What can we do? How can we build a better tomorrow and drive the economy in the process? End user gadgets have become very powerful and diverse, each of them connecting to the Internet in one way or another. But we can do much better than this in terms of integration and connectivity. Neil deGrasse Tyson said it best when he waxed eloquent recently on The Daily Show, “[Americans] started dreaming about tomorrow; the homes of tomorrow, the cities of tomorrow, the food of tomorrow! Everything was future world, future land, the World’s Fair, all of this was focused on enabling people to make tomorrow come. That was a cultural benefit of the space program, and we reaped the benefits in the form of economic growth, because you have people wanting to become scientists and engineers who were the people who enabled tomorrow to exist today.” I cannot agree more, sir! Let’s start dreaming, America.
For starters, cars are becoming increasingly electric as battery technology improves. Well, lots of other things have been running off of electricity for a long time. Imagine if cars came hardwired with modern computers, LCD monitors in the passenger dash, USB ports, and it all responds to voice recognition or a wireless keyboard and mouse interface. Imagine the benefits of a heads up display overlaid on the windshield with the time, date, weather, calendar, and map displays. A hard drive would host all of the multimedia in my collection (music library, Internet radio, videos for the kids in the back-seat), capable of Internet browsing (check account balances, get email, get directions), and anything else. Satellites provide global connectivity and cars would talk to each-other within a certain range. Vehicles would be very self-aware of their dimensions and those of other cars around them. Engine overrides could prevent collisions by comparing speeds and distances of the cars. It’d be nice going down the highway if another driver could transmit a message to your display: “Hey, your back-left tire is looking flat.” Google could provide their auto-translate algorithm to help knock down language barriers when traveling abroad. Driving would be a newer, safer experience for everyone. Make it happen, General Motors!
And in a public works state of mind, we could complement all of these new consumer electronics with a first world information architecture. Google has been experimenting with such technology on a small scale. In the near future, Kansas City will get access to a gigabit per second of data transfer, which is something modern DSL just cant provide. A data stream between a server and a user is only as fast as it’s weakest link. When we eventually install a hi-speed rail system across the nation, we could also lay the miles of high bandwidth, fiber-optic cable that would be the skeleton for the next Internet. As more cities and ISPs invest in fiber-optic infrastructure, they can connect to the backbone and domestic Internet speeds would increase one-hundred fold. Once we re-bridge the Atlantic with similar cables, the benefits become global. Nations can invest in their own infrastructure and join the new networks.
Finally, a real item. We connect to the rest of the world with such ease and ubiquity whenever we sit still, waiting to get on planes, trains, buses, and before we get into our cars. But, when not at a Wi-Fi hot spot, how can we use these devices while on the move inside a plane, train, or automobile? Cell-phone companies have been offering for a few years a device called a MiFi. For three hundred dollars a month, you can get a personal, mobile Wi-Fi hot spot for up to five items. Furthermore, this technology is often embedded into new phones through a service called ‘tethering’. Cell-phones with a data plan can act as a proxy for computers or other Internet-involved devices. These are both still expensive options since we are still in the early stages of product development, but expect price to go down as demand increases and data transfer protocols become more efficient in the near future. Rumor has it that our broadband spectrum is about to enter a deficit. Too much information is being sent back to cell-phone towers. Maybe it’s time for a restructuring of our spectrum.
The public alternative here is known as a Muni-Fi network, or a city-wide Wi-Fi network. Access points are installed on top of every light pole in the city and it all uses the ‘wireless mesh network’ topology, the key element of which involves using all devices connected to the network as potential data middlemen. By checking all possible wireless routes between the Internet backbone and your device, the device’s bandwidth can be optimized. This has been installed in cities all around the world. A massive list can be found on Wikipedia.
Thats the tried and true American way. A combination of public sector investment where the start-up costs are insurmountable, combined with a variety of private sector innovations. For completeness, I’m going to beat the car example like a dead horse. Gas prices are anticipated to hit five dollars a gallon soon, and at that point you might appreciate a Skype chat that saves you a trip to the grocery store or the real time traffic updates that keep you from the jam on the way back home.