mobile internet service, more than 7 million people have subscribed. In 1998 – before iMode – Japanese internet penetration was 13.4% at a time when the US was 37%. In 2000, Japan leapfrogged the US thanks to iMode, turning DoCoMo into Japan's biggest internet service provider in just a few months.

Wireless is achieved in three different ways: mobile internet (for example, iMode), which uses the mobile phone networks to ship content to mobile phones; the Wireless LAN (WLAN), which wirelessly connects your computer to a radio base station, which itself connects to the fibre optic data loop (much like the set-up of a cordless phone); and the personal-area wireless connection provided by Bluetooth, an embedded chip that allows devices to "speak" and swap information.

These are all technologies to watch. Bluetooth is not in enough phones, computers, printers and video cameras yet to be declared a winner. And mobile internet – while great for remote workforces that need to shift files from, says, head office to a laptop or PDA– has yet to produce compelling consumer content in Australia.

An Australian company called Air Loom uses mobile internet and Blue­tooth together in its subscriber system, which runs on GPRS – an interim data solution running at 40kbs (slightly less than the 56k dial-up connection on a PC) and which, like broadband, is always on. The Ericsson T39 phone is GPRS-enabled as well as having a Bluetooth chip in it; the wireless data is transmitted through the phone via Bluetooth and into a Bluetooth-powered iPaq PDA. With this wireless combination, users can send and receive SMS messages, email from POP3 accounts, web mail and search the web from wherever they can pick up a GPRS signal.

Air Loom CEO Chris Hagios says the future of mobile internet is assured and that 3G, when it arrives, will change our perception of wireless computing.

Which leads us to wireless LAN, which is set to become a pivotal technology over the next five years. Although it was Apple that first commercialised its AirPort wireless base station over the 802.11b spectrum, all the computer and peripheral makers now make wireless LAN chips sets and base stations for wireless LAN connections.

The appeal of WLAN is simple: laptop users with a WLAN card in their machine can be anywhere in the building or on the campus, and still be ­connected. WLAN has become pertinent in knowledge-based workplaces since most knowledge workers are in areas where no one has their own desk or room – it is all demountable.

The wireless base stations are being used in serial situations to create wide-area networks consisting of many base stations reconfigured as relay stations. Given time, these ad hoc networks could challenge established voice and wireline networks. Groups in the US are beginning to hook ad hoc networks together. Given time, WLAN will change the way we compute and communicate.

3. Grid computing – peer to peer
The real technologies to watch for in the medium term won't challenge us visually – they'll alter the way we think. An example is what engineers are calling the Grid. If you can imagine the way we use computers, you could see it like a wheel: the server, or the hard drive – the point of data-retrieval – is the hub. Sprouting from the hub are the spokes, which are the users of the hard drive.

The Grid turns that proposition into a 3D picture: rather than one data session equalling one trip to one hard drive, the Grid envisages that one session at a PC would involve the searching of hundreds of personal, commercial, governmental and corporate hard drives for everything from a Microsoft Excel application to enough computing power to run a genome model. It is a vision loosely called "distributed computing".

The Grid sounds like Napster, but where it departs from the humble peer-to-peer system lies in the scope of what the Grid aims to do: to create super­computers linked across geographical and time boundaries.

Several Australian universities, including the University of Melbourne, are trialling grid technologies. The idea is predicated on an estimate that the average corporate server uses between 8% and 10% of its processing capacity.

If you have household computer penetration of more than 50% in the OECD nations, and minuscule penetration in vast developing populations, then the Grid starts to look like a technology rebalancing exercise.

This works as a theory, says the University of Melbourne's Rajkumar Buyya, because part of the development of the Grid means few users of the internet are going to need the relatively powerful computers we have on our desks and in our homes. "If you are using the Grid, you don't need a powerful PC," he says. "Someone in India could be using the Grid with just a keyboard, a screen and a connection. The Grid means that eventually most computer users will be using a PDA – it's all they'll need."

In other words, you may belong to a cut-price ISP on the proviso that your excess processing power from that two-gig chip can be "netted-off" by the ISP to be brokered into the developing world. Waste is turned into a resource.

Buyya says the Grid will change everything: "When an Office 98 user in Australia upgrades to XP, where does the Office 98 licence go?"

His point is that Office 98 is a perfectly good set of software for most people in the world who want to write a letter, keep their business records on Excel or create a presentation. But when we upgrade these licences, we junk the superseded program. On the Grid, the software makers – or their brokers – will make superseded licences for all sorts of applications available on mass-use licences, probably paid for by the ISPs. If you want to run spread sheets or PDFs, the application is simply served to your screen from the Grid; you don't need to buy the software or have the microprocessor big enough to run it on your own machine. And proprietary operating systems become redundant because the Grid runs on XML, a mark-up language that translates as it goes.

The final wash-up? "When everyone is on the Grid," says Buyya, "then computing becomes invisible. You don't have to know anything about it except everything you need is there when you want it."

4. Biometrics
The securing of identity is a relatively simple matter when you boil it down to its basic parts, says David Curtis, business development manager at security expert Giesecke & Devrient Australasia. "A system either tests something you have or something you know – such as a smart card and a password. Or it tests something you are."

Are you ready for the technology that "clears" you at every step of your life based on something you are? For decades, crime fighters have used ­fingerprint identification to track criminals, which – along with the older identifiers such as height, weight, age and race – created a picture of who the criminal was.

But the technology to watch for is biometrics and it's well beyond a few pieces of deductive data. Biometrics is almost certainly the way most of us will be making financial transactions, entering buildings and clearing immigration at the airport within the next decade.

Biometrics uses an astonishing array of technologies designed to positively link you to something you are. The identifiers used in biometrics include the face, fingerprints, retina, hand and finger geometry, veins, handwriting, iris, voice and "multimodal" systems that mix in several of the above.

The way we order from Amazon will eventually look like this: credit cards or driver's licences contain smart chips with 32k of memory available in them. Users will have their fingerprints scanned digitally into the chip; when buyers want to make a purchase over the internet, they will push their card into a "reader". The web site then asks the buyers to place their fingerprints on another reader and the two prints are compared. If they match, the transaction goes through.

This, says Curtis, is the basic building block of biometrics and it already works: "readers" have come down to $200 in some cases and Toshiba has built a combined smart card slot and fingerprint reader into one of its latest laptops.

Organisations such as the Health Insurance Commission, the Australian Taxation Office and the Reserve Bank of Australia are all implementing biometrics systems for internal layers of clearance.

"The federal government uses eight-digit codes," says Curtis. "But the biometrics are non-transferrable. Only you can have your fingerprint or your iris."

The ramifications of an almost-perfect identification method for the internet are vast: 80% of web users browse online retailers but only 4% of them buy. The number one fear of would-be internet shoppers is still the lack of control they have over their credit card numbers once they have been submitted. But although a fingerprint file can be "captured", thieves cannot verify it with their own fingerprints.

"Within 10 years, all transactions between the ATO and taxpayers will be conducted by first authenticating yourself [with biometrics]," says Curtis. "Inside of 10 years, biometrics will be coming down to the consumer level."

The big plus? No more remembering 20 PINs just to get through the day.

5. Autonomic computing – artificial intelligence
Technologies to watch for? Let's start with the lizard's brain: running at about 10 teraflops – or 10 trillion decisions a second – the lizards are pretty thick. So thick that IBM has built a supercomputer for the US Department of Energy called ASCI White that runs as fast as the small reptile's grey matter.

"In 12 years, we'll have a machine that runs at 10,000 teraflops," says IBM's director of internet strategy, Michael Nelson. "That's the cycle speed of the human brain. We'll have the speed but nowhere near the sophistication."

Big Blue has not been toying with artificial intelligence for the reasons you could make a movie about. The world's largest IT company wants the type of AI that will ape the autonomic reactions in animals – those self-adjusting, self-healing subconscious management commands made by our bodies every second to make us breathe, sweat and pant according to our needs.

IBM is trying to develop what it calls "autonomic computing" in which elements of a network are "smart" enough to heal and manage breakdowns.

"We have a machine as smart as a lizard," says Nelson. "But a lizard can avoid danger – they can heal themselves. Our machines are stupid. We still have to make them self-aware and self-managing."

IBM is on a five-year mission to build an autonomic network containing new technology, new hardware, servers, software, systems and engineering. But mostly, says Nelson, the autonomic network requires "new thinking".

Nelson says many IT professionals are privately panicking about the near future of computing when systems become overwhelmingly huge and complex but with fewer people competent to maintain and manage them.

"In the next five years, the amount of information in the world's computing systems will increase a thousandfold, which will create the need for 20 times the number of people currently required to take care of those systems.

"Our customers are already becoming overwhelmed by the cost of managing IT and they're not happy with the projections. The solution is self-aware systems."

There is not a lot of information yet on how exactly this is going to work. One hint from Nelson is that it will involve machines talking to machines, as opposed to a "black box" approach. And machines ­talking to machines means AI.

"We'll need AI to make sense of it all," says Nelson. "I don't know where that's going to lead, frankly."