The creativity machine

Vernor Vinge for Nature:

Second_lifeThe notion of enlisting users to create content is widespread on the contemporary Internet. Companies such as Google provide users with tools to integrate search and mapping services into their own websites. Interested users are numerous and have their own resources. In the 1990s, we had an early glimpse of the power of this new creativity machine: computers plus networks plus interested people delivered free and open-source software (FOSS) products of the highest quality, including the GNU/Linux operating system. FOSS products provide low-cost and flexible alternatives to proprietary software. For example, there is at least one open-source virtual-world platform, Croquet3, which allows users to customize and extend its architecture at all levels. FOSS tools can be mixed and matched with proprietary software to deal with an enormous range of projects from quick, ad hoc combinations of data harvested from multiple locations4 to large, long-duration experiments.

All this points to ways that science might exploit the Internet in the near future. Beyond that, we know that hardware will continue to improve. In 15 years, we are likely to have processing power that is 1,000 times greater than today, and an even larger increase in the number of network-connected devices (such as tiny sensors and effectors). Among other things, these improvements will add a layer of networking beneath what we have today, to create a world come alive with trillions of tiny devices that know what they are, where they are and how to communicate with their near neighbours, and thus, with anything in the world. Much of the planetary sensing that is part of the scientific enterprise will be implicit in this new digital Gaia. The Internet will have leaked out, to become coincident with Earth.

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