May 3, 2010
Posted: 11:08 AM ET
Scientists are in the process of putting tiny wireless sensors all over the globe.
HP wants to install a trillion of these "smart dust" sensors, which initially were going to be the size of dust particles but, at least for now, look more like matchbooks. The aim is to get more information about how cities and the environment work - and then use that data to be more efficient and create less environmental damage.
But the idea of deploying a trillion sensors in the environment is tricky in some ways. The sensors have to have batteries that last a long time or are able to gather energy from the sun or waves in the ocean. They also might require maintenance from time to time, which would be cumbersome on such a huge scale.
That leads some computer scientists to say, "skip the wireless sensors."
Why not just use people and their phones to collect data about the world?
There will be 5 billion mobile phone subscriptions by years' end, according to the International Telecommunication Union. Many of those are equipped with sensing technology: They have cameras, location monitors and accelerometers.
By tacking on temperature trackers, air quality monitors and the like, these phones could become a vast and potentially useful network of wireless monitors, scattered all over the Earth.
Here are a few examples of how this is starting to happen:
Cochran hopes to move this technology from laptops to mobile phones soon. If that network is expanded, people could get up to 60 seconds of warning before a quake hits.
"That would be enough to get under a table, maybe shut off the gas if you're cooking something on the stove," she said.
Would you be willing to be part of this "smart dust" network? There are obvious privacy concerns with the idea. To send in air quality data, for example, you would also have to send in information about where the data was collected, which would tell someone where you are, potentially all the time, if the data are collected continuously.
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