- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Though most people probably perhaps don’t notice, the Internet is a clunky thing, built on ancient technology (in computing, anything more than 15 years old is of paleontological interest only) and in need of redesign. This isn’t obvious. The Net is so good, and does so much, that criticizing it seems ungracious. But it’s getting old.

So an outfit called Planet Lab (www.planet-lab.org) has leaped into being to turn the Internet into a Whole Nuther Thing. And probably will, because it’s definitely possible. A vast array of heavyweight folk are backing it, from Intel and Hewlett-Packard to lots of major universities.

Now, you ask, what’s wrong with the Internet? Doesn’t it work? Yes, it does. But not nearly as well as it could. It was designed to let smallish numbers of honest people — e.g., professors and scientists — talk to each other.

Unexpectedly it escaped from the lab and exploded. Soon everybody, his sister, and the family dog were using it. The design proved extraordinarily adaptable and before long people were doing crazy things with it. It’s hard to imagine life without the Net.

But it wasn’t designed to be secure. And it was designed to connect computers, not to be a computer. The latter is a Very Different Idea. Making the Net into a sort of vast distributed computer is one of many things Planet Lab is looking at.

Example: Today you use your home computer or, if you travel, take a laptop with your files and software. Laptops are a nuisance and get stolen. And most of the computing you do happens on your own machine in front of you.

But if all your files — photos, documents, software, music, what have you — were in cyberspace, you could have your whole cyberlife available from anywhere. Any computer in an Internet cafe, or in a friend’s house in Bangkok or the electrified parts of New Guinea, would be indistinguishable from your machine at home. You would go to some central Web site, type your name and password, and lo. The screen would show your usual desktop and files.

In short, computing would become a service, like tap water. A project under Planet Lab, called OceanStore, is exploring the idea.

The world is already moving in fits and starts toward living in cyberspace. For example, various services let you keep address books online, accessible from anywhere. Online storage is common. Putting photos online to be accessible to others is common. Sites like Yahoo track your stock portfolio, doing the computing and letting you access the results from anywhere. But you still need the laptop. And that is what may change.

What will it take for this to work? Three things. First, lots of bandwidth, smarter routers and great big hard drives. All are known technologies.

Second, a way of assuring the public that its data won’t vanish when somebody spills coffee on the wrong server somewhere. This is doable, and in fact done. To simplify a lot, the basic idea is to have files stored on different servers in different places, so that if one gets coffeed, or earthquaked, the others will still have them. You aren’t going to have simultaneous killer quakes or coffee spills in Tokyo, Los Angeles and Brussels.

Third, some assurance of privacy. There is something unnerving about the thought of keeping your love letters, incorrect jokes and business plans on several servers, which you don’t even know where they are.

The answer proposed by OceanStore is encryption. Secure “hash algorithms” that let you know whether any of your data have been changed, inadvertently or otherwise. (A fair article on this is in this month’s Technology Review.) Personally, I figure that nothing online, or on anything attached to the Internet, is secure against intrusion by, say, intelligence agencies. But most people, including me, aren’t going to worry about it. If the National Security Agency is reading my hard drive, it obviously needs more to do. Most people, I think, will happily accept the convenience.

Sez me, Planet Lab and similar ideas are just another headlong dive toward putting the intellectual, cultural and commercial existence of humanity into the great cyber-beyond.

Planet Lab is exactly the right name: The planet is what is being networked. Soon we’re going to see a vast, billion-computered insane electromesh that will be a sort of international brain.

If this makes it sound as though I’ve had too much coffee, reflect that most of it is being done, not too well, now. Give it, say, five years.

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