Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Smart Environments

One of the great conceptual breakthroughs in evolutionary biology is the idea of coevolution, that species evolve in a complex feedback relationship with a constantly evolving environment, including other species. This can be an arms race between predator and prey, or a more positive coevolution between, say, bee preference and flower color. When you look at a piece of fruit, consider that its color, smell, taste evolved in a dance with the preferences of a specific animal. For example, fruits that want to be eaten by bats tend to be colorless (because bats, although not blind, hunt at night), fairly odorless, and they hang below the branch so bats can swoop them up on the fly.

That lesson seems to have been lost on poor homo sapiens, smart as we in theory are. We assume that the environment is largely static, other than the changes we intentionally inflict on it. There's more plastic in the ocean than plankton, but we assume that the ocean is static and infinite, so we can dump as much of our crap as we want into it. In a much more prosaic way, when individuals walk through an environment, we assume that it's static. We can observe it, and make changes to it ourselves, but other than that, even if it does change, it does so beyond our notice.

In a profound and fundamental way, that basic assumption will change over the next five years. A whole host of technologies, from smart sensors to software that can interpret human posture and movement, will not only provide a lot of important and useful data and services, but change the way we conceptualize space. Space will change from an empty void to a fully inhabited, dynamic, responsive computational fabric. No changes will go unobserved -- we'll hear all those trees falling in the forest -- but more importantly, the environment will change in response to us, changing light, heat, information displays, eventually even reconfiguring furniture and walls. But it's not any specific applications; certainly there will be unexpected and innovative uses. The point is that our basic ideas of space, action, and change will be shaken and rebuilt in a way that's only vaguely clear.