Imagine if you didn’t have a nervous system. Your body would have no way of regulating any of its other systems. It wouldn’t know if it was too hot or too cold. It couldn’t register dangers and harmful conditions. Every aspect of the environment would be shut off to it. In short, without a nervous system, you wouldn’t survive very long.
The fact is, in order to know how to respond to conditions you need to know what those conditions are. This is some of the thinking behind “smart dust” – very small, very cheap networked sensors for measuring all kinds of different aspects of our environment. It’s also the idea behind HP’s “Central Nervous System for the Earth” project or CeNSE. By developing sensors that can detect motion, vibration, light, temperature, air pressure, air flow and humidity, HP hopes to see them deployed throughout the environment. These will be able to keep watch over the structural integrity of buildings, bridges and other infrastructure. Chemical sensors will be able to detect dangerous conditions in our air, food and water. They’ll eventually be capable of alerting us in the event of a terrorist attack using biological agents. In short, they’ll be our eyes, ears, noses and much more. They’ll become a new kind of nervous system.
This would be tremendously useful for monitoring manmade structures. A US DOT 2008 survey of over 600,00 bridges found nearly 27% to be structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. There is simply no way we have a sufficient number of trained people to adequately monitor all of these. And that’s only the bridges. A system of inexpensive sensors that can watch for excessive vibration levels and structural deformity in order to avoid catastrophic collapse will be money very well spent.
Obviously, the environment already has its own kind of feedback loops through which it adapts to changing conditions. But humanity has imposed itself so thoroughly onto the environment that we need better ways of gauging our effect on it. Hopefully, this kind of data will allow us to make better, more informed decisions about mitigating environmental impact. Certainly, this would be preferable to making knee-jerk, expensive, politically feel-good decisions that often do more harm than good. (e.g., subsidizing the conversion of food crops to ethanol crops and thereby exacerbating food shortages in parts of the world.)
Obviously, there will be downsides to this kind of technology, most notably in terms of its potential use in surveillance. As with most technological developments, the answer is not in trying to prohibit it but to adapt our laws and institutions to deal with our changing world. A world we will be knowing much more about, very shortly.