Life In The Grid

Tokyo at rush hour, circa 2012: your automated car whisks you off to Narita airport, steering itself through traffic. You're free to work. Push a button on your watch, and an image of your firm's mining operation in Indonesia springs to life in 3-D. You ask the digital assistant in your watch how currency fluctuations might affect the mining investment, and a female voice reads the results out loud. Then you ask her to book an eye exam (your glasses recently told your doctor you need a new prescription). As you near Narita, your car announces that the flight is delayed. Care to rebook? You decide to continue on to the terminal, where baggage handlers await, alerted to your arrival by your car.

This trip is just part of a whole new way of living that will evolve as the Internet morphs into "the grid." Wireless smart tags will cost only a few cents a pop and be embedded in nearly every object, and even some people, linking humans and machines together as "nodes" on one global network. By tying all computers together in a single grid, this system will allow any one computer to tap the power of all computers, much the way that electricity is drawn from a central grid. Today, in 2002, small grids already exist within companies, and the coming global grid is a familiar villain in Hollywood movies. Ironically, it is a grid that makes possible the special effects in films like "Gladiator" and "Shrek," even as recent sci-fi blockbusters warn how the system could evolve into a malevolent uber-being, or the tool of Big Brother. "The grid," as Forrester analyst David Metcalfe puts it, "is 'The Matrix' crossed with 'Minority Report'."

For better or worse, the grid is here. Just like the Internet, the evolution of grid computing has been fueled by government agencies like NASA and the U.S. Defense Department. Scientists found that even supercomputers were not fast enough for complex problems in areas like climate simulation and particle physics, so in the 1980s they began building small grids to boost computing power. In 1998 two of the founding fathers of the grid, Ian Foster of Argonne National Laboratory and Carl Kesselman of the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute, edited a book titled "The Grid: Blueprint for a New Computing Infrastructure." It outlined the basic principles of what may become the "fourth wave" of computing, bringing together the power of mainframes, PCs and the Internet. "Everything we do builds on the Internet," says Foster. "But the Internet only tells you how to get a message from one place to another. It doesn't teach you how to share telescopes or particle accelerators or ATMs."

Grid networks can already act (albeit in a limited way) as a kind of "universal translator" between previously incompatible computer systems. They can also turn information into a visual representation of, or solution to, a problem. Geologists are using grid computing to simulate the effects of earthquakes on cities; biochemists use them to simulate a viral attack on the human body. Researchers in Tokyo are street-testing a system that uses a mobile phone with a digital camera to take pictures of a woman's skin that are beamed to a lab for instant analysis--and recommendations for personalized creams and gels. It's a real-life echo of the virtual salesman in "Minority Report," who scans the hero played by Tom Cruise and recommends items that match his last purchase. In fact, Accenture consulting is already working on an "online wardrobe," which would allow clothing wired with smart chips to self-coordinate in matching ensembles.

Businesses from banks to big pharma are racing to exploit the grid. Most business servers are used only 30 percent of the time, and the typical PC uses only about 5 percent of its full capacity. Companies like Sun, Microsoft, IBM and Hewlett-Packard are building grid software that will allow companies to divert, for example, the nighttime power of idle computers in Los Angeles to Hong Kong, or pool all the computing power in a company to run a one-time, complex application. DaimlerChrysler is analyzing grid programs that might run crash and traffic simulations. A Ford spokeswoman says its grid applications are "so advanced and such a competitive advantage for us," she can't talk about them. "Consider the major time- and money-saving inventions of the last 200 years," says Wolfgang Gentzsch, director of grid computing for Sun Microsystems. "The 19th century was about the steam engine, and the 2oth century was about the combustion engine. I believe that the 21st century will be about the grid engine."

The grid starts to get really interesting when it links companies, consumers and governments to each other. Many experts believe global grids will offer a second chance to fulfill the promises of the Internet: videoconferencing so advanced that telecommuting becomes the norm, online salespeople so efficient they put travel agents and stockbrokers out of business. The convergence of wireless technology and smart chips embedded in inanimate objects and even people will change everything. Biochips (already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) might be able to send real-time heart readings to a cardiologist via the grid. A smart chip in your convertible could allow the manufacturer to track both the car and your driving habits. A digital double of your car might even be parked on the grid, where your mechanic could watch it for engine trouble, or police could monitor you for speeding.

If this all sounds very Big Brother, it is. The dark side of the grid has been explored by writers from George Orwell to William Gibson and Philip K. Dick, whose 1956 short story "Minority Report" inspired the movie, in which the grid is ubiquitous, bombarding the hero with personalized ads and allowing police to find his car in the spaghetti of automated highways around Washington, D.C. Privacy advocates worry that these forms of intrusion could become reality as soon as 2012. Not to worry, says Sanjay Sarma, research director of MIT's Auto-ID Center, which is making next-generation smart chips that consumers can disable, if they don't want to be watched. Accenture executive Stan Taylor believes the world will slowly move toward a European model of privacy, giving individuals ownership control over any information collected on them.

One problem: the software doesn't yet exist to make the grid secure. The "castle" model of security, which involves building firewalls to keep out unwelcome users, won't work in a highly networked world where no one benefits if they are not in constant virtual contact with everyone else. Instead, developers will have to focus on systems that positively identify users and their level of access within the system. Biometrics like retina scans may help, but experts say they will be a lot easier to fool than people think. (Tom Cruise has to get a black-market eyeball transplant to dodge the grid in "Minority Report.") All this presupposes, too, that the industry can settle on a common language for the grid. The Global Grid Forum (a group of scientists, programmers and businesses) has taken the lead in this area, building on the Globus grid software developed by Foster and Kesselman. While many grid applications are still proprietary, companies like IBM, HP, Microsoft and Sun seem to understand that open standards are needed.

Of course, a lingua franca isn't the only obstacle to grid computing. There are legal issues (whose fault is it if an automated car operated via the grid crashes?), billing issues (how do you charge someone in Taiwan for borrowing power from your PC in Indiana?) and business issues. If turmoil in the telecom sector delays the arrival of broadband networks for the masses, the arrival of the global grid could come much later than 2012. "[Over the next few years] the grid might end up working inside Intel or Citibank or GM, but not in your house," says Gartner Dataquest group vice president Jim Cassell.

When it arrives, the Grid (with a capital G) will usher in what IBM's general manager of grid computing, Tom Hawk, calls "the post-technology era." Just as we turn on a light without a thought to how it works, the power of computing will invisibly shape our lives, just like the electric grid. Yet the reality is that computing will be more complicated than ever before. The endless reams of data will be too voluminous for human engineers to track. The grid will have to be self-managing, self-diagnosing and self-healing, telling us when things go wrong and instructing us on how to fix them. "As networks become more complex, it's tough for humans even to know that a problem has occurred," says Dan Kusnetzky, VP of systems software research at IDC. "So people are developing 'agents,' or software that keeps track of problems. Mainframes have had this for a decade. IBM's machines can call service themselves." Machines that can communicate like humans and "agents" that police the grid all sound chillingly like the sci-fi future imagined in "The Matrix." Will that bother us? Maybe. Or maybe we won't even notice that we're just another node on the grid.