The Skinny on the Future of Networking

Imagine a world where a malfunctioning dishwasher is able to call the manufacturer to be serviced remotely, or where your lawn sprinkler system can check Environment Canada’s Web site for the chance of precipitation before turning itself on.

That world is only 25 years away, according to scientists at Lucent Technologies’s Bell Labs. By 2025, Bell Labs experts say, the globe will be encased in a communications skin consisting of millions of electronic measuring devices — thermostats, pressure gauges, pollution detectors, cameras, microphones — monitoring cities, roadways and the environment. “All of these will transmit data directly into the network, just as our skin transmits a constant stream of sensory data to our brains,” says Arun Netravali, president of Bell Labs.

The volume of this type of machine-to-machine communication — what Netravali calls infrachatter — will eventually surpass communication between humans, possibly as soon as 2010, he says.

Other tech trends on the horizon, according to Bell Labs, include metaphones, virtual conferencing and cyberclones. Metaphones are miniaturized wireless communications devices that use “system on a chip” technology. Shrunk down to the size of a lapel pin, a metaphone will use voice-activation technology to allow you to phone someone by simply saying their name. The same metaphone will be able to read out e-mail and information on Web sites.

In the so-called Age of Virtuality, thousands of 360-degree cameras and stereo microphones will be placed around sports arenas, music halls and business centres, giving Web users control over what they see, hear and experience. According to Bell Labs, as this type of virtual conferencing technology grows more “immersive”, the need for business colleagues to gather together in one location will be removed.

Bell Labs scientists predict the Internet will evolve from being a storage facility for an avalanche of data into a smarter “HiQNet” in which personal cyberclones will anticipate users’ information needs, scan the Web, filter out irrelevant information and present it in the best format based on the users’ preferences.

Technology trends that will contribute to this new “always on” networked world include increased fibre-optic capacity, miniaturized electronics components and advanced software, such as servlets or applications that execute on the server and provide a customized personal interface to the communications services available.

We’re just looking forward to the day when that malfunctioning dishwasher is the one waiting on hold for somebody in the service department.