A New Way To Compute

Tokyo at rush hour, circa 2012: your automated car whisks you off to Narita airport, steering itself through bustling 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 aloud. 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 journey is just part of a way of living that may arise from a new computing model known as the grid. This term, borrowing from the concept of the electrical-power grid, refers to a linkage of many servers into a single system in which complex computing tasks are broken down and parceled out among the various machines. According to its founders such as Ian Foster of Argonne National Laboratory and Carl Kesselman of the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute, the grid was created to do work previously possible only with supercomputers, making such complex tasks much quicker and less costly. Lower investment requirements make grid computing attractive to corporate IT managers. And from there it will enter the consumer world. It's only a matter of time before the Internet itself gives way to the grid. "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 it to simulate viral attacks on the human body. Researchers in Tokyo are street-testing a system that uses a cell phone with a digital camera to take pictures of a woman's skin, which 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 Microsystems, Microsoft, IBM and Hewlett-Packard are building grid software that will allow companies to, for example, divert 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 20th 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, governments and other institutions to each other. Many experts believe that 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 that they put travel agents and stockbrokers out of business. The convergence of wireless technology and smart microchips embedded in in-animate objects and even people will change everything. Biochips (already approved by the 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 monitor it for engine trouble or police could keep track of 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 about 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 unwelcome users out, won't work on its own in a highly networked world where no one benefits if he is not in constant virtual contact with everyone else. Instead, developers will have to focus on systems that unfailingly identify authorized 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 had 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 business people) 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 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 electrical 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." Perhaps, like the protagonists of that film, humans will find new and more innovative ways to take charge of a high-tech future that will undoubtedly be filled with both peril and promise.