What if Earth had a central nervous system that could detect minute changes in conditions and report those to a central system that could measure and respond to those changes? HP has been imagining that very idea, and now they’ve got a team who’s building it.
Peter Hartwell is a distinguished technologist and the lead on HP Labs Central Nervous System for the Earth project (CeNSE). The team is creating a planetwide sensing network that uses billions of tiny, cheap, tough and remarkably sensitive detectors—the kinds that are the size of pushpins, and could be stuck to bridges and buildings to warn of structural changes or incoming weather conditions. These detectors might be placed along roadsides to monitor traffic and highway conditions. Or perhaps they’ll find a home in everyday electronics where they will track hospital equipment, sniff out pesticides and pathogens in the food we’re eating or even recognize and respond to the person using them in the ways he or she requires.
This may all sound like science fiction, but it’s actually a very near reality. Sensor technology is already a huge part of the aerospace, automotive and marine industries. It makes airbags inflate, switch smartphone displays from landscape to portrait and reads tennis racket swings on game controllers.
As the technology improves, however, it will do much more than these tasks—it may even help save the world. Hartwell is working to make the sensor technology of tomorrow 1,000 times more sensitive and infinitely more ubiquitous than it is today. As the leader of HP’s microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) team and a quantum science researcher, Hartwell focuses on unraveling the mysteries of the smallest spaces that the human mind can delineate. Currently under development is a highly sensitive accelerometer—a device that senses motion or vibration—that can detect its internal movements as slight as less than one-billionth the width of a human hair.
Hartwell has a micro-perspective on the world. By harnessing the tiniest motions and the most miniscule packets of energy, we can create an infinitesimal ripple that gains momentum as it reaches across the landscape and into our computers. So the choices made in the space between two atoms can affect how we relate to each other and to our planet.
Imagine the possibilities. Hartwell envisions a day in the future when sensors will be all over the globe, transmitting essential information that impacts us greatly. For example, sensors may detect the presence of salmonella bacteria on a crop of spinach before it can leave the farm and enter the food distribution chain. On a more individual level, sensors would also be able to tell you if the leftover pizza in your fridge is still safe to eat.
In making sensors “smarter,” Hartwell says that they will anticipate our needs and actions in ways that can be very beneficial to the world. For example, they may help us reduce consumption or save energy. Sensors should know what we are doing, says Hartwell, and behave accordingly. Lighting will turn on and off automatically in ways you never notice and you may never have a computer slip into screensaver mode in the middle of a presentation again!
In collecting these massive amounts of data and all those minute fluctuations, however, CeNSE needs human oversight. Much of the information that the sensors pick up will be inconsequential, and a human interface will be the force that highlights important data while discarding the rest.
In short, CeNSE is an information ecosystem that will embed trillions of sensors in the earth and connect them with computing systems, software and services. When this system is in place, says Hartwell, we will be able to listen to the “heartbeat of the earth and make sure we are the best stewards of its future."