How Digital Sensors Are Changing Our World

No, you didn’t get bitten by a radioactive spider, but you have superhuman senses.

You can detect the presence of a tiny speck of anthrax in a vast public space, or count the fish in a 4,000 square mile area. You can hear a gunshot hundreds of yards away and use your super-powerful vision to zoom in on a criminal as he tries to escape. You can look in the eyes of a person you’ve never met, and tell me her identity.

With every passing day, your superhuman senses will grow stronger. 

You are lucky enough to be alive during the birth of a new class of computers, called wireless sensors. They are multiplying faster than chocolate stains at a nursery school birthday party.

In the time it took me to write this far, the human race deployed thousands of new wireless sensors into the world. Some are old-hat sensors like burglar alarms and smoke detectors. Others extend and supercharge our senses in ways that seem ripped out of the pages of your favorite comic book.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a noise? Sensors are being added to forests – sometimes to study the behavior of wild animals – and the answer is a resounding yes.

Sensors called drifters have been floating on ocean currents for several years now, sending back information not only to researchers but also to elementary school classrooms. In the process, we are learning immense amounts about our oceans and climate.

Thanks to sensors, Air Force pilots in Colorado Springs now control drone planes that run bombing missions in Afghanistan; the pilots’ biggest problem is coming home to a normal family life at 5 pm, after operating in a war zone.

Sensors extend your senses to see the very little, and the very distant. They can detect pathogens at the molecular level, and monitor the Earth – or other planets – over vast distances. Pictures from satellites show the impact of human development on places such as Mexico City, Las Vegas and the Amazon.

Never before have you – or any other human – been able to see in such detail how our world changes from one day to the other, or one year to the next.

Three big changes are impacting the growth of your new superhuman senses:

1. Innovators are figuring out how to get sensors to use very small amounts of power, or even to generate all the power they need from their environment (i.e. solar power, or power from natural vibrations.)

2. Sensors are getting smaller.

3. Sensors are being networked together.

Altogether, these changes mean that wireless sensors will literally be woven into the fabric of our world.

Sensors will extend your senses in ways that are difficult to imagine. Do you know where your children are right now? Soon, your answer will always be yes.

In fact, it’s already a mistake to think that Google only searches web pages. Through the web, you can already access millions of sensor readings, from radar screens and satellite imagery to sensor data from nature preserves such as Great Duck Island.

If you have ever read a comic book, you know that gaining superhuman powers will change your life. Peter Parker didn’t come home with new spider powers and go on with life as usual. These powers turned his life upside down.

Likewise, these new powers will change the course of human history, faster than you can imagine.

Sensors will reveal the truth about our history, environment, interactions, and universe. When you watch the Olympic Games, you’ll get an idea of what I mean. They can now superimpose one athlete’s path over his competitor, so you can see precisely when and how one got the edge. No more vague generalities; we can now see 1/100ths of a second differences between two performances.

Use your powers wisely.

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