“Only connect,” urged E. M. Forster in his novel Howards End. Connections, of course, are the essence of the Internet. But those connections are still getting stronger, as is clear from looking at the work of the computing-related TR100 honorees. Some are working to improve communication between nearby computer chips or along the optical network. Others are using tiny computers to gather information about the world. Still others hope to translate the ties between machines into ties that bind people, coming up with better ways to form communities.
Computer chips are relentlessly getting smaller, more densely packed, and faster. But the wires that carry data from one chip to another remain relatively big and slow. “The bottleneck is now the bandwidth between parts of the system,” says Sun Microsystems engineer Robert Drost, who has pioneered a method of chip-to-chip communication that eschews wires. When a bit flips on one chip, it causes a change in the surrounding electrical field, which can be sensed by an adjoining chip and translated into a bit flip there. This approach will be key to the performance of Sun’s future supercomputers.
Light waves already zap data and voice traffic across the Internet and the telephone network. But try to send the data any faster and the light interacts with the glass optical fibers in ways that smear the optical pulse, lowering the rate at which bits can be transmitted. Increased data speed will be needed for applications such as remote surgical procedures, to say nothing of all the people who have not yet begun to blog. “Not everyone is using the Internet today,” says Aref Chowdhury of Lucent Technologies’ Bell Labs. “As it becomes more accessible, we will see even more demand for bandwidth.” Chowdhury’s optical phase conjugator performs a nifty trick that could pack more data into fiber. Normally, as a light pulse travels through a fiber, it gets distorted, and the signal gets muddier. But the phase conjugator reverses the phase of the pulse – in effect inverting its distortion. As the pulse continues down the fiber, further distortion actually undoes the inversion, restoring the original signal.
Also driving the need for more bandwidth are new sources of data, such as networked sensors. Sokwoo Rhee, cofounder and chief technology officer of Millennial Net in Burlington, MA, has developed a method for linking simple wireless sensors into a self-organizing network that feeds to a central computer. Such sensor networks could track objects and people, provide environmental control in an office building, and remotely monitor everything from local humidity to the presence of chemical weapons.
A world of ubiquitous interconnections can be a little frightening, so some innovators are trying to help people disconnect. Concerned that the spread of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags might allow the covert tracking of people and their habits, Ari Juels of RSA Security in Bedford, MA, has developed a blocker tag that accompanies an RFID tag to prevent unwanted reading of its unique identity codes. The RFID tag would contain one privacy bit. If this bit were turned off, any scanner could read the tag. But once it was turned on at the checkout counter, the blocker tag would confuse scanners by broadcasting all possible identity codes – spamming the scanners into uselessness.
Lest the chatter of networked appliances drown out human conversation, some of the TR100 are developing better ways for computers to help people connect with each other. Jonathan Abrams created Friendster so people could build networks of new friends and potential dates. The system, with more than eight million users, eases introductions and helps ensure that the people on the other side of the computer screen aren’t complete strangers, because you know someone who knows them. And at Meetup.com, Scott Heiferman works to get people offline and into face-to-face networking. His Web-based organizing tool fueled the meteoric rise of presidential candidate Howard Dean, and more than 1.4 million members use it to meet fellow fans of everything from Harry Potter to pottery.
Nuria Oliver of Microsoft feels that as more and more computers connect to each other, they should also make better connections with their human owners. “Our overall goal is to endow computers with a perception and understanding of what is happening,” she says. Combining microphones and cameras with statistically based machine learning, Oliver hopes to give computers the ability to read people’s facial expressions or tones of voice and make judgments about their intentions or emotional states. Your computer might, for instance, see that you’re busy and block instant-message interruptions. Oliver’s techniques would also provide another way for those who can’t use a keyboard – young children or the disabled – to communicate with computers.
Daniel Gruhl of IBM’s Almaden Research Center also wants to endow computers with a more humanlike understanding of the world. To help make sense of the mass of online data that’s accumulating, he has built WebFountain, a supercomputer-based system able to examine millions of Web pages. Applying natural-language processing, statistics, and pattern recognition, the system develops an understanding of context that a keyword-based search engine couldn’t match. A bank could use WebFountain to run a background check on someone with suspicious account activity and discover, for instance, that his cousin has ties to a terrorist organization that might want to use the account to launder money. “We’re just beginning now to see things you can do with this technology that are different or new,” Gruhl says.
As people like this year’s TR100 forge new connections, computers will become better integrated into our lives. In Forster’s words (easily found on the Web), “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”
TR100 Startups in Computing
Friendster (Sunnyvale, CA)
Website for building networks of friends and contacts
Voltage Security (Palo Alto, CA)
Easy-to-use encryption technology for communications security
Serge Belongie, Vance Bjorn
DigitalPersona (Redwood City, CA)
Fingerprint authentication for computer and network logons
TurnTide (Conshohocken, PA)
Anti-spam router; company purchased by Symantec
Shanda Interactive Entertainment (Shanghai, China)
Online multiplayer gaming network; now the largest in China
Axiom Microdevices (Orange, CA)
Cell-phone power amplifiers
Meetup.com (New York, NY)
Website for arranging meetings for interest groups
Iris AO (Berkeley, CA)
Tiny deformable mirrors for improved biomedical imaging
BitPass (Palo Alto, CA)
Online micropayment system
Millennial Net (Cambridge, MA)
Self-organizing wireless sensor networks
Ben Trott, Mena Trott
Six Apart (San Mateo, CA)
Easy-to-use software for creating and hosting weblogs