Declan Butler, reporter This is the personal blog of Declan Butler, a senior reporter at Nature. All views expressed here are mine, and not those of Nature. Contact me at

March 22, 2006

The future of computing; science in 2020

Barely a month after Google Earth made the front cover of Nature, computing is back on the cover again. Tomorrow’s issue contains a big special on the future of scientific computing. All the articles are free, thanks to sponsorship from Microsoft; the special was produced in conjunction with the 2020 report published today by an international group of experts convened by Microsoft. The special is, however, of course completely editorially-independent of Microsoft

The special, by journalists and top computing experts, looks at some of the key emerging technologies and concepts that look set to have a major impact on scientific computing by 2020. I’ve a three pager on “sensor webs” – “2020 computing: Everything, everywhere” — in it; there is also a short pop-up box — “Batteries not included” — on the problems of powering these small remote devices.

Imagine opening up 3D virtual globes, such as Google Earth, but being able to zoom in on a digital representation of the real world in real-time, with data on almost every variable imaginable. This will not only soon be possible, but is inevitable. Among the many technologies, I’ve looked at recently, this is one that gets me really excited about its world changing possibilities, right across the board from building and energy. to medicine and the environment.

“These new computers would take the form of networks of sensors with data-processing and transmission facilities built in. Millions or billions of tiny computers — called ‘motes’, ‘nodes’ or ‘pods’ — would be embedded into the fabric of the real world. They would act in concert, sharing the data that each of them gathers so as to process them into meaningful digital representations of the world. Researchers could tap into these ‘sensor webs’ to ask new questions or test hypotheses. Even when the scientists were busy elsewhere, the webs would go on analysing events autonomously, modifying their behaviour to suit their changing experience of the world.”

A convergence of technologies is destined to unite the virtual world with the real one, and along the way it may turn the very practice of science of its head. The paradigm shift brought about by building computers into the fabric of the world around us will trigger a paradigm shift as great as the development of experimental science itself, says Gaetano Borriello, a computer scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, “We will be getting real-time data from the physical world for the first time on a large scale.”

You can read the rest of the article here. On a related note, Brian McClendon, head of engineering at Google Earth, has pointed me to an interesting link where some data from sensors and cameras distributed across the James Reserve in California arebeing read directly into Google Earth. Indeed, such sensor webs are expanding the role of GIS into the real-time; firefighters entering a burning building would first distribute multiple sensors, and then on a handheld PDA like device be able to ‘see’ the location and direction of smoke and heat as “plumes” and be able to work out safest exit routes etc (this project is already happening).

In passing, I have uploaded the other, around 100, interesting links I came across during research for this article to Connotea under the tag ‘Sensorwebs.’

Here’s a full list of the articles in the special.

Steering the future of computing
Computational power is surging thanks to insatiable consumers. Natural scientists should seize opportunities to stimulate computer science, to help everybody cope with huge volumes of data.

2020 computing: Champing at the bits
Despite some remaining hurdles, the mind-bending and frankly weird world of quantum computers is surprisingly close. Philip Ball finds out how these unusual machines will earn their keep..

2020 computing: Milestones in scientific computing – Interactive Timeline
Jacqueline Ruttimann

2020 computing: Everything, everywhere
Tiny computers that constantly monitor ecosystems, buildings and even human bodies could turn science on its head. Declan Butler investigates.

2020 computing: Exceeding human limits
Scientists are turning to automated processes and technologies in a bid to cope with ever higher volumes of data. But automation offers so much more to the future of science than just data handling, says Stephen H. Muggleton.

Stephen H. Muggleton is in the Department of Computing and the Centre for Integrative Systems Biology at Imperial College London SW7 2BZ, UK.

2020 computing: The creativity machine
Vernor Vinge
What will emerge from using the Internet as a research tool? The answer, Vernor Vinge argues, will be limited only by our imaginations.

Vernor Vinge is an emeritus professor of computer science at San Diego State University. His novel Rainbows End (2006) considers the Internet of 2025.

2020 computing: Science in an exponential world
Alexander Szlay and Jin Gray
The amount of scientific data is doubling every year. Alexander Szalay and Jim Gray analyse how scientific methods are evolving from paper notebooks to huge online databases.

Alexander Szalay is in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 21218, USA.
Jim Gray is at Microsoft Research, San Francisco, California 94105, USA.

2020 computing: Can computers help explain biology?
Roger Brent and Jehoshua Bruck
The road leading from computer formalisms to explaining biological function will be difficult, but Roger Brent and Jehoshua Bruck suggest three hopeful paths that could take us closer to this goal.

Roger Brent is at The Molecular Sciences Institute, Berkeley, California 94704, USA
Jehoshua Bruck is at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125, USA.

2020 computing: A two-way street to science’s future
Ian Foster
To view the relationship between computing and science as a one-way street is mostly untrue today, argues Ian Foster, and will be even less true by 2020.
Ian Foster is director of the Computation Institute at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, Illinois, USA.

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